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Janzen sees potential for more research to address landscape-scale soil health concerns

Written by Saige

John Bracken, an Ontario farmer who went on to be involved in politics, emphasized the importance of permanence and continuity as it relates to soil health, which would likely be called sustainability today. 

In 1921, Bracken was noted for saying, “The problem of the future lies in finding for each soil and climatic zone the system that is at once the most profitable and the most permanent.”

“How do we ensure permanence and continuity? He said we need livestock because they make use of forages and all the benefits that come from them,” said Henry Janzen of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada during a webinar in late February sponsored by the Canadian Beef Research Council.

He continued, “We’re slowly learning about the benefits of forages, but I think a lot of fascinating research questions remain.”

Room for more research

From a soil perspective, Janzen said, “I think we still have a long way to go to understand some of the mechanisms and processes.”
“As an example, I’ll point to the rhizosphere, which is the area of soil close to the roots that serves as the interface between soil, plants and the teeming microbial population that inhabits that zone,” he explained. “The rhizosphere is a hot spot where a lot of the action in the soil happens.”

Energy flows into the rhizosphere from the plant to the roots and to the soil. 

Labeled CO2 in studies shows that plants put carbon into the soil, but Janzen said, “We really don’t know the extent to varietal and species difference in the energy flow into soil.”

He continued, “Can we fine-tune this energy flow into the soil? And who benefits from this energy flow?”

Janzen asked which species benefit most from the influx of energy and carbon into the soil, further asking whether certain functions of those microbes in the soil are affected more than other bacterial function in soil. 

“How can we better understand the whole system?” asked Janzen. “As Orr said in 2011, ‘We as scientists have fragmented the world into bits and pieces called disciplines.’ We tend to focus on little corners of these systems, but soil health is the interaction of all of these pieces streaming together.”

“Solutions and progress in advancing soil health are most likely to come not by studying the little pieces of the system but by looking at their interactions,” Janzen said. “Soil health emerges best when we see the entire system and manage lands accordingly.”

Landscape scale

Janzen also asked if science is capable of looking beyond uniform segments of the landscape and look at margins, wetlands, fence lines, wastelands and more, which he believes have a vital role in the overall function of the system.

“Not all of the functions and not all of the services of the soil can be easily measured,” he said. “For example, how do we assign a value to biodiversity?”

A final question to analyze is the question of time.

“How do we include time in our perspective as we think about the impact of forages on soil health?” Janzen asked, referring to a quote from Darwin from 1956. “Darwin said, ‘Some of the things we want to study depend on time itself, and then everything becomes more difficult?”

Measuring changes in soil carbon have impacts on overall soil health, but Janzen said, “We know the final effects cannot be confirmed for years after we have instituted a management change.”

Slow changes over long time periods

“If we go back a century, we find that in 1911, a network of long-term experiments spanned the country,” Janzen said, noting that studies in prairie regions, in particular, were deliberately designed to be long-term to study impacts over time on systems. “Today, we can go back and look at these samples to track changes over time.”

Janzen noted new techniques can be harnessed to go back to soil archives and extract DNA to learn more about these soils and understand how management influences soil. 

“Looking back a century ago, many of the crop rotations were innovative, utilize forages and manure,” he said. “For example, rotation T was a 10-year course that was based around alfalfa and incorporated manure. Only one of these complex rotations is still commonly used today.”

Connection to the land

“Soil health is tied closely to the function of the land,” Janzen commented, “and I think it’s fair to say that many societal aspirations are rooted in the land.”

Societal challenges, including food security, biodiversity and water and air quality, are all rooted in the landscape. 

He also said the including the human dimension of soil health will be increasingly important moving forward, particularly in social and ecological systems. 

“The foremost factor affecting the health of our soils is human behavior,” Janzen said, noting that the behavior of consumers, policy makers and all users of the land are important. “We now have more people using the land and  fewer people thinking about it than ever before because our population is increasingly disconnected.”

He asserted, “One of our important mandates collectively is to reconnect people to the land that sustains them.”

Saige Albert is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..