Written By Sage Dennis
Some of the most common questions I am asked as a consultant at the Rodale Institute are, is soil health really that important? What do I need to do to increase my soil’s health? And, of course, is there anything to gain from changing my system to accommodate soil health? In my opinion, soil health should be a primary concern in any agricultural system, but that does not mean all operations approach soil health the same. Pastured based livestock operations often think that pastures don’t need much attention in comparison to other aspects of the farm. So, these farms are slower to adapt to farming practices that focus on the soil health and may be holding themselves back from a more efficient and profitable operation. In this article we will be discussing the significance of prioritizing your soil health in a pasture system. Before we jump into that let’s take a moment to make sure we are all on the same page as to what soil health is. Soil Health can be seen as a measure of soil functions, can be defined as the optimum status of the soil’s biological, physical, and chemical functions.
So, why is soil health valuable? Healthy soil helps regulate water, cycle nutrients, sustain plant and animal life, buffer potential pollutants, while providing physical stability and support, all of which are invaluable to us. A healthy soil will help improve nutrient availability, which improves soil fertility. One of the most reliable ways to get that baseline understanding is taking a soil test. A soil test gives you an interpretation of your soil’s chemical health. When we take a soil test, we get an understanding of what nutrients your soil has to offer to plants and what nutrients it is lacking. The soil test is a starting point so you can create a fertility plan that fits your specific operation’s strengths and weaknesses. If you are deficient in various nutrients, then as your pasture grows, your forages develop those deficiencies. One could use a soil test that has been taken within the last three years and compare it to a forage test taken within the past year from the same field. While comparing, you will see a direct correlation between the nutritional content of your forages and the nutrient profile of your soils. This is why your soil fertility needs to be looked at as the first health check for your animals. Quality balanced soils ensure that your plants are getting the proper nutrients, which improves the quality of your livestock’s pasture. Establishing a proper fertility program with nutrients that can be broken down and stored within the soil will ensure that we have a healthy operation from the ground up.
Another factor in soil health is soil biology. By soil biology, I am referring to the various micro- and macro-flora and fauna that all contribute to soil’s operation like microscopic fungi, bacteria, and protozoa. These break down the various sources of carbon we apply to fields such as manure, cover crops, or organic inputs. To improve soil biology, we need to start by looking at management practices. Tillage is one of the single most damaging practices to soil’s physical health. Do not take my words as “do not till” that is not the case, when done with a plan in mind we can manage that damage more effectively. However, tilling disturbs soil texture by loosening it up and exposing biology to the surface, which is detrimental to microbial life. Disturbing the soil dislocates microbes and, in the process, destroys the food networks (think root systems) of these soil inhabitants. Tillage is a tool that can be used advantageously but to do that we need to understand the damages the practice can cause. You can look at reducing the damage of unrestrained tillage by adapting your practices in one or several these ways: following conservation tillage practices; no-till; perennial pasture systems; or incorporating cover crops to provide an environment for quicker soil microbe development. Cover crops are a great way to maintain living roots in the soil which provides a food source and habitat for soil biology. This will lock our soil in place as our inhabitants create a substance or “glue” within the soil forming a barrier of sorts. This barrier helps retain moisture and prevent moisture loss through leeching or soil erosion. Another way to help prevent these issues is diversifying the species in your pastures, which offers more diversity for both your livestock and your microbial life. When you have active fertile soil, it can be tempting to keep having that area produce year after year, but this can be very draining to the soil nutrients. It is best that we do not overwork the soil, giving it time to recover its nutrient profile but also letting the various life forms proliferate for a year before seeking to use this area for production once again. This is important because right now there is not a widely accepted measurement that can give us an understanding of the efficiency of your soils so giving a “breather” of sorts is a way of allowing us to take some time and ensure we don’t over exhaust our soils.
When you are actively grazing, I encourage producers to use a general rule of thumb of waiting one month after grazing before you introduce livestock to that area. Sometimes that isn’t always possible as there are many factors that can alter this window. What is important is just making sure that you do your best to allow that period of rest for as long as one can even if that is shorter than a month. For many operations that may be a difficult timeframe to honor which is why soil health practices are vast and you can find something to better fit your operation. Achieving and maintaining soil health is best viewed as a marathon and not a sprint, you do not need to adapt to every practice at once. I encourage all growers to try practices and transition into what feels most organic if they are unsure how to start. That time window gives your plants plenty of time to redevelop not just their top growth but their bottom growth as well. What you see above the ground is reflected below the ground. If you have a tall stand that is munched on by your herd the first thing that your plants do is start pushing energy into the roots first to reestablish itself from being pulled on and trampled over. Once the root system is healthy the top growth will catch up quickly. There are factors that can impact that time frame such as heat and moisture conditions, species diversity within the pasture, and how long the animals are left in that area.
After we went through the effort of creating a nutrient portfolio, slowly building up the soil biology, and managing our grazing practices what do we get out of it? You have an operation that is as self-sufficient as your pastures can get! You will see stronger stands which will lead to more forage that has a higher nutritional content than before. A higher nutrient content means you will have to supplement less for what your animals are missing because you are able to provide it on farm. You won’t worry about losing your investment since healthier soils are more structurally sound and won’t have losses to erosion or run-off so. With that soil also being more active it means it can break down inputs, such as manure quicker, which means that your soil is not only balanced but efficient, which helps with nutrient cycling from patty drop. Investing in your soils, pastures can save you time, money, energy, and stress and it all starts by having a conversation amongst your neighbors, doing some research, or reaching out for advice. Rodale Institute is happy to provide expert consultation and for many farmers our services are free of charge! You can contact myself at [email protected] ; Rodale’s team at [email protected] or call us at 610-683-1416.
Sage Dennis is an organic consultant with the Rodale Institute, an organization dedicated to researching organic and sustainable farming practice for over 70 years. Prior to this Sage was an agronomist at the Fertrell Company, an organic fertilizer company where he grew the base of his knowledge. Between the two organizations Sage has had the chance to visit countless farms across the country in his 6 years of assisting farmers. Focused in south central Pennsylvania where agriculture is one of the lifeblood’s of the community, he is honored to be able to help anyone wanting to better understand organic soil fertility.