Land Management: Assessing Soil Health

Over the years agriculture, conservation and holistic land management have gone through phases, each phase having its buzzwords, promoters, detractors, research goals – well, you get the picture. Some promoters will always have the impression of having launched the miracle solution to remedy all the ills of the planet. Spoiler alert, none of them did! For the most part, each phase has brought improvements and certainly more tools for farmers, ranchers, and land managers to consider and use. But no one is the panacea panacea that will work for everyone.

The new slogan is “soil health”. Soil health is a broad category for a lot of different things that are actually quite important. In search of a good definition of soil health, and there are many, like millions. I found some that were way out there. Others were restrictive and may work for certain soils in certain ecosystems, some were very vague. Many definitions have been adapted to a very specific form of agriculture, i.e. no-till, organic, natural, etc.

One of the top picks came from the USDA’s Natural Resource Conservation Service. Quoting their website, “Soil health, also referred to as soil quality, is defined as the continued ability of soil to function as a vital living ecosystem that supports plants, animals, and humans.” They go on to point out that soil is not just a sterile rooting medium, but rather a living ecosystem that functions on its own.

Many people don’t realize how alive the soil really is! There is so much life in the ground, much of it invisible to the naked eye. Bacteria, fungi, yeasts and many other microbes make up a valuable part of the soil mass and we often only see hints of them.

The Mount St. Helens volcano that erupted in 1980 changed the landscape. Twenty-nine years later, when a colleague of mine visited it, what he saw was “just scattered plants beginning to grow, much of it resembling the landscape of a barren planet”. When this volcano erupted, it fried all living things and then buried them under feet, dozens of feet, of ash. Instantly there was a sterile environment. If a seed fell, that sterile medium lacked all those microbes that make plant life possible. We cannot underestimate the impact, the need for soil organisms!

Ultimately, defining soil health is quite easy. Measuring it, however, is another story. There are microbes that we haven’t even identified yet that are important, or we know they’re there but we don’t know what they’re doing. We really have so much to learn. Perhaps the best measure of soil health is the quality of plant growth, soil productivity, or the sustainability of practices. Soil health is probably something we measure indirectly.

Soil health can and does change over time. How we farm, how we garden, how we maintain our lawn, can all impact soil health. We can compact the soil with heavy equipment. We can tear it up and return it with construction or recreation. The plants we grow in it, the nutrients we add to it, the organic matter we allow to grow in it, even the rainfall or irrigation it receives, are all things that can improve or harm the health of the floor. If you haven’t heard of soil health yet, you will eventually. I doubt we’ll find a simple way to measure soil health over my lifetime. But we must remember that soil health is not an end goal but an ongoing journey.

Stacy Campbell is the Agriculture and Natural Resources Officer for the Cottonwood Extension District. Email him at [email protected] or call Hays’ office at 785-628-9430.