By Howard Vlieger
Healthy soil contains a diverse balance of microbial life, a balance of bacteria and fungi and contains the full spectrum of the components of the soil food web.
Healthy soil should also be balanced from a nutritional standpoint, containing a broad -spectrum, elemental balance of macro- and micro-nutrients. While perfect elemental balance is not always indicative of healthy soil, a diverse microbial community can in many cases make up for certain shortcomings of the nutrient profile.
So, what is the best way to achieve healthy soil?
Identify the shortcomings of the soil by testing both the nutritional (for example, pH, availability of nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium) and biological aspects (presence of bacteria, fungi, nematodes, etc.) of the soil. The Haney test and the Soil Food Web microbial analysis are examples of a biological assessment.
Those tests may suggest specific amendments to the soil, but cost usually plays a significant role in how quickly needed elemental improvements are made. From a cost and time standpoint, the use of cover crops is an ideal method for improving soil health. And the more diversity in the cover crop species, the faster the improvements can be made.
It is important to understand that each type of beneficial cover crop species will provide a different food source for a broader variety of microorganisms in the soil. Different plants make different sugars through photosynthesis and thus feed a unique set of micro-organisms. The more microbial diversity, the healthier the soil, and the better the structure for moisture penetration and movement up and down in the soil profile.
Tillage is very damaging to soil structure and the beneficial biological community within it, especially the fungal diversity. At times, tilling may be the only option, however, it is wise to minimize tillage as much as possible and, even then, use the least aggressive form available. Repeated tillage will, without a doubt, damage the health of the soil and establish an environment where weeds will thrive.
With greater microbial diversity in the soil, there is greater availability of all nutrients for healthy plant growth. This is especially crucial for availability of micro-nutrients that, regrettably, plants often lack, including those plants in the mainstream food supply. By increasing the microbial population and diversity in a balanced fashion along with correction of any gross nutrient deficiencies with “soil friendly sources” of plant food, this accelerates the needed benefits for attaining healthy soil. The use of “well managed” grazing will expedite the time required for improving the soil health. (This could link to the livestock Case Study on grazing.)
In addition to the obvious benefit of producing healthier plants and foods, healthy soil provides a buffer against both flood and drought. Climate scientist and soil microbiologist Walter Jehne does an excellent job of explaining this. The spaces that exist between soil particles, created by earthworms, insects, strands of fungi, and a host of micro-organisms, absorb rain, are slower to dry out, and are less subject to erosion.
With minimal mechanical disturbance, an abundant presence of beneficial microorganisms, and balanced nutrient levels, your soil can return to and maintain good health. And you will have soil that produces healthy crops to feed healthy animals and healthy people.
[Author’s Note: As I began to research this brief description of “Healthy Soil,” I found only one source that could truly identify or describe it … in the book of Genesis beginning in chapters 1 and 2. In chapter 3, everything changed, and there was no longer truly healthy soil as a result of Adam and Eve’s act of disobedience. It strikes me that as we learn more and more about the inner workings of soil, the impact of mankind on soil health only becomes increasingly apparent.]