Applying the Soil Health Principles
Recently I had the opportunity to co-teach a Soil Health Academy in North Carolina alongside Dawn and Grant Breitkreutz, Gabe Brown and Allen Williams. While attending the 3-day academy the participants and I got to see practical application of the soil health principles on Dark Branch Farm operated by Adam Grady. The results are undeniable. Adam has been implementing the soil health principles on Dark Branch Farm for a few years now. When we dug holes in Adam’s fields the soil was aggregated, smelled like soil and full of life. When we stepped across to a conventionally managed field the soil was compact, loose fine sand with no aggregates and devoid of life. We conducted an infiltration test and Adam’s soil infiltrated 1 inch, in about 1.5 minutes. In comparison it took the other property 10 minutes to infiltrate the same inch of water. I visited Gabe Brown’s farm near Bismarck, ND several years ago, the results his management has had on his soil are mind-blowing. Gabe’s soil was like chocolate cake. We dug it with our hands and earthworms hung from our fingers. At the academy Gabe shared economic data comparing the margins of raising crops using traditional inputs and his margins raising crops on the healthy soil he has built, which does not require many inputs. The trajectory of input prices makes this even more attractive in today’s economic realities.
Building soil health is like making deposits in the bank account of your farm or ranch. Healthy soils facilitate the exchange of nutrients between plants and microbes, allow water to infiltrate and store moisture. Which makes your land more drought resistant and able to capture moisture when it comes.
- Know your context
- Minimize mechanical and chemical disturbance
- Maintain cover and build surface armor
- Keep living roots in the soil
- Integrate livestock
They report that the principles work in every environment where vegetation is present. The soil health principles overlap nicely with the grazing principles we teach at Ranching for Profit. A well-managed grazing operation of perennial pastures is the ultimate soil building machine. I enjoyed a particular statement by Gabe Brown, “There is no better cover crop than a diverse perennial system.” However, for those of you with farm acres, or for those of you wanting to convert farmed acres back to perennial pasture, application of the soil health principles can allow you to build soil health in ways many (including myself) never thought possible.
A healthy ag business is built on a healthy ecosystem. A healthy ecosystem is built on healthy soil. You need to get to know your soil. At RMC we suggest grabbing a shovel and digging some holes. When you are out in the pasture instead of looking across the landscape, look down, take note of your ground cover and count how many different species of plants you have growing. When you dig a hole see what’s going on underground, how does your soil feel, what does it smell like, do you have signs of life in the soil like earthworms, insects and biology forming aggregations? Making a realistic observation of where you are, will help you figure out how to get to where you want to be.