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Improving Soil Health

By Trevor Lennox PAg., Regional Forage Specialist, Swift Current

May 2017

Agricultural producers understand the value of having healthy, productive soil, and are always looking for ways to improve their land. To a landowner, soil is their most important land asset.

Soil health is the condition of the soil in relation to its potential to sustain biological productivity, maintain environmental quality, and promote plant and animal health. Healthy soils are a result of the complex interaction between physical, chemical and biological processes. A healthy soil can be described as productive, sustainable and profitable.

An area of soil health that has often been misunderstood is the soil biology and how the various organisms work to create healthy soils. This refers to the bacteria, fungi, Actinomycetes, protozoa and nematodes living within the soil. If you were to compare the weight of all the microbial life below the soil surface to that above ground (i.e. cows grazing), there are far more pounds of living things below the soil surface!

Land management decisions can have a major influence on the level of soil health for a particular piece of property. Bare ground on the soil surface is one of the most damaging practices for long-term soil health. When there is no plant life above ground, how can the below ground soil organisms survive? For example, Mycorrhizae fungi require sugar from plant roots for survival.

Some producers are adopting innovative ways to keep the ground covered, and to keep a plant growing on the surface as long as possible. Gabe and Paul Brown from Bismarck, North Dakota, are innovative producers who have set improving soil health as a priority on their operation. If you have time, it is worth checking out the Brown's Ranch website.

From a land management perspective, the grazing of forage crops can be one of the most helpful tools in helping to improve soil health. Through proper grazing management, producers can encourage diverse plant mixtures which can help improve soil structure and feed soil organisms. When plants are grazed, root biomass is also shed into the soils, which is an important carbon (food) source for microbes to feed on. Rotational grazing is key to improving pasture health and productivity, and also allows maximum carbon (food) to be retained in the soil to feed to microbes.

The Saskatchewan Ministry of Agriculture is partnering with the North Sask River Basin Council and the Southwest Forage Association to host two Soil Health workshops in June, featuring Nicole Masters of Integrity Soils from New Zealand. Nicole is an agro-ecologist, educator and systems thinker with over 18 years of extensive, practical and theoretical experience in regenerative farming practices. She will be presenting in Mervin on June 27th and Swift Current on June 29th. The field days will be of interest to those looking to improve the productivity and sustainability of their agricultural operations. A complete agenda can be found on the Sask Forage Council Events web page.

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