Five Principles of Soil Health

Improve your soil health using five principles: armor soil surface, improve soil health, maintain living roots and integrate animals into your ecosystem.

These five principles of soil health were developed by nature, over eons of time. They are the same anyplace in the world where the sun shines and plants grow. Gardeners, farmers, and ranchers around the world are using these principles to grow nutrient-rich, deep topsoil with healthy watersheds. I credit Jon Stika (author of A Soil Owner’s Manual), Jay Fuhrer, and Ray Archuleta for being the first, to my knowledge, to refer to these as the “five principles of soil health.”


Principle One: Limit Disturbance

The first principle is to limit mechanical, chemical, and physical disturbance of the soil. Where in nature do we find mechanical tillage? Nowhere, of course!

Humans have been tilling the soil for thousands of years, and as modern technology has increased our ability to till more acreage faster, harder, and deeper, the damage done becomes ever more serious. Widespread tillage may make certain tasks easier for the operator, but it destroys soil structure and function. In his book, Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations, Dr. David Montgomery notes that the demise of civilizations throughout history has been tied to the degradation of their soil resources. The principal contributor to that degradation was, of course, tillage.

Many producers believe that by tilling they improve soil function. Nothing could be further from the truth. Tillage immediately destroys soil aggregates, significantly decreases water infiltration rates, and accelerates the breakdown of organic material, among other effects. During this intrusive process, oxygen is infused into the soil, which stimulates particular types of opportunistic bacteria that quickly multiply and consume the highly soluble carbon-based biotic glues. These highly complex natural glue substances hold the micro and macro aggregates (composed of sand, silt, and clay particles) together. When the glues are gone, the silt and clay particles fill the voids, which reduces porosity. This reduction results in anaerobic conditions in the soil, altering the type of soil biota, which in turn may lead to an increase in pathogens and loss of nitrogen in the system because of an increase in denitrifying bacteria. Carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere. As microbes die they release soluble forms of nitrate nitrogen into the soil solution, which stimulates weed growth. Tillage also diminishes complex mycorrhizal fungal networks. The severed hyphal network can no longer deliver complex amino acids and other complex organic/inorganic molecules, thus impacting plants, animals, and humans. Fewer nutrients for the plants also means fewer nutrients for animals and people.

This is the main reason the soils on my ranch saw organic matter levels drop from an estimated over 7 percent pre-European settlement to less than 2 percent at the time Shelly and I purchased the land from her parents. Consider that organic matter (carbon) controls 90 percent of soil functions related to plant growth, and you understand why tillage is so destructive.

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