Farm Progress

At a recent tour stop in Nebraska, the ranch consultant offered insight into what's going on beneath the soil surface.

Curt Arens, Editor, Nebraska Farmer

December 6, 2016

4 Min Read

Allen Williams knows soil health, because he believes it is the foundation of everything we do on the farm. Williams is a Mississippi-based sixth-generation family farmer and founding partner of Grass Fed Beef LLC and Grass Fed Insights LLC, a consulting firm specializing in whole farm and ranch planning based on the concept of regenerative agriculture. He has worked with more than 4,000 farmers across North and South America, focusing on improving sustainability and profitability.


Williams spoke recently to producers in Norfolk, as part of an eight-stop speaking tour of the state, sponsored by the Nebraska Grazing Lands Coalition and Nebraska Extension. With the wealth of knowledge Williams has on soil health, grazing and livestock management, he left producers with several bits of soil health wisdom during his programs that help in the understanding of what is going on below the soil surface. Here is a little taste of some of the more important points.

"To do anything well, you have to start on a strong foundation. That foundation is your soil." To have thriving life above the soil surface, you have to also have thriving life beneath the surface, said Williams. He explained that the amount of life beneath the soil should actually be greater than the life above the soil surface.


"How we manage the plants is highly correlated to the soil microbes." Williams said that we work extremely hard to feed the plants today, rather than feeding soil life. "Microbes matter. Microbial community structure matters," Williams said. "An acre of healthy soil should have more than a ton of bacteria and more than a ton of fungi," he explained. "There should be more than 130 pounds of soil predators, 445 pounds of earthworms and 830 pounds of insects and arthropods." There could be between 10,000 and 50,000 different microbe species in 1 gram of soil.

"Arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi are important." They produce glomalin, the "soil glue" that helps soil particles stick together to make soil aggregates vital to nutrient exchange and water movement. Fungal hyphae help create fine roots. Fungi pick up and absorb nutrients six to 10 times faster than root hairs, Williams said. They unlock the chemical bonds on potassium, sulfur and nitrogen to release or solubilize nutrients and make them available for uptake, he explained.

"Plants have an interconnected mycorrhizal mat in the soil." Every plant produces primary natural compounds, as well as secondary or tertiary compounds, to keep them healthy, he said. "The interconnected fungi material helps plants exchange these compounds plant to plant, helping plants resist disease and pests and helping with the overall health," said Williams.

"Just like above the ground, well beneath the soil surface, there are predators." Predators like protozoa and nematodes regulate the bacteria populations, he said. "They release ammonium, helping with nutrient cycling by mineralizing the nutrients," Williams said. "They eat and digest, breaking down the membranes of bacteria. Ag soils often lack predators, so no matter how many fertilizer applications we make, the plants can't take it up."

"We often spend so much time trying to get rid of pests in the field that we kill off beneficial species." Some soil health indicators include insects and arthropods on the soil surface, earthworms and their castings, dung beetles, pollinator insects, and soil aggregation, said Williams. Dung beetles, for instance, work fast, putting nutrients back into the soil and helping to break the fly cycle. "Soil needs to be aggregated, with pores and channels, giving it a cottage cheese appearance," Williams explained. "The deeper the aggregation layer, the better. This improves water-holding capacity and accommodates plenty of earthworms and microbes. The aggregate layer soaks up water. The aggregate could be called the lungs of the soil." He also noted that healthy soil should have a pleasant, earthy odor to it.

You can learn more about the presentations and Nebraska Grazing Lands Coalition at

About the Author(s)

Curt Arens

Editor, Nebraska Farmer

Curt Arens began writing about Nebraska’s farm families when he was in high school. Before joining Farm Progress as a field editor in April 2010, he had worked as a freelance farm writer for 27 years, first for newspapers and then for farm magazines, including Nebraska Farmer.

His real full-time career, however, during that same period was farming his family’s fourth generation land in northeast Nebraska. He also operated his Christmas tree farm and grew black oil sunflowers for wild birdseed. Curt continues to raise corn, soybeans and alfalfa and runs a cow-calf herd.

Curt and his wife Donna have four children, Lauren, Taylor, Zachary and Benjamin. They are active in their church and St. Rose School in Crofton, where Donna teaches and their children attend classes.

Previously, the 1986 University of Nebraska animal science graduate wrote a weekly rural life column, developed a farm radio program and wrote books about farm direct marketing and farmers markets. He received media honors from the Nebraska Forest Service, Center for Rural Affairs and Northeast Nebraska Experimental Farm Association.

He wrote about the spiritual side of farming in his 2008 book, “Down to Earth: Celebrating a Blessed Life on the Land,” garnering a Catholic Press Association award.

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