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Animal Health Notebook
Good soil with plenty of roots Alan Newport
Good, healthy soil has low bulk density.

10 ways you could increase soil bulk density, but shouldn't

Sometimes looking at what you shouldn't do to soil can be more valuable than hearing what you should do.

We live in an information age as there has never been in previous times. Technology abounds and trained persons can retrieve huge (often exhaustive) quantities of info on most subjects in short time periods.

In addition, husbandry has been replaced by technology. This is wrong since technology should support, not replace, husbandry and right teaching, practice and knowledge.

This past summer I was recovering from working a set of cattle in 90-degree humid sun in midday, which is not advisable. I came across some research on bulk density that's worth discussing here.

Bulk density is an indicator of soil compaction that can be measured as dry weight divided by soil volume. A road bed will have a high bulk density. Soil that is high-organic-matter and highly aggregated, such as that at Gabe and Paul Brown’s ranch/farm in Bismarck, North Dakota, has a low bulk density. Low bulk density soil is very desirable.

Quality soil grows quality plants in large amounts and adds quality to our cattle and nutrient density to our beef. Our health depends on all of the above.

There is at least a 74% difference in growth and production in our area between high- and low-bulk-density clay soils. Remember, low-bulk-density soil is higher in organic matter, microbial life, root mass and depth, aggregation, and pores for holding air and water.

High bulk density lowers soil function and plant growth and is defined as a decrease in soil space due to the lowering of organic matter, soil aggregation, roots and life. High bulk density = soil compaction. The result is decreased functions of growth and production of our pastures.

Managing away from high bulk density (soil compaction) might be easiest to understand by reviewing and then avoiding the ways to create the condition:

  1. Apply a bunch of herbicides, parasiticals and insecticides to limit soil life.
  2. Grow or manage for mono- or bi-cultures or away from plant biodiversity.
  3. Apply severe or almost any tillage on a regular basis.
  4. Set-stock cattle.
  5. Practice short-timed rotational grazing with multiple days to weeks of cattle occupation.
  6. Keep pastures short and "pretty."
  7. Manage for lots of fescue, smooth brome, bluegrass and other shallow-rooted, water-loving, cool-season and low-energy plants.
  8. Drive heavy vehicles.
  9. Allow the cattle to create trails and camp in the same areas repeatedly.
  10. Graze the same pastures with the same technique at the same time every year.

Bulk density is a useful test and another inexpensive way of testing for soil improvement or loss. Remember that everything is connected and related to everything. Health problems are not a good deal for anyone. The same is true of high-bulk-density soil. It is all closely related.


The opinions of this writer are not necessarily those of Farm Progress/Informa.

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