Sponsored By
The Farmer Logo

Define soil healthDefine soil health

Soil health principles should be implemented in any cropping system.

Kevin Schulz

June 15, 2023

6 Min Read
Worms in soil
MORE PORES: A healthy soil is a porous soil, and a healthy soil provides feeding for earthworms, dung beetles and thousands of other microorganisms that contribute to a healthy crop.Farm Progress

Soil health gets talked about a lot, but what does it actually mean?

“I would say soil health is kind of like human health or animal health,” Dale Strickler says. “When we talk about human health, that means we have a body that functions like it’s supposed to. Can you move around? Are you free of disease? Are you in physical shape? What’s your nutritional status? … Basically, the culmination of all those different criteria — does it work like it’s supposed to? Same way with soil health. Does the soil function like it’s supposed to?”

Strickler is an agronomist with AgSpire who lives in Wichita, Kan. He’s also a cattle rancher, as well as the author of “The Drought-Resilient Farm, Managing Pasture and The Complete Guide to Restoring Your Soil.”

Traditionally, Strickler says a common approach to modern farming has been to take soil tests and install some tile drainage, “focusing on the chemical and physical attributes of soil — and we pretty much ignored the biological aspects of soil.”

By paying attention to a soil’s biology and getting it right, Strickler says the chemistry and the physics of soil are taken care of.

Plants need four things from soil to survive and thrive: physical structure to hold the plant up; water; mineral nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, sulfur, iron and zinc; and oxygen for the roots to function.

“So, you have to have gas exchange. Oxygen’s got to get in, and carbon dioxide from microbial respiration has to get out — and of course that carbon dioxide we want out of the soil, and we want it in the crop canopy for photosynthesis,” he says. Gas exchange, he explains, happens through pore space, adding that “we used to think that we created pore space through tillage; but then we find out that tillage breaks down organic matter, and that pore space that we created through tillage only lasts until the next rain or the next pass with an implement.”

Don’t ignore the little things

Allowing soil organisms to do their magic is the way to create long-term pore space, and Strickler points to earthworms and dung beetles that tunnel through soil, creating large pores. Not to be discounted are the hundreds, or even thousands, of microscopic mycorrhizal fungi that colonize on plant roots, “and the hyphae [branching filaments that make up the mycelium of a fungus] of that mycorrhizal fungi can extend up to 2 feet past the roots of the plant — and they are much smaller diameter than root hairs, so they can reach into cracks and crevices within the soil.”

These hyphae-created pore spaces are too small for plant roots to enter to be able to access mineral nutrients and water, but the hyphae do that heavy lifting. Strickler says the population of bacteria and fungi on the surface of the microbial hyphae have the strength to break down rock particles “and liberate the mineral nutrients that are inside those rock particles.”

While all this activity can happen to improve soil health, Strickler says most of today’s cropland soils lack the presence of mycorrhizal fungi, due to absence of a live root at all times. During fallow periods in a corn-soybean rotation — the seven or eight months between those crops — “the mycorrhizal fungi starve out, and that’s the first chain of an underground economy that is missing,” he says, “and without the mycorrhizal fungi, you can’t shuttle energy to those rock-digesting microbes.”

Strickler stresses that he is not anti-fertilizer; in fact, he deems it “necessary under our current state of depleted soil.”  … the road to creating sufficient biological activity in the world’s cropland soils to make them so they do not require fertilizer is a long journey of unknown duration through uncharted territory. But we do have examples in nature that show us that is it possible.”

Maintaining a living root is one of the five main soil health principles, in addition to maintaining soil cover, limiting soil disturbance, providing crop diversity and integrating livestock.

All in proper context

Mark Gutierrez adds a sixth principle, and that is context. “Which is the ecological context of where you live and the weather patterns and the context of your farm and the system you have set up and the crops you maybe have historically grown — and do you have livestock, how many employees you have, all those contextual things,” he says.

When farmers follow and utilize the soil health principles “and make decisions within those guidelines, those principles can be applied and will work everywhere,” says the Gutierrez, executive director of the Minnesota Soil Health Coalition and the Minnesota Grazing Lands Conservation Association.

While Gutierrez and Strickler agree that these soil health principles can apply in any geographic area with any soil type, Gutierrez says there is no cookie-cutter approach, depending on the type of operation.

“If you try to enforce soil health as a rule, what would that look like? Well, if you’re a dairy operation that's diverse with a lot of different crops, well, that can be very different from a corn-soybean operation and how soil health gets implemented,” he says.

And that is why he sees the context principle so critical.

Gutierrez looks on his New Mexico upbringing, which was home to almost all hay, with corn and oats in rotation, and a lot of poultry. As for soil health principles, “We didn’t even know what that was. But it still is challenging to incorporate soil health practices into hay operations.”

He received a Master of Science degree in agricultural economics from New Mexico State University in 2006, and then worked as a statistician for the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service for almost nine years before joining the USDA Risk Management Agency in the St. Paul, Minn., regional office. It is in that last position, prior to joining the MSHC and MGLCA, that he tuned into soil health and what it means.

As he admits no cookie-cutter approach suits all farming operations, he feels that all producers can implement practices to promote the capacity of the soil to function: “It’s soil that flourishes and allows the crops that grow in it to flourish as well, and it’s not nutrient-leaky.”

Added benefits

Soil health practices are proven to improve soil quality, which Gutierrez says also parlay into environmental benefits such as reduced runoff and reduced erosion, resulting in cleaner water.

“Considering those benefits, all soils could benefit from following these principles and utilizing soil health practices, because we know that we’re losing topsoil at a rate of 5.6 tons per acre, on average,” Gutierrez says. “That’s more than 10 times the level we’re replenishing it at.”

Gutierrez and Strickler agree that soil health practices can be implemented in all crop farming operations, even though there are people who argue that “no-till doesn’t work here.” “We have to till to get our soil warmed up.” “We can’t get our corn planted as early.”

Strickler responds that those farmers should look at shorter-maturity corn, or “maybe this is sacrilege —  maybe you shouldn’t be growing corn. Maybe that’s a crop not really suited for your area.”

About the Author(s)

Kevin Schulz

Editor, The Farmer

Kevin Schulz joined The Farmer as editor in January of 2023, after spending two years as senior staff writer for Dakota Farmer and Nebraska Farmer magazines. Prior to joining these two magazines, he spent six years in a similar capacity with National Hog Farmer. Prior to joining National Hog Farmer, Schulz spent a long career as the editor of The Land magazine, an agricultural-rural life publication based in Mankato, Minn.

During his tenure at The Land, the publication grew from covering 55 Minnesota counties to encompassing the entire state, as well as 30 counties in northern Iowa. Covering all facets of Minnesota and Iowa agriculture, Schulz was able to stay close to his roots as a southern Minnesota farm boy raised on a corn, soybean and hog finishing farm.

One particular area where he stayed close to his roots is working with the FFA organization.

Covering the FFA programs stayed near and dear to his heart, and he has been recognized for such coverage over the years. He has received the Minnesota FFA Communicator of the Year award, was honored with the Minnesota Honorary FFA Degree in 2014 and inducted into the Minnesota FFA Hall of Fame in 2018.

Schulz attended South Dakota State University, majoring in agricultural journalism. He was also a member of Alpha Gamma Rho fraternity and now belongs to its alumni organization.

His family continues to live on a southern Minnesota farm near where he grew up. He and his wife, Carol, have raised two daughters: Kristi, a 2014 University of Minnesota graduate who is married to Eric Van Otterloo and teaches at Mankato (Minn.) East High School, and Haley, a 2018 graduate of University of Wisconsin-River Falls. She is married to John Peake and teaches in Hayward, Wis. 

When not covering the agriculture industry on behalf of The Farmer's readers, Schulz enjoys spending time traveling with family, making it a quest to reach all 50 states — 47 so far — and three countries. He also enjoys reading, music, photography, playing basketball, and enjoying nature and campfires with friends and family.

[email protected]

Subscribe to receive top agriculture news
Be informed daily with these free e-newsletters

You May Also Like