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Five Minutes to a Better Understanding of Soil

This pie is what makes up the ideal soil: half solid, half pore space. The pore space is evenly mixed between air and water.

RayArchuletaOnSoilsAs an animal science major at Cornell in the 1980’s, I took a course in soils. I’m not sure if it was the subject matter or the professor, but I just couldn’t get excited about the class. I think I skipped a number of classes, and slept through a few more, so the fact that I passed the course with any knowledge of soils is fairly remarkable. I had the basics – I knew there are different soil types, and it was based on the changes in the soil profile when a soil pit was dug to a certain depth. Then there was the color and texture of the soil, the clay or sand content, organic matter, and fertility, and different crops could grow on different soils better or worse based on these characteristics. I thought that was all I would ever really need to know.

Almost 30 years later and working for USDA-NRCS as a grazing and animal nutrition specialist, soil plays a big part of how I think about pastures now. There is so much more going on below the soil surface than I remember learning about in college. Interactions between plant roots and soil micro-organisms, earthworms aerating the soil, plants working together to bring nutrients up from different root zones – these feed the plants that feed our animals.

A big part of my understanding comes from NRCS Soil Scientist Ray Archuleta.  He is probably one of the best speakers I’ve ever heard on soils – too bad I didn’t have him in college! Lately, Ray has been sharing his enthusiasm for all things soil as part of these “Soil Health in a Minute” videos created by the US Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service.  In just a few short minutes you’ll see:

What Healthy Soil Should Look Like

What Healthy Soil Should Smell Like

The Consequences of Tillage on Soil Function

How Cover Improves Soil Health

How to Do a Simple Soil Stability Test

Editors Note:  If you enjoyed this and you’re in the New York area July 17th – 19th, check out the Grasstravaganza event that Karen is helping organize.  “Pasture Soil Health Creates Wealth” is being held on the Morrisville State College campus, and includes some hands-on soil health stations and tours of local farms, including dairy, equine, and multi-species grazing operations. Learn more here: And if you register before June 30th, you’ll get the early bird rate!

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