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Soil Health Principles Part 2 – Minimize Disturbance

Since 2013, Buz Kloot, film maker and Research Associate Professor at the Arnold School of Public Health, University of South Carolina, has been working with the Natural Resources Conservation Service to explore and share the important role soil plays in our lives. The result is three seasons of short videos covering science and practical management examples.

Based on all he learned, Buz finished the 2016 season with five videos focusing on the principles of soil health. By understanding these principles, we can choose practices that work best for our individual operations. Over the next few weeks we are sharing these principles, along with examples of how you can apply them in your own operation.

In this video, Buz describes the impact of tillage on our soils. Last week, we learned that soil microbes are critical to soil function and plant health and that they live in the empty spaces or “pores” in the soil. Tillage destroys their “homes” and kills microbes, it exacerbates compaction, and it burns up organic matter. That offsets any improvements we hoped to gain by tilling to remove weeds, reduce compaction and prepare the soil for planting.

So what can we do instead? Buz uses his own garden, and examples from an organic farm and a conventional row-crop farm as examples of how to grow plants with little to no tillage.

If you’re a grazier who doesn’t raise crops, tillage may not be a problem, but there are other things you can do to minimize disturbance. First, you can manage your grazing to avoid compaction using these tips from On Pasture author Mark Kopecky:

• Keep mechanical and hoof traffic off wet soils as much as possible.
• Maintain pasture sward with lots of vegetative density and leave enough residual vegetation at the end of each grazing event. This will help cushion the surface of the soil.
• Use short grazing periods and allow pastures to regrow to the proper stage before you re-graze a paddock.
• Apply a low rate of gypsum (200-300 lb/a) to pastures each year to help aggregate the soil and restore structure.
• Monitor your soil fertility to keep plants growing as vigorously as possible. Good plant growth, earthworm activity, and other soil biological processes can restore good soil structure over time.

Finally, if you’re tempted to haul out the subsoiler or plow, consider this research from Ohio State University that found that plants are better than steel at reducing compaction. You can get the same result with plants at a lower cost AND you’ll have some extra forage for your livestock.

We cover another principle in Part 3. In the meantime, if you have suggestions to add, we’d love to read them in the comments below.

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