Healthy, Functioning Soils Are The Foundation For Resilient, Profitable Farms & Ranches
Soil is an agricultural operation’s most valuable asset. Soil microbial life and its accompanying fonta and flora make up the foundation of our earth’s food chain. Put simply, a cohesive, life-teaming soil is the basis for producing nutrient-dense food.
Healthy vs. unhealthy soils
Hailing from New Zealand originally, Masters asserts healthy functioning soil contains a diversity of life - insects, ants, dung beetles, and earthworms and a variety of smaller organisms such as nematodes, protists, fungi and tiny bacteria. Moreover, healthy soils have the resiliency to withstand climatic impacts like drought and extreme temperatures.
“A healthy, vibrant soil is the first to warm up in the spring and the last one to brown off in the fall,” says Masters. “Healthy soils also operate like a sponge, holding onto water. They are deep and have structure.”
On the opposite end of the spectrum, unhealthy soils lack water-holding capacity. They may have large amounts of thatch (dead plant material) and dried up manure pats covering the surface. Additionally, forage quality may be low, species diversity poor, and lots of weed and insect pests may be present.
“It’s the plant that builds soil and the soil that supports plant life,” Masters points out. “There’s a synergy and it’s all interconnected.”
In order for a plant to build soil, it needs a functioning microbial community. Things like overgrazing, tillage, herbicides, fungicides, pesticides, and soluble fertilizers, take out that microbial life.
Signals and synergy
“You have to think of it like your own human digestive system,” says Masters. “When you eat food, it’s not actually you ‘eating’ the food, it’s the bacteria in your gut. They break it down and release acids and enzymes that then allow those nutrients to be passed into the bloodstream.
Masters posits the same action occurs in the soil, however, instead of a plant having a stomach, the plant’s gut is outside of its body (i.e., in the soil). Plants communicate with soil microbes letting them know what nutrients they need. These signals are picked up by different microbes and they respond in kind by giving the plant what it needs. This inter-species communication is known as quorum signaling or sensing.
“You need that functional community and the plant to work together,” explains Masters. “In that process, plants are capturing sunlight, energy, and carbon, then pumping that out through the roots to feed or ‘pay’ the microbes for their services. Basically, carbon is the currency of the plant and it’s what plants use to pay microbes. It’s also what leads to healthy soils gaining their dark, rich color.”
“When there is very little microbial activity, you get what I refer to as constipated soils,” says Masters. “So a plant might be signaling away but no one is listening.”
When a plant can’t get what it needs, this has negative effects on forage quality and, successively, impacts animal performance, eventually, leading to declines in the nutritional quality of the food we humans eat.
“When soils aren’t functioning in a healthy manner, we have basically blown the microbial bridge to nutrition,” says Masters. “This is why we then see cows not cycling well reproductively or just lags in general performance.
To remedy this situation, Masters stresses producers must find ways to enliven the soil so plants can get a response. In other words, what’s needed is a microbial kickstart. To help farmers and ranchers accomplish this and build healthier soils, Masters works with producers as a soil health coach. Her average client typically manages around 10,000 acres.
“Some of them have massive operations, so it comes down to how do we implement change that is going to bring back the most value,” says Masters.
Forming a baseline
Masters works off what she describes as the principles of the 5 M’s - Minerals, Microbes, Management, Mindset, and organic Matter - to determine which are putting a drag on a producer’s system and what are the enabling factors (i.e., water, air, or nutrient cycling, decomposition, etc.). Often, she finds mindset is the main problem.
“What people think is possible is so important,” says Masters. “If you think you can’t, you’re probably right. So your idea of what’s possible is everything and is where the coaching comes in.”
Next, Masters looks at the soil and plants. Is soil breathing? Are plants photosynthesizing as well as they could be? Photosynthesis is the main driver of the system, so if a plant isn’t processing well, then nothing else works. To measure plants' photosynthetic abilities, she will use a refractometer to measure degrees Brix (°Bx), also known as the sugar content of an aqueous solution.
Along with Brix readings, Masters looks at factors such as decomposition (i.e., the amount of thatch, manure breakdown), chemical usage (i.e., are pesticides or synthetic fertilizers being used?), and nutrient cycles. She may also have producers conduct basic testing on things like plant tissue, microbes, and soil mineral content, so they can get a snapshot in time of what they’re starting with and form a baseline for the soil’s current status.
“Then, of course, we’re going to dig holes and do tests to measure water infiltration and stuff like that,” says Masters. “We also will set up transects, typically we choose the best and worst areas of the same soil type. We will look at basal density, ground cover, take photos, very similar to land monitoring.”
Soil building tools
Masters explains farmers and ranchers have two powerful tools in their toolbox to improve soil health - grazing management and soil amendments.
“Grazing management is your number one tool,” says Masters. “So, if you are already doing a good job with that, then that’s when we go to the next level.”
The next level is the use of biostimulants, materials like worm castings and compost. Masters coaches producers how to create their own composting systems to make their own vermicast or vermicompost. Vermicast is the final product of the composting process using various worm species like red wigglers, white worms, or earthworms. It is created using a mixture of decomposing vegetable and food waste, bedding materials, and starter worm castings. The end product is high in water-soluble nutrients and organic materials perfect for building soil.
“What comes out of a worm’s butt is the elixir of life,” Masters says jokingly. “It’s full of all kinds of signal metabolites, vitamins, enzymes, and other stuff plants need to wake up and kick start soil microbial life.”
Masters points out most operations have a lot of organic material such as animal waste sitting around that producers can use to create their own vermicast and/or compost.
As a continuation of Masters’ work to assist producers in improving their operations’ soil health, she is releasing her first book, For The Love of Soil, in late October 2019. The book will dive into her coaching process with producers and provide producers with a guide to identify soil health issues.
“It has a real practical element and at the same time, people are going to learn more about soil than they ever thought they wanted to know,” says Masters. “Because if we are not focusing on soil health, there isn’t going to be handing off a resource to the next generation. It’s going to get harder and harder, financially and climatically.”
Learn more about soil health on Masters’ website,www.integritysoils.co.nz. Her new book, For the Love of Soil, can also be purchased on the site.