The soil health world is filled with everything from “do-all seed mixes” to fancy “biological sprays”. This can make it difficult to identify where to start - especially for a new food plotter or gardener. Combine this with the vernacular used by those trying to sell the products, and we really can put a person into a tailspin.
My personal goal, besides quenching my thirst for knowledge about soil health and implementing changes on my farm, has been to help make this extremely complex topic - easily digestible for others.
I’d like to make something very clear. Soil, and the ideologies that are taught, sold, preached, expressed, etc. lie somewhere on a continuum. This continuum reflects extreme polarity on the ends, but like most things in life, the majority will fall somewhere between these two extremes.
One of the largest differences in the soil is how the medium is being used and for what end goal. For example, a large row crop farmer in very sandy soils, may not be able to afford or risk massive changes to their program overnight. I can assure you they are not wanting to waste money. They need to be as profitable as possible, and in today’s world, this often means a reduction of inputs, without a yield drag (talk about a tough situation!). On the other end of this spectrum, we might have a small gardener who is growing tomatoes in raised beds, with nutrient-dense bought topsoil or compost, and collected rainwater for irrigation. As you can see, these two are not the same and the scalability of the latter becomes costly and more difficult as we move along the implied X-axis (representing acreage). Scale is extremely important to reference and understanding when reading and taking advice, especially if you are reading it on a social media platform – just my RED FLAG warning.
The reason I feel it is important to give all the background context and examples is because of my observations occurring in the soil health world. These are ranging from personal attacks on those who don’t see eye to eye. To complete tunnel vision recommendations trying to prescribe the same soil treatments for all soil types – regardless of history or knowledge of the soil. There is a fine line between educating and ridiculing.
The best advice I can give to anyone is to learn from everyone. I have learned a ton from a farmer who is 70 years old, that is running a moldboard plow. This might be surprising coming from a guy who promotes no-till so often but there is always something to learn. Stop and talk to a farmer and thank them as well.
All that to say – my goal in writing this is to give you a little different look into the soil health world. Help you take a step in the right direction. Give you a few thinking points to consider before you implement your next soil health plan on your farm. Let’s dive in!
Steps to success:
- Soil Sample – try to take this as controlled as possible. Try to take from the same exact area year after year. Also mark the soil probe so you take similar depths, year in and out. Try to take the same time of year, each year. There are various types of soil testing, and we can get into that in another blog post. Most importantly for starters, let’s get something pulled so we can get a general baseline starting point.
- Base Saturations – Neil Kinsey speaks about this often. I have looked at a lot of tests and I believe that finding the base saturation levels of your soil – is critical to understanding the types of amendments you are going to put on – if you do want to go that route. We must keep in mind the antagonistic and synergistic relationships that exist in soil, before we dump the amendments to it, again, if you go that route.
- Recognize your CEC - if you have very low CEC soil, we are going to have to handle how we amend, plant, till or not, etc. based on this soil type. Likewise, if you have high CEC soil – we might be able to get away with more at once, tillage, fertilization, etc. Even after soil testing, and recognizing nutrient deficiencies, we must know and understand our cation exchange capacity, so when we try to correct these deficiencies, we do so in the most efficient way possible! Be it through biological systems (diverse mixes), inoculants, biological sprays, or commercial fertilization products – how, when, where, why we implement one or all of these lists can be made more efficient based on understanding our CEC.
- Once we have recognized the above, and we are assuming this is for a wildlife plot or a cover crop mix after a cash crop, it is time to diversify our seed mix. Sticking with wildlife plots, we can be extremely diverse and plant twice a year or more. I highly suggest paying attention to the carbon to nitrogen ratios of the plant/mixes we are planting. Quick tip – if you notice your thatch layer is breaking down too fast, we need more C (rye, oats, corn, etc.). If you notice your thatch layer isn’t breaking down – we need lower CtoN crops (clovers, beans, peas) in our mixes.
- The key to number 4 should be:
- Keep soil covered.
- Keep a living root growing for as long as possible (winter time: rye is a great example of this).
- Diversify mixes as much as you are comfortable and able.
- Reduce disturbance of soil to the best of your ability.
I could go on for another several pages but I don’t want to put you all to sleep. So, for those who are still with me, thank you. I don’t want to come across as an advocate for commercial fertilizer and tillage. I haven’t tilled or fertilized in 5+ years. I also want everyone who reads this to understand the complexities of soil and how each soil type is different. I believe any step towards conserving soil, is a step in the correct direction.
We need to start a program somewhere, and change can take time. Over time, through diversity, eliminating/reducing tillage, monitoring browse pressure, balancing base saturations, etc. We can grow some healthy crops and some really healthy deer from some really healthy soil.
Build Better Soil!
Albert Tomechko – President and Founder
If you are interested in our mixes that are specifically formulated to help you build better soil, checkout our website: https://vitalizeseed.com/
List of great resources for more reading on soil health: