Soil Management – A Shift In The Modern Paradigm

We’re just rolling along into summer and everyone is busy as usual this time of year. I’m not going to post much here in these next 3 months or so but I wanted to get this one out there.

I’ve written a little about this subject before but I’m going to delve a little deeper in this entry. Most folks who have had some kind of introductory course in soils will remember the three legged stool illustration representing our modern approach to management of the soil system. The illustration itself is used in several arenas as we tend to remember things in “3s”. Illustrations & figures are great tools for remembering concepts but keep in mind they can be quite simplistic and never perfect in their analogy.

This is how the image is applied to “modern” soil science and the 3 focus areas (legs) of soil management.

three-legged-stool-outline-md

This illustration is pretty straight forward and it’s not wrong, necessarily. But I’d like to make  few points about this analogy.

  1. Although the 3 legs are shown to equally support the system, in the true picture of today’s conventional agriculture the biological and physical legs are either neglected or abused to various degrees. Intense tillage destroys the natural physical structure of soil. (Constant, unplanned grazing can do the same.) And most regard for biology is narrowly focused on crop health/yield or on plant pathogens (crop yield indirectly).
  2. In the figure, the legs are independent of each other. But, we know that each of these legs are, in fact, highly dependent on each other.
  3. Because of the driver behind the green revolution, cheap energy, the whole system is actually precariously balanced upon the chemistry leg. Fertilizer, pesticide, and herbicide are (still) our main focus. Stating the obvious, energy is not cheap any more, and all of of these chemical “inputs” are expensive and have large potential for environmental harm.

The point of this entry is certainly not to argue against the virtues of the green revolution. The point is to show that there is another way to look at managing our soils. A different analogy, a different paradigm. Different, but not new. Many small producers (not necessarily organic) have been managing their farms & ranches this way for a long time. Large scale mainstream agriculture is now dabbling in this approach and the paradigm is indeed shifting. Probably mostly because of the economy and energy prices, but I would like to think also because of more critical thinking when it comes to dealing with the issues that farmers and ranchers face today – mainly in the realm of environmental “friendliness” and sustainable/regenerative thinking while maintaining yields (though not the main driver) and yield quality.

With that in mind let’s look at a different illustration. Instead of a 3 legged stool – a pedestal table.

 

Here the central support illustrates a focus on biological management. The flanking supports, chemical & physical management, help maintain the balance of the whole, but they are of minor focus relative to the central pillar and still depend on that pillar for their foundation. In some cases the supports may be minimal, or even absent but the system would still remain relatively stable.

 

These are the primary, simplified management inputs for the elements in the figure:

Biological – Cover/companion crops (feeding a diverse underground herd through the growing season), microbial inoculants, compost teas, etc., fuel for application, (reducing tillage reduces fuel input and provides biological habitat.)

Chemical – Synthetic (salt) fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, genetically engineered seed, fuel for application (large input both at the chemical plant and in the field.)

Physical – conventional tillage, conservation tillage (strip etc.), no-till, organic amendments (manure, compost) to build structure, fuel for application (variable.)

(Keep in mind what I said above, all 3 elements are heavily interdependent. What you do in one element will have an effect in another element. The point is: Where is the management & input focus?)

It could be argued that the same illustration could be used with the central pillar focused on chemistry as follows:

But I would ask a few critical questions of this representation: 1) Is the soil system really as solid as the illustration insinuates? 2) This focus is extremely expensive compared to the Biological focus; so how much more labor and money are we pumping into this chemistry focused system (vs. bio focused)? 3) How hard do you want to work on keeping the chemistry monitored & properly balanced? Standard soil tests are absolutely required (and follow up on recommendations) or you’re shooting in the dark. 4) How hard to want to work on keeping your chemicals from becoming an environmental hazard?

 

spinning_top

I look at a chemistry focused system more as a spinning top. Wind that puppy up with a lot of energy & let her rip. It will be in balance for a while. But it will eventually crash from either a lack of balance in the 3 management elements or running out of energy, or both. Leaving a sick, unbalanced soil system, primed for erosion, weeds and pollution.

 

Let’s go back to the biology focus. With a focus on biology the system is indeed as stable as the previous illustration shows. When the soil biology is present, thriving and diverse, all other systems and cycles fall into balance without much (in some cases any) effort or inputs from us. At this point I’ll refer you to some previous entries I’ve made regarding soil biology and soil organic matter and their influence on essentially every other soil property. Soil Organic Matter; Importance of Soil Biology; Soil Food Web.

Regarding the side supports – Physical and Chemical: Note that tillage as shown in the illustration is separate. However, conservation tillage and no-till practices are vital in maintaining habitat to support the biological pillar. (It’s that interconnected-ness… thing.) Likewise, the chemistry support is still there and also still valid as extra support, especially in the “withdrawal” or rebuilding stages of regenerating degraded soil. I would also add that GE seed is used by some. GE seed is not necessary for this approach and it’s proving to be quite an expensive crutch, with lots of baggage, and may be losing its effectiveness at what it was supposed to accomplish in the first place. Nothing against technology, but GE seed might be a “technology” you would want to ditch later if it’s easing your your transition (kind of like those nicotine patches for smokers.) My personal recommendation is not to use it. But to each their own.

So, here’s a point to ponder: What is your reaction when you find that an idea, or a concept that you’ve long held dear as “tried and true” or the “best way”, turns out to possibly not be so true?

It’s tough for us to change our minds, being creatures of habit. Add a little pride on top of that (or a lot) and it’s even harder. Top it off with the unknowns, & uncertainties of “chemical withdrawal” while you’re trying to rebuild your soil biology, all while you’re trying to eke out a living – not exactly a great recipe for change.

But I would offer encouragement. There are many people that have made this work, on large scales. This website exists because I believe this approach can and will work. There is no one single expert on all the different faces of this biological approach and to be frank, from a large producers scale, we are just beginning on this road. New research, experimentation, and support for application to larger scales, in various climates, is gaining ground right now. So please look for folks in your neck of the woods who may be focusing on biology rather than chemistry and pick their brains. I would bet almost any of them would be more than willing to offer advice & help. NRCS is also delving heavily into soil health and developing “Soil Health Management Systems” for their cost share program delivery. The local field office would at least be a good start.

I’ll be posting infrequently through the summer. So here’s to soil biology!! Have a great summer!

About Chuck

Soil Scientist USDA/NRCS, Owner - Soilhealth.net
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