What’s the Big Deal about Soil? Everything

Your Soil is home to most of the Biodiversity in the World. Keeping it Healthy will Keep you and your cows Healthy, too.
By Robert Fears

Soil health has become a frequent topic of conversation and for good reason—it’s the basic element of the cattle industry. Healthy soil grows abundant forage which keeps cattle producing in good body condition. Unhealthy soils can cause ranchers to file for bankruptcy.

“Soil health is the capacity of a soil to function as a vital, living ecosystem that sustains plants, animals and humans,” says Steven Shafer, chief scientific officer with the Soil Health Institute. “Key words in this definition are vital and living. Soil health is vital to our livelihood and soil is alive with physical, chemical and biological components.”

Physical component

“Soil has structure, which is the arrangement of primary particles into secondary units called aggregates. Soil aggregates are clumps of soil particles held together by moist clay, organic matter, polysaccharide gums produced by bacteria and fungi and fungal hyphae (strands),” says Dennis Chessman, Southeastern regional soil health team leader, NRCS Soil Health Division.

“Pores between aggregates contain water and air and allow roots to grow. Structure affects water infiltration, water holding capacity, water and air movement, nutrient availability and root growth,” he explains.

An example of poor soil structure is plating, which is horizontal layers of soil particles created by compaction or lack of root growth. Plating prevents downward movement of water, nutrients and roots and reduces soil productivity.

“Soil texture is the percent of sand, silt and clay particles and determines water holding capacity,” Shafer says. “Water is lost to deep percolation below root zones in sandy soils, whereas clay soils hold water too tightly for it to be available to plants. Available water capacity occurs in medium textured soils between levels of field capacity and wilting point.”

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