Adapted from farmer Gabe Brown and a series of articles on the 5 soil health principles by Jay Fuhrer, NRCS Soil Health Specialist. Coming more from a farming perspective, these concepts apply similarly to rangelands. Graphics by Kiss the Ground.
1. Keep soil covered
In nature, bare soil is an anomaly. Soil cover is critical to protect soil from wind and water erosion, provide food and habitat for macro- and microorganisms, and to prevent moisture evaporation and germination of weed seeds in farm fields. The best way to keep soil covered is to grow a dense and diverse carpet of plants or grasses, offering microbes both food and shelter. Protecting soil with a layer of mulch or litter holds in moisture, buffers soil temperature, cuts down on evaporation and makes the most out of New Mexico’s scarce water resources.
2. Minimize soil disturbance on cropland & minimize external inputs
Tilling, chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides harm the web of life in the soil and should be avoided as much as possible. Alternatively, compost boosts soil health, promoting stronger plants and resilience towards disease, and supporting microbes that feed directly on parasites.
3. Maximize biodiversity
Greater diversity above and below the ground creates more resilient and productive working lands. Each plant, insect or animal has something different to offer and each of them plays a role in maintaining soil health. Together they provide a varied diet for soil microorganisms, with additional benefits such as breaking of disease cycles and creation of habitat for wildlife and pollinators. Nature does not know monocultures, instead diversity enhances ecosystem function.
4. Maintain living roots
Soil organisms cluster around roots, where they exchange nutrients with plants. Those living roots provide their basic food source: carbon. In turn, the soil biology fuels the plant nutrient cycle. Encouraging a variety of warm and cool season grasses through planned grazing, replacing annuals with perennials, or planting multi-species cover crops are some of the strategies to ensure continuous roots year-round.
5. Integrate animals
A healthy farm ecosystem provides habitat for animals large and small, including pollinators, earthworms, and all of the soil microbiology. Planned grazing, which mimics migratory herds of ungulates, is essential for soil health on rangeland: animals are moved quickly through pastures in one compact herd, giving grasses adequate time to recover in between grazing periods. Animals can also be used to graze cover crops or post harvest. Hedgerows or pollinator strips provide food and habitat for beneficial insects and earthworms thrive in healthy soil.