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.
1. Keep soil covered
In nature, bare soil is an anomaly. Cover is critical to protect soil from wind and water erosion, provide food and habitat for macro- and microorganisms, buffer soil temperature, cut down on evaporation and make the most out of scarce water resources. Protect the soil by growing a dense carpet of plants or with a layer of mulch.
2. Minimize soil disturbance on cropland & minimize external inputs
Avoid both physical and chemical disturbance as much as possible. Tillage destroys soil structure, including aggregates and pore spaces that allow water to infiltrate the soil, leading to erosion. Synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, and fungicides are harmful to life in the soil as well. Alternatively, compost boosts soil health, promoting stronger plants and resilience towards disease, and supporting microbes that feed directly on parasites.
3. Maximize biodiversity
Diversity above ground is mirrored below. Each plant, insect or animal has something different to offer and plays a role in maintaining soil health. Together they provide a varied diet for soil microorganisms, break disease cycles and create habitat for wildlife and pollinators. Nature does not know monocultures, instead diversity enhances ecosystem function and resiliency.
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. To ensure roots in the ground year-round, plant perennials or multi-species cover crops, or encourage a variety of warm and cool season grasses through planned grazing.
4. Integrate animals
A healthy ecosystem provides habitat for animals large and small. Planned grazing is essential for soil health on rangelands: mimicking migratory herds of ungulates, cattle are moved quickly through pastures, allowing adequate recovery time. Animals can be used to graze cover crops, beneficial insects find food and shelter in hedgerows or pollinator strips, and earthworms thrive in healthy soil.
Every place has its history, and unique strengths and vulnerabilities.Understanding the context of the land and its inhabitants is central to being a good caretaker and will inform how best to apply the soil health principles.