By Kathy Voth, first published in On Pasture
Even if you haven’t heard of Dr. Rattan Lal, you’ve probably been influenced by his work. More than 40 years ago, while doing research in Nigeria, Lal encountered an idea that changed his life – and led, eventually, to global recognition that soil is an important part of our response to a warming climate.
A recent article by Dan Charles, tells how Lal got started. He was conducting research to improve the quality and quantity of food in the tropics, but he found that, once cleared of vegetation, his test plots quickly lost their organic matter. A visiting scientist, pointed out that the organic matter was escaping into the air in the form of carbon dioxide. And then he asked Lal, “Can you put it back?”
Finding the answer to that question became Lal’s life’s work. He’s helped focus attention on soils as both a source and a sink of carbon. It has became a source of CO2 to the atmosphere as land was converted for agriculture uses, and through tillage, erosion, and other soil degradation. But he’s also learned that carbon can be returned to the soil through the use of best management practices. And by understanding in what circumstances we can do the most good the most quickly, Dr. Lal is helping policy makers and producers alike do their part to reduce greenhouse gases and help cool a warming planet.
There are, of course, many best management practices, and we include ideas each week at On Pasture. But if you want to have something in your back pocket to help you choose well, just remember these 5 Principles of Healthy Soil. (And if you’d like to learn more, I’ve added links to articles that provide more information and some practices that might work on your place.)
1. Keep soil covered.
Lal’s 30 year experiment covering the soil with different amounts of straw mulch every year increased carbon to 4%, or the equivalent of healthy soils in that region, while the bare plots dropped to less than1%.
2. Minimize soil disturbance.
It’s easy to recognize tilling as a disturbance, but overgrazing counts, as does overuse of fertilizers and pesticides.
3. Manage for a diversity of plants.
Different plants contribute differently to the overall soil ecosystem. They also provide resilience in times of drought, making you better at #1 and #2 in this list.
4. Keep live roots in the soil.
Roots feed microbes and microbes provide plants with the nutrients they need. More roots, means more microbes and healthier soil.
5. Integrate livestock.
Animals, plants, and soils have a synergistic relationship. Animals are an important part of cycling carbon and nutrients through the system.
With that, I’d just like to say thanks to Dr. Lal for his years of research and writing. He’s become an effective voice for soil health and ways we can all help.
On Pasture is a subscriber and sponsor supported weekly, online magazine for graziers. With 5 to 7 weekly articles, On Pasture is also the most read publication of its kind. Over 100,000 readers a month come to find information that will help them improve soil health, grow more forage, protect water quality, enhance wildlife habitat and more. On Pasture’s goal is to help them be more successful and profitable, and to ensure that rural communities can grow and thrive. Kathy Voth is On Pasture’s Founder, Publisher and Editor.
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