Keep score when it comes to your soil health

The Visual Soil Assessment scorecard can help producers identify whether their soils are degrading

An upcoming Foothills Forage and Grazing workshop on June 24 will feature a soil health expert from Down Under talking about what’s going on down underground.

“The workshop is an introduction to the role of soil health and microbiology in building forage quality and pasture quality,” said Nicole Masters, director of Integrity Soils in New Zealand.

“It’s going to be helping ranchers as they define some of the dynamics in their soil and common issues with parasites or weeds. They’ll look at what’s driving that from the ground up.”

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Ranchers tend to know “an awful lot about pasture, but not a lot about the soil,” said Masters, who will be speaking at the June 24 workshop in Carstairs.

“If they can understand more about the soil dynamics, it gives them more tools and more opportunities for forage improvement,” said Masters. “Soil health is something producers need to be focusing on if they want to be a profitable business into the future. We need resilience when it comes to soil health.

“Everything comes back to soil.”

That’s especially important in a drought year, she added.

“Healthy soils will act like a buffer and a sponge,” she said. “We can hold a lot more moisture in healthy soils, and in the growing season, it’s going to act as a buffer against temperature extremes. They’re cool in the middle of summer and warm in winter.

“What we’re trying to build underground is that buffer from extremes so that we can grow a pasture that’s not stressed.”

Ranchers often don’t realize that their soils are degrading, she said.

To evaluate that, Masters uses a Visual Soil Assessment scorecard, a tool developed by the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization.

“The soil will give you signals earlier than the pasture will. So if you can pick up that the soil is degrading, then you can do something about it,” said Masters.

“I don’t know if it’s your greatest weak spot, as it is in some other countries, but there’s an awful lot of soil being lost.”

The scorecard helps producers identify whether they’re losing soil and what they can do about it.

“It has some dynamic measurements for how healthy the soil is right now, and whether the soil is improving or degrading,” she said.

As a first step, producers need to be looking for “visual signs” that the soil is in good shape — things wsuch as crumb structure, water movement through the soil, mycorrhizae levels, and colour.

“We’re looking for how much carbon we’re holding on to, and that shows up as that lovely dark-brown humus colour,” said Masters.

“We’re wanting our soils to look like they’re gorgeous fluffy chocolate cake. If it’s not, we need to look at what we can do about it.”

For most ranchers, improving soil degradation comes down to discovering their “limiting factors.”

“On different ranches, there will be something that is inhibiting mycorrhizae or damaging soil health. It’s going to be on a case-by-case basis,” she said.

“We need to look at how we can use the rangeland and the animals to improve soil health instead of degrading it.”

And building your knowledge base is “a good place to start,” said Masters.

“Go to workshops or talk to people who are already well on track,” she said.

“That’s the joy of getting to listen to people from different parts of the world. They bring different experiences and perspectives.

“There’s a lot of options out there. Don’t think that there’s nothing that can be done.”

For more information about the workshop, go to foothillsforage.com.

About the author

Reporter

Jennifer Blair is a Red Deer-based reporter with a post-secondary education in professional writing and nearly 10 years of experience in corporate communications, policy development, and journalism. She's spent half of her career telling stories about an industry she loves for an audience she admires--the farmers who work every day to build a better agriculture industry in Alberta.

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