As farmers and ranchers, we tend to be a bit stubborn and set in our ways. This leads us to operating our farms and ranches in basically the same way year after year. We use the same crop rotation, we graze the same pasture at the same time each year, and so on.
I used to have this mindset, but then I “changed the way I saw things.”
I believe that the single most beneficial and differentiating “soil health practice” is NOT the addition of livestock, but the use of cover crops. I will suggest that this is because of the critical role (perhaps the “first” and most critical need) is that of “maintaining a more profuse living root throughout the soil profile, for longer periods throughout the year.” This is because without the benefit of more extensive “liquid carbon assets” provided by plants, it is impossible to establish and maintain a viable, living, thriving soil. Perhaps one of the best ways to enhance this aspect of the building blocks of soil health in “row crop situations” is by using a winter cereal, such as winter rye established in early fall, and allowing that to continue well into spring.
That plant (or any overwintering plant, including winter cereals, biennials, and perennials) is still functioning even through the winter, although at a very much slower rate. These plants are kind of like a bear that’s in hibernation—still alive, still biologically functioning, but at a much reduced rate. It’s important to understand that the soil biology is also “still functioning” in the same way, highly dependent, of course, upon whatever degree it may or may not be there in the first place. All soil in general has some level of biological activity, including desert soils, and even heavily damaged, perhaps even “irradiated soils” after nuclear fallout for example, but the difference will be at what level that functioning is taking place, and in what kind of biology is there (i.e., bacterially dominated with more tillage vs. fungally dominated with reduced or ‘no tillage and the use of cover crops). This “balanced ratio” will always be on a “continuum,” depending on the level of soil health (how biologically active, functionally healthy it is, in all aspects).
The undisturbed soil in the fence line or in the grove is more “functionally healthy” than in the field, simply because the biological processes in the field are being negatively impacted by man’s management of them, through practices such as intensive mono-cropping, tillage and chemical disturbances, etc., thereby altering the biological functioning. However, can the soils in the fence line or grove function in an “even better way” than it is currently, or must we assume that, because it is “undisturbed” (really?), its biological functioning is already at its optimum? Is it undisturbed from man’s influence? This is an important question because the biology created by God, and declared by Him to be “very good,” was designed at creation to be a fully functioning, perpetual motion machine—all on its own—and man was then given the assigned role, by God, of nurturing and keeping it (Gen. 2:15). This obviously implies managing, overseeing, encouraging and fostering all that “very goodness,” which God had blessed him with and entrusted to him. So, when we objectively look at it that way, how have we been doing? And how have YOU been doing?
Back to that fence line or the grove. Is it functioning at its optimum? Or has it, too perhaps, been negatively impacted by man’s “management?” For example, does that grove or fence line have an appropriately balanced amount of “macro-biology” impacting it? Are there significant numbers of birds, insects and mammals that access it regularly/frequently, or could it support more life than is currently having a direct “full circle” biological impact on it, which then would enhance the “biological turnover rate” of the vegetation/insects/arthropods/etc. living off of it? Would the addition of that added life bring additional life and environmental/ecological functionality to the soil?
And if it doesn’t have that significant number of birds, insects and mammals accessing it regularly, then we should ask ourselves, as the assigned nurturers and keepers of it, “Why doesn’t it have this?” I mean, that was God’s intent, so why aren’t there birds, and insects, and mammals bringing their positive impacts to the biological functioning of this piece of soil? Is it because the nurturer and keeper has chosen, either intentionally or by default of his own personal management choices, not to allow them access to this piece of soil? If that’s the case, then this piece of soil will not be able to function biologically at as high a level as the soil next to it, where the manager has chosen to do a more robust job of “nurturing and keeping.” Remember, God created a literal “perpetual motion machine” here, saying to Adam and Eve, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.” Does that sound like God anticipated the earth wouldn’t be able to support the “life” that he is commanding his appointed overseers to generate?
In Part Two of “Changing the Way You See Things,” I’ll examine what happens when we create an overwhelming disturbance, which outpaces the soil’s capacity to function as it was intended.