‘In the field’ soil health school

Jay Fuhrer, a District Conservationist from the National Resources Conservation Service in the U.S., tests soil during an “In the Field Soil Health School” at Redtail Farms (owned by Ian and Dana Griebel), 3 km south of Castor on Aug. 16. The Battle River Research Group hosted this event for the 35-40 agricultural producers and extension workers who were in attendance from various places in Alberta.  ECA Review/Submitted
Submitted by Eric Neilson

The Battle River Research Group hosted an “In the Field Soil Health School” at Redtail Farms (Ian and Dana Griebel), three kilometres south of Castor on Tues., Aug. 16.

The teacher for the day was Jay Fuhrer, a soil health enthusiast, researcher and educator from Bismarck, North Dakota.

Fuhrerworks for the US Department of Agriculture as a Natural Resource Conservationist and regularly speaks about soil health in around the United States and Canada.

Over 30 producers and agricultural extension workers from Alberta Agriculture and Forestry and various applied research and forage associations attended in spite of it being an excellent day for haying or combining.

The morning was spent in a shaded open-air classroom situation where Fuhrer spoke about the importance of maintaining and improving soil health for agricultural production and the amazing and complicated soil food web.

He emphasized the importance of plant species diversity and not exporting too many nutrients and plant residues away from your land. He also accentuated the need for the integration of livestock into a farming system.

Several hand-on soil tests were then conducted on soils that had been collected from various locations on Griebel’s farm.

A highlight of this was Solvita® soil respiration tests conducted on Ian’s soil samples.  This test measures the overall soil biological activity in a soil.  So how did Griebel’s soils do?  Very well!

The sample from his traditional hay land where recently the bales have been removed every year tested in the “ideal activity” zone with an active microbe population and good organic matter supply.

The other three soils from a hog yard where a mixture of plants had been grazed, a cattle bale grazing area and a multi-species annual cover crop mixture were all in the “medium-high activity” zone was very active biologically with very high organic matter turn-over.

In the afternoon, each of the sites where soil samples had been taken were visited by the group where additional discussion and learning occurred.  Here, Fuhrer outlined his five soil health principles:
1) Keep the soil covered – an armor or residue on the soil stabilizes the soil and protects it from erosion and drying out.
2) Minimize soil disturbance – tilling has a negative effect on soil biological activity.
3) Increase crop diversity – include warm and cold season grass and broadleaf species in your mixes.
4) Keep living roots in the soil – this means using winter annuals, biennials or perennials in cooler, drier climates like what we have in east central Alberta.
5) Integrate livestock – rotational grazing, bale grazing, and swath grazing are all practices that improve soil health dramatically.

Fuhrer also added a sixth principle that he called “take your reward, please”.  This referred to the rewards from increased production capacity and the fact that your land would be in excellent shape for the next generation.

This fits in very well with Redtail Farm’s vision statement “Three generations looking seven generations forward”.

About the author




* indicates required