Crops Features Insights

Soil: A revolving bucket or a biological system?

jon stika


Humans have been tilling the soil and practicing agriculture for quite some time. W. C. Lowdermilk’s classic agricultural report of 1939, “Conquest of the Land Through 7,000 Years,” gives us a basic history of human-induced degradation of the soil. Even though tillage has been used for a long time to control weeds and facilitate the placement of seed in the soil, there is no tillage operation that directly benefits the soil. None. Soil is only benefited if it is left undisturbed from tillage.

Our concept of soil in agriculture has been one of a medium for us to control — a bucket, if you will — a place in which water and nutrients are temporarily stored until plants can feed and drink from that bucket. When the bucket is empty, we contact our supplier and fill the bucket again.

Although we now use sophisticated technologies of soil sampling and crop monitoring to squeeze the greatest yield of crop from each acre, our basic perception of the soil has not changed much over the years. We still see it as something that we can manipulate and control, rather than something to foster and support. Since perception defines our reality, an incorrect perception of the soil and how it should be managed has led to the decline of our agricultural soils over time. But recently, the long held perception of the soil as a medium for inputs is currently undergoing a rapid transformation to one of an understanding of the soil for what it truly is: a biological system.

In my early years on a dairy farm, the focus was always on making the cows happy. Contented cows produced more milk. We worked hard to provide proper feed, fresh water, dry bedding, a warm barn in the winter and shade outdoors in the summer. We accepted the fact that the cow was a living thing that had certain needs and was designed to function in a certain way. The same is true of the soil. We must meet the needs of the “herd” of organisms that live in the soil. By creating the best habitat for them, they will be as productive as they can be. Happy microbes make the soil a better place for plants, which increases the efficiency and profitability of what plants can produce from that soil.

When we examine how soils function in a natural system, unmolested by humans, we see that soils perform nearly all of their important functions as the result of biological activity. This is the way soils were designed to function. Operating something the way it was designed to function just makes sense; whether it is a piece of farm machinery, a cow, or the soil. By understanding how the soil functions as a biological system, we are beginning to come to our senses about how to manage the soil in a restorative, rather than extractive, way.

By looking at the soil from this new perspective, we can prudently apply all of the technology of our time to foster the ability of soil organisms to help us be more profitable and productive, while restoring the soil at the same time. By making the soil a better place for the biological engine that supplies the needs of the plants we grow, the efficiency of crop production will increase to the benefit of both the farm and the farmer, the garden and the gardener, the ranch and the rancher.

Creating better soil habitat for soil microorganisms is neither technically difficult nor expensive, it all depends on how we perceive the soil. By disturbing the soil less, increasing the diversity of plants grown in the soil, maximizing the time the soil hosts living roots, and keeping the soil covered with plants and their residues, we can revive the biology of the soil and put them back to work building soil and feeding our plants.

It’s time we traded in our bucket mentality of the soil for a much different mindset that puts biology foremost. We can no longer afford to compartmentalize soil, plants, and ourselves, in the old way of thinking. If we reintegrate the biology of the soil as the real foundation of our crop production systems, the future of agriculture will be much different, and much better, than the past.

Jon Stika is a retired Natural Resources Conservation Service soil health instructor and current part-time professional at the North Dakota State University Dickinson Research Extension Center. He is also the author of “A Soil Owner’s Manual: How to Restore and Maintain Soil Health.”

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