A passion for appreciating soil health can be measured in many ways. For some that commitment comes in acres and for others it is found in terms of square feet.
There are those applying conservation practices to their pastures and those doing so in their front or backyards or on the patio.
For some it’s their living and others it’s their hobby.
That’s where the soil health education resources of the Oklahoma Conservation Commission and the Natural Resources Conservation Service come in. Take for example two programs over a recent five-day stretch.
The first came on a weekend with more than 100 producers gathered for about six hours at the Pontotoc County Technology Center in Ada for a “Coffee Shop Talk, Grazing For Profits” free workshop. The topics included Grazing 365 and the use of cover crops; reducing your costs, and resilience.
The latter was held on a mid-week morning as more than 80 people attended a Soil Health 201 workshop for about three hours at the Will Rogers Gardens’ Garden Exhibition Center Hall in Oklahoma City. During this free seminar, participants learned how to interpret soil test results, select plants that promote soil health, and much more.
Within these examples, let’s use another example, Greg Scott, a part-time soil scientist with OCC and a retired state soil scientist with NRCS.
Two recent teaching opportunities
At Ada, in an open field behind the Technology Center, Scott takes a knee, and then looks up at the producers half-circled around him and current NRCS State Soil Scientist Steve Alspach.
“Here’s something fun,” Scott said. “One measure of soil health is how fast water gets into it. This is an infiltration ring cut from a piece of scrap pipe. You can take a gallon can, like a peach can, and cut the ends out of it. Put this in the soil, hammer it in and if you’re using a can, make sure you have a seal. Pour in a half-liter bottle of water and watch how fast the water gets in the soil. We’ve seen rates in Oklahoma anywhere from a few seconds to where a few hours go by and you still get no water in the soil. How much money am I making if I can’t get water in the ground?”
Then he looks up and poses a popular Oklahoma question.
“How many of you have clay soils?” Scott asks. “The worst thing about clay is the way it cracks. The best thing about clay is the way it cracks. That’s because every soil has some method to build in rapid movement of air and water in and out of the soil.”
Fast-forward to the middle of the next week and a classroom setting.
Scott, goes outside just west of the Garden Exhibition Center Hall at Will Rogers Gardens to a compost pile and gets a handful, and then goes back in. About 30 minutes later, it’s time for him and Amy Seiger, the OCC soil health coordinator, to speak.
Scotts asks the urban crowd, “What is it about compost that is so wonderful?”
Then he answers, “Well there’s a lot of things, but one of the things is that when you take compost, if it’s a year old it may have millions of different organic chemicals that are a product of the bacteria and the fungus metabolizing all that organic matter that has been exuded into the soils.”
“When we rain on organic matter, the soluble part of the organic matter gets dissolved and carried down in the soil and immediately jump starts the biological action in that soil for the bacteria and fungus. It also gives me organic matter that can react with calcium. If you react organic matter with calcium you get stuff that acts like soap.”
Seem a little technical? Here’s where Scott is headed.
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“If you have organic chemicals in your soil that are soapy, they break down surface tension and they help water move through that soil,” he said. “Instead of having soil with high surface tension we lower surface tension. Does anybody have anything in your home to lower surface tension? That lady back there does. If you have a detergent you’ve got chemicals whose job is to lower surface tension, and that’s what makes any detergent work.”
Seiger said that is the goal of soil health education, to bring the message home to those you are interacting with, whether it’s at a field day, in a classroom, a workshop or conference or in providing technical assistance.
“Our goal with soil health education is to help land owners, big or small, to better utilize the earth’s natural carbon filter and rain barrel,” Seiger said. “We have proven scientific methods to improve our soil on any scale. When soil is healthy, we have healthy water, but we also have plenty of water. For every 1% of organic matter per acre, we gain 25,000 gallons of water holding capacity. Across Oklahoma the average top soil has 2% organic matter, but before manipulation occurred we would have had up to 5% organic matter. Just think of all the water we could be holding. Now we look at manipulation due to compaction, that 2% organic matter is not getting utilized. Most of our landscapes are not infiltrating or holding water. It’s running into our storm water and streams. It’s time to revive our filter.”
With the “Grazing for Profits” workshop in mind, a patch of the grass in the open area behind the Technology Center was left un-mowed.
That’s where Blane Stacy, an OCC soil health educator, and Brandon Reavis, the NRCS state rangeland management specialist, stood side by side, each holding a pasture stick.
“How many of you know your annual forage production per acre on your property?” Stacy asked those in a horseshoe pattern around him and Reavis.
“One key resource we rely on to make our dollars to put pounds on beef to take to the market relies on that one question,” he said. “We need to know how much grass we have, how many cows we can graze for how many days of the year. So the good thing is we have this nice tool, a pasture stick that can get us about 99 percent of the way there.”
There are several tables on the stick, but Stacy talked about three in particular.
“Forage needs. We’ve got to know what those cows need to begin with, which most of us have a pretty good idea of,” he said. “There’s a table that tells us how to reconstruct our estimated total annual production, so we figure out what we need to feed them. Then we have available grazing days, a mathematical formula that tells you based on the number of animals you have, how many grazing days you have.”
This area isn’t a pasture. It is a maintained field behind the Technology Center being used as just an example. The calculations reflected that as they Stacy and Reavis put the pasture stick to work.
As they neared the end of the steps, Reavis said, “So if we’re going to graze down half of it and try to leave half so that we still do have leaf material, we know that we have 1,000 pounds per acre to use. If you know that you have 1,000 cows, then they could stay on this paddock for about 13 minutes and then they’re going to have to move on, right?”
That’s a very short period of time, but again, this was just a quick example.
“There are countless calculations all over this thing, but those are some of the key parts,” Reavis said.
A message for both
Some tools that work in a rural setting are also very useful for urban purposes in regards to soil health.
One of those is a soil thermometer. Scott said, a “thermometer from the kitchen department at the store” will usually also work.
“We were at Ada the other day doing a demonstration on a lawn at the (Technology) school,” Scott told those in the Garden Exhibition Center Hall in Oklahoma City, “and we poked the thermometer 1 inch into the soil.”
He shared that the soil temperature reading was 90 degrees at 8 a.m., but by 10 a.m., it was over 100 degrees.
“Are you happy at 100 degrees?” Scott asked. “I certainly am not. I certainly don’t like it when my house is 100 degrees. Well soil, roots, bacteria, fungus and plants they are happy in Oklahoma at 80 degrees, but not 100.”
Then he talked about insulation used in homes and made a comparison.
“If I mow my yard an inch tall, that’s no insulation and this afternoon it will be well over 100 degrees,” he said, “and all of your water use will be evaporation while the plant is struggling to survive. It’s not actually growing and the bacteria and the fungus that are in there that are beneficial to us that support us, they are dying. So just mow it a little higher to provide more cover.”
For more on the Soil Health Education Program, go to www.ok.gov/conservation/Programs/Soil_Health_Education_Program.html or for upcoming soil health programs go to the Oklahoma Soil Health Facebook page at www.facebook.com/OKSoilHealth.