By Bryan Painter
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 (OCC) and the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) 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 are 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.
“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.”
Read more in the November issue of Oklahoma Farm & Ranch.