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Soil Health & Climate Change

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Principles of Soil Health

While some people call it “dirt”, soil is much more than just the brown mineral matter that we often think of. There is a whole ecosystem beneath our feet, complete with a soil food web. Soil is so important that life would not exist without it. Soil provides the medium that grows the food we eat, the clothes we wear, the trees and bricks used to build our homes, and many of the medicines used to treat our illnesses. It is for this reason that soil health and soil conservation is so important. According to Jay Fuhrer of the NRCS, the foundation of Soil Health consists of five principles: soil armor, minimizing soil disturbance, plant diversity, continual live plant/root, and livestock integration. 

Increase Soil Armor (Soil Cover)

Soil armor helps to control wind and water erosion, reduce evaporative losses, maintain moderate soil temperatures, reduce soil compaction, suppress noxious weed growth, and provide habitat for the soil food web.

Minimize Soil Disturbance

Reducing overgrazing (which limits the plants ability to harvest CO2 and sunlight), avoiding over application of nutrient and pesticide (which can disrupt the soil food web functions), and minimizing tillage (which increases wind and water erosion, crusting, and soil organic matter depletion) all help to minimize soil disturbance.

Increase Plant Diversity

Plant biodiversity benefits the soil food web, improves rainfall infiltration and nutrient cycling, and reduces disease and pests. Diverse crop rotations mimic our original plant diversity landscapes that occurred prior to human encroachment on natural landscapes. They are important to the long-term sustainability of our soil resource and food security.

Maintain continual live plants and roots

Live plants and roots provide the carbon life line for the soil food web; improve soil infiltration; reduce erosion, compaction, and maintain cooler soil temperatures; improve water quality; suppress weeds; and provide wildlife/pollinator food, habitat, and space. Legume species are especially helpful at boosting soil health and plant growth due to the nitrogen-fixing symbiotic relationship with bacteria in their roots.

Integrate livestock using proper grazing management

Livestock on properly grazed pastures can increase soil stability and structure, enhance soil organic matter and nutrient cycling, improve water infiltration and retention, aid in plant species and microbial species diversity, increase plant biomass production, and improve ecosystem resilience.

Climate vs. Weather

Weather is the “short-term” atmospheric conditions that we experience at any given time on any given day or season (hot, cold, rainy, snowy, windy). Climate refers to the average weather patterns in a specific area over a longer period of time (years and decades). Using a thirty-year average is common when looking at climatic changes. Thus, CLIMATE CHANGE is how the characteristics of the weather we experience in a certain place change over time. Those changes could result in warming or cooling, drought or increased precipitation.

Climate change is nothing new; we have seen periods of climate change occur since the age of the dinosaurs—think “ice ages.” The fact that climate change is happening is not a shocker; it is the RATE at which the climate is changing (compared to previous climatic changes) that is concerning. A study by Marcott et. al concludes that current global temperatures of the past decade are warmer than during ~75% of the temperatures in the last 11,300 years. The recent increase in global average temperature is so abrupt compared to the rest of the time period that when the scientists make a graph of the data, the end of the line is nearly vertical.

Climate change can be caused by both natural and anthropogenic (human-caused) forces. Natural causes may include shifts in the Earth’s orbit, natural changes in atmospheric and oceanic carbon dioxide levels, volcanic eruptions, and variations in the solar activity. Anthropogenic causes likely include industrialization, globalization, and reliance on fossil fuels. The everyday conveniences we have come to rely on (like cars, planes, and trains for transportation; technology to keep us connected, productive, and stressed [wink, wink       ]; as well as all the processed and packaged stuff we buy daily) all contribute to the release of greenhouse gases and carbon into the atmosphere. Deforestation and conversion of native grasslands into cities and developed areas have also decreased Mother Nature’s ability to naturally capture carbon through her ‘greenbelts.’

Climate Change and Land Management

Carbon sequestration, or carbon capture, has been proposed as one measure for mitigating climate change due to greenhouse gases. As alluded to on the previous page, Mother Nature has historically helped with carbon capture through natural carbon sinks, such as the ocean, soil, forests, and perennial grasslands.

So...what does that mean for land management in Middle Park? It means that some of the best things you can do for your land are to manage for healthy forests, lush grasslands, and wet wetlands. If you are concerned about climate change and want to do your part to reduce it, the worst thing you could do is turn a natural landscape into a parking lot, high rise, or shopping center.

While farming and ranching sometimes get a bad rap for their “contribution to global climate change,” properly managed agricultural lands can actually do the opposite...they can mitigate climate change by capturing carbon. Traditional farming practices that require annual tillage and conversion of croplands definitely have their faults; however, we do not have traditional farms in Grand or Summit Counties. We have ranches that subsist on perennial rangelands and hayfields that support their livestock herds. Most of these operations do not till, or rarely till, their land. Though it is true that improperly managed grazing lands do not capture as much carbon as properly managed lands, we hope the information provided on the previous pages will help reduce overgrazing, noxious weed encroachment, and soil degradation.

”Good farmers, who take seriously their duties as stewards of Creation and of their land’s inheritors, contribute to the welfare of society in more ways than society usually acknowledges, or even knows. These farmers produce valuable goods, of course; but they also conserve soil, they conserve water, they conserve wildlife, they conserve open space, they conserve scenery.”  ~Wendell Berry, American poet, novelist, environmentalist, and farmer

Additional tips for restoring degraded grazing lands include:

  • Limit soil disturbance and tillage
  • Implement proper grazing management practices
  • Use water tanks, spring developments, and salt/mineral supplements to help with grazing management and livestock distribution
  • Inter-seed areas of low production and plant native species with deep roots
  • Plant nitrogen-fixing legumes (like clover and alfalfa) to improve soil health and productivity
  • Fertilize to increase production
  • Initiate proper irrigation management strategies to improve production
  • Install sediment control structures where soils are highly erosive
  • Install living snow fences (trees and shrubs) where wind relief is needed.

Check out NRCS’ Climate-Smart Mitigation Activities:


References: 1, 2, 65, 66, 67, 68, 69, 70, 71, 72

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