What Are The Foundations of Soil Health?
Written by, Daniel Griffith
We Need To Start With Roots
Wild animals balanced their diets long before man came along. In fact, most regenerative farmers today deftly argue that it is because man came along that wild animals have since had trouble balancing their diets. Confinement followed domestication and soil depletion and loss of biodiversity was this rude housetraining’s result.
But the interaction between man and beast does not have to be negative.
One of my favorite authors is Dr. William Albrecht. Although restoring the soil and its nutrients are mainstream today, Albrecht was a pioneer of soil health and animal husbandry in his day. Born 1888, he lived through the explosions of the industrial revolution and witnessed firsthand the supreme degradation of the great Dust Bowl. Through it all, he argued for a return to biological agriculture based on sustainability, soil health, and purposeful interaction between man and beast.
In his book, Soil Fertility & Human and Animal Health, Albrecht argued that it takes healthy soils to make healthy forages to make healthy animals to make healthy humans. Break any part of that equation and all health will suffer.
Albrecht did not consider animal husbandry to be the root of all evils. Rather, he argued that that the way we husband our animals is both the issue and the key.
I think Albrecht would have been a big fan of Permaculture. This ethically based ecological science believes in orchestras. Man, the conductor and observer, designs and nurtures systems that both mimic and enhance nature’s cycles, patterns, and tendencies. Nature, the orchestra, does all the work according to its laws, rhythm, wisdom, and beauty. The resulting concert is perhaps more than abundant; it is virtuous.
Albrecht argued, “Study books and observe nature; if they do not agree, throw away the books.” He was, perhaps, the first Permaculturalist. What he found was that animals were healthier if they were fed nutrient-dense forages grown on “high-organic-matter” soils. In other words, an animal can only be as healthy as the land it is on. If the land is sick, biologically depleted, lacking nutrients and diversity, so our animals will also be.
The Beginnings of True Soil Science
Albrecht understood that fostering nutrient-dense soil and forages was more than simply taking soil samples and adding the needed nutrients.
He used the example of nitrogen fixing legumes. We have been taught that White Clover, for instance, will fix nitrogen into the soil. Although not untrue, it is not this simple.
Albrecht wrote that “it was as late as 1888 when we first recognized the interdependency, nutrition-wise, of legume plants and the nitrogen-fixing soil bacteria in their root nodules as a case of symbiosis or mutual benefit. We discovered years later that legumes are not nitrogen fixers purely because of pedigree. They are such only because of ample soil supplies of their delicately-balanced requisites for many inorganic nutrient elements.”
In other words, nutrients in the soil affect soil bacteria and soil bacteria affect the nitrogen-fixing capacity of legumes. To make things even more complex, if the soil contains all the needed elements and bacteria but lacks the legume, nitrogen will not be “fixed” in the soil.
Put even more simply, for White Clover to be a nutritious feed, the soil it is grows in must have both the proper nutrients and the proper amounts of soil bacteria.
You need plants, a healthy soil food-web, and balanced soil minerals to produce nutrient-dense forages.
Albrecht argued that this misunderstanding is because humanity does not regard “agriculture as biological performances first and economics second.” Our search for economic opportunities “Frankenstiened” biotic activity and compromised system health: soil to feed to animals to humans.
Restoring soil health is not as simple as spreading nitrogen on a field. It requires intensive animal husbandry, biomimicry, and patience.