Building healthy soil for forages

Research group targets five basic principles to improve soil health

A teaspoon of productive soil generally contains anywhere from 100 million to one billion bacteria, says Dr. Elaine Ingham, microbiologist and founder of Soil Food Web Inc.

Feed the soil and everything gets better, says Brian Harper, Manitoba beef producer and 2018 Environmental Stewardship Award (TESA) winner.

Harper’s focus has moved from the livestock, down to the plants and now to the soil and the below-ground activity. “I have realized the cattle are just a tool.”

Many ranchers are starting to acknowledge and support the below-ground workers on their operations.

“A teaspoon of productive soil generally contains between 100 million and one billion bacteria. That is as much mass as two cows/acre — below ground. A ton of microscopic bacteria may be active in each acre of soil,” states Dr. Elaine Ingham, microbiologist and founder of Soil Food Web Inc., on the U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service website.

Looking at the soil and its chemical, physical and biological properties is reminiscent of a high school biology class.

“I recently read that we know more about outer space than what is going on six inches below ground. It is complex and each system serves the next,” says Daryl Chubb, a regenerative ag systems specialist with DeNova Ag at Irricana, Alta.

When referring to the chemical properties of the soil, Chubb talks about properties many are familiar with in a soil test such as pH, soluble salts, cation exchange capacity and nutrient analysis. The physical component refers to soil aggregation and structure, porosity and water availability and movement. Biological activity considers micro-organisms, roots and actual organic matter.

The effectiveness of the water cycle is a key component. A one per cent increase in organic matter in the top six inches of the soil can hold about 27,000 gallons of water per acre. That equates to an inch of precipitation.

Arbuscular mycorrhizae fungi (AMF) play an important role in soil biology. AMF grows on strings on the roots and can expand the root system up to 1,000 times. This improves nutrient and water access, as roots access locked-up calcium and phosphorus. It also aids in nitrogen transfer.

Dr. Yamily Zavala’s soil lab can measure 
everything from chemical components to active bacteria and fungi in the soil. photo: Dr. Yamily Zavala

AMF also excretes the protein glomalin, which can store high amounts of carbon and nitrogen.

Recently, a number of trailblazers have been asking what happens if we improve soil health and actually build soil.

Gabe Brown, Dr. Allen Williams, Ray Archuleta and David Brandt have joined forces to form Soil Health Consultants, LLC.

The consortium bases their work on five basic principles:

1. Soil armour. Keeping the soil covered and reducing bare ground can reduce erosion. It also decreases water evaporation, moderates the soil temperature, reduces the impact of energy from raindrops, suppresses weed growth and provides a habitat for surface dwellers.

2. Minimizing soil disturbance. Soil disturbance can be physical, biological and chemical, and have an impact on the soil surface cover.
3. Plant diversity.
4. Continual living root provides carbon exudates to feed the soil food web, which is exchanged for nutrients that promote plant growth and can aid in soil aggregate formation.
5. Livestock integration balances soil carbon and nitrogen rations by converting high carbon forages to low carbon organic material.

Blain Hjertaas, farmer and holistic management educator at Redvers, Sask., echoes these principles. He has focused on the resulting carbon sequestration. Hjertaas and Peter Donavan of the Soil Carbon Coalition sampled sites on three different farms in southeastern Saskatchewan in the fall of 2011. The results indicated an average carbon sequestration rate of 27.8 tonnes per hectare.

Using an annual carbon footprint per person of 18.9 tonnes and the average sequestration rate of the three farms, each hectare farmed regeneratively will more than sequester an individual Canadian’s footprint, Hjertaas writes on Canada has 65 million hectares of farmland, he adds.

Hjertaas and Donavan describe it as the soil carbon sponge.

“It is possible to build carbon-rich, water-holding soil organic matter by working with the natural processes of photosynthesis and decay, turning atmospheric carbon into soil organic matter,” states Donavan on the Soil Carbon Coalition website.

In recent years, measurement of many of the biological properties has become possible. Hjertaas uses a lab at the University of Guelph. Chinook Applied Research Association (CARA) has also opened a soil testing lab headed by Dr. Yamily Zavala.

One of the first steps for producers can be observation and monitoring. There are a number of simple tests that can be done including water infiltration rates, soil composition (what does it smell like and how does it hold together), root depth and thatch cover. A shovel can be a useful tool.

The amount of information on the subject has exploded in recent years. It is complex but does it all come down to actually being able to build soil? Many results suggest it does.

As Brian Harper says, “This is just the tip of the iceberg for what we can accomplish on the land.”

Alberta lab measures soil health

A critical component of the soil health piece is analysis and measurement. Before 2018, most of the labs used were far afield. But in July 2018 the Chinook Applied Research Association (CARA) at Oyen, Alta. opened a soil health lab led by Dr. Yamily Zavala.

One would be hard pressed to find someone as enthusiastic and passionate about soil health as Zavala. She is a soil health pioneer in the Prairies and recognizes the need for an easy way to evaluate physical and biological soil properties.

Dr. Yamily Zavala leads the Chinook Applied Research Association’s new soil health lab. photo: Dr. Yamily Zavala

“We need to keep doing research and evaluation to understand what is happening in the soil,” she says.

Zavala had done some cocktail cropping trials on a marginal piece of ground. One of the trials included a mix of wheat, fababeans, peas and tillage radish. A few months later she discovered a marked response — compaction was reduced, there were fewer weeds and in the top 10 centimetres, soil structure was more granular.

“When seeing this I knew I needed to measure and understand what is going on with the soil and to help farmers,” she says.

Putting projects together was not new to Zavala as she had done so in Venezuela. She worked with the CARA board to get approval to open a lab. She continued her training and followed the Cornell protocol, where she had done her PhD. Other training took place with Dr. Elaine Ingham in California. She also encountered Bob West of Soil Food Web Lab Canada Ltd. at Vulcan, Alta., which was then closed. That lab had many components that she needed. She was able to convince Bob West to donate it to CARA.

The fact that the project had great support, in a number of ways, from farmers helped to move things along. Growing awareness in soil health has been happening for the last few years in Alberta. Since a 2015 soil health conference, Zavala has reached 4,000 farmers through talks and presentations. There has been much promotion through the forage associations with field days, workshops and a number of experts in the field — no pun intended — speaking in Western Canada.

The Soil Health Lab has also been approved through Canada Agriculture Partnership to benchmark and monitor lands in their specific areas and get baseline information, along with the forage associations in Alberta. Each association will have 20 sites. Testing began last fall and will continue for five years.

“We can be building the data base for creating information and norms for parameters we will be measuring and analyze different soil management strategies,” says Zavala.

This lab will focus on physical and biological components. There are already sophisticated chemical components in current soil testing but the CARA lab will take it to the next level. This can help deal with the concerns that farmers have about compaction, water infiltration and soil aggregation. The lab can also evaluate active bacteria, active fungi, and the ratio between the two.

Zavala stresses this is a farmer’s lab, not a commercial one, and wants it to be a learning centre. She says she wants to “plant the seeds so people start looking at soil differently.”

“The lab will allow us to get information to those in other fields to know about the biology of the soil and carbon sequestration. It is all connected.”

For details on soil sample submission protocols and cost, visit

About the author


Kelly Sidoryk ranches with her family just west of Lloydminster, Alta. She consults in a number of areas including succession planning and holistic management.



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