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submitted by Matthew Welsh, Resource Conservationist, Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), USDA
It’s that time of the year again when our attention is focused on a particular Sunday in early February to see who will be crowned world champion in the Super Bowl. At the end of the game there is no doubt the winning team has reached the pinnacle of success and achieved its objectives through teamwork, having built a great foundation. Like a Super Bowl champion football team, a healthy functioning soil has the same superior foundation and teamwork aspects.

A football team needs lineman for movement and stability of the line of scrimmage, within a healthy soil, stable soil aggregates play a pivotal role like a football team lineman. They provide structure and resistance to degradation and pore collapse. The healthy soil aggregates form spaces for air to be in the soil and for water to infiltrate into the soil.  These spaces also allow for plant roots to grow freely because they are not restricted by a compacted layer or lack of air and oxygen. Visually a well aggregated soil has visible pores, root channels, cottage cheese structure, and evidence of macro-organisms like earthworms.

The old saying says Defense wins games, well for a healthy soil the ultimate defensive protection is on the surface with “armor” which consists of residue and organic material that protects soil from wind and or water erosion as it moves across the soil surface. The armor holds the soil in place along with valuable soil organic matter and nutrients. The strong defense provided by soil armor helps maintain a more moderate range of soil temperatures and reduces soil evaporation rates which in turn provide a better environment for plant development.

A healthy soil will have plant diversity and through that diversity the soil will be more resilient and adaptable much like a great play caller for a Super Bowl team. The team’s play caller will have a diverse playbook and adapt when adverse conditions arise. Diversity in rotational crops with additions of cover crops allow for a healthy soils food web to receive carbon exudates (food) from a diversity of plants. A balance of plant diversity will help provide the soil microbiome better food resources and enable beneficial microorganisms like mycorrhizal fungi to become extensions for plant roots and seek out nutrients and water for plant usage.

At the end of the Super Bowl sometimes an unlikely hero emerges to win the game. Kickers on a Special Teams unit when called upon rise to the occasion much like Livestock will do when introduced onto a landscape. Sometimes the contributions of livestock to healthy soil are not fully realized but make no mistake they are essential pillar of healthy functioning soil.

Livestock integration balances soil carbon and nitrogen ratios by converting high carbon forages and crops into low carbon organic material. Manure, Urine, and saliva from livestock that are incorporated into the soil have a power biological value.