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It's In The Dirt!


Providing winning solutions for horse management and the environment since 1997

It's In The Dirt!

Alayne Blickle

Matt and I recently attended a thoughtful, invigorating lecture at Boise State University which is near where we live. The lecture was on soil health, a topic most of us horse owners give little attention to since we are usually thinking about what’s above ground: grass, weeds, horses, dogs, sky. Not much time is spent thinking that about what’s going on below. In fact, it turns out that what’s below is key to what’s above, key even to human health and more.

In recent years some of the agencies I work with, namely the Natural Resources Conservation Service, have focused attention on soil. Wanting to stay current on environmental issues and concerns, I have been following their messages by paying attention to soil, a subject I have come to find fascinating.

David Montgomery, a geologist, was the speaker, a professor of Earth and Space Science from the University of Washington in Seattle and the author of several books including Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations.

Montgomery pointed to some interesting facts about soil: 

  • Soil erosion played a role in the demise of most of all ancient civilizations.
  • Nature doesn’t like bare earth; if we don’t plant something in a bare spot, she will.
  • The plow changed everything and was, in part, a contributor to the Great Dust Bowl. Tilled soils are highly erosive by wind or water.
  • In many places on earth, the soil has completely eroded, and we are instead working with subsoil, which has little to no organic life in it.

Topsoil is the outer layer of the Earth’s crust. This layer has the highest amount of decaying plant material, beneficial microbes and fungal organisms of the entire soil profile. The topsoil region is usually two to 10 inches deep, and plants concentrate their roots here, where most of their required nutrients are available. Without topsoil, plant life is barely possible.

Depending on what part of the world you are in, it takes somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 to 3,000 or more years to create an inch of topsoil. Wetter areas create topsoil faster than arid, and it’s all dependent on the amount of decaying organics available.

Montgomery’s recipe for restoring soil health is basic:

  • Don’t disturb soil structure, or in other words, avoid tillage as much as possible
  • Use cover crops 
  • Use diversity in plant crops
  • Apply compost

Here’s how I translate that for us horse owners:

  • Avoid complete pasture renovation and tillage
  • Overseed pastures to avoid bare spots
  • Build up your soils with compost

Spring is the right time to attend to soils as grass is a cool season crop and grows best in spring and fall. Here at Sweet Pepper Ranch, we’ve been tending to our soil’s health by overseeding bare spots in pastures, lawns, walkways, and along our irrigation ditch (which we treat like a creek). We’re also spreading compost on pastures—and even our lawn! 

In the future, Horses for Clean Water will feature educational events on no-till drilling in Treasure Valley, Idaho, and in King County, Washington. Be sure to watch for that.

Want to brush up now? Check out HCW Tip Sheets on Sacrifice Areas, Pasture Management, Composting, Track Paddocks, and more. Online classes in May and June will feature Spring Pasture Management, Firewise Education (important to think about NOW before fire season kicks into full gear later this summer) and Composting Horse Manure for how to get those valuable nutrients and organics ready for your pastures.

On another note, I say goodbye this month to a trusted friend and dedicated worker, April LaLande. April has fearlessly helped me with everything from website revamping to monthly newsletter editing and tireless oversight of HCW materials. I humbly say that April’s been my right and left hand, my sounding board, and the backbone of Horses for Clean Water, for which I am deeply grateful.

Over the next few months, April will be stepping back as we welcome to the forefront Jess Friedman, who will take April’s place as editor/digital manager. Jess has an incredible background in organic agriculture as well as media production. She was born and raised with horses, and it will be good to bring a young adult’s perspective to Horses for Clean Water.