By Jonathan Kilpatrick, Soil Health Specialist
Recently, while doing some writing, I was using a voice-to-text application to speed up my work. As I was going back through what I had said, checking for errors and cleaning up the little things that these dictation tools tend to miss, I came across a sentence where I had meant to say “living root.” Instead, the translation came through as “living room.”
As comical as those app errors can be, this one caught my attention and got me thinking. I began to realize that there was something to this mistake. What is the relationship between a living root and a living room, and what connections for soil biology does it have? Hmm, could this voice-to-text error provide some insights to our management of soil? Let’s find out.
Above Mirrors Below
I’ve always felt that, as farmers and ranchers, we should be much more concerned about what is happening beneath the soil surface than what is happening above. As a grazier myself, it’s for this reason that I am far more concerned about growing roots than I am about growing grass. Why? Well, if I have a good root system, I have that support network from which my grass can pull nutrients from no matter what the above-ground conditions are like.
This is the type of thinking that helps us address root causes (pun intended!), rather than symptoms. Your above-ground species (whether plants, livestock, or wildlife) will always mirror and tell you what is happening beneath the soil surface. Poor livestock health? Poor soil, or feed grown on poor soil. Crops riddled with insect pressure and damage? This is indicative of a lack of soil biology. Healthy soil biology increases BRIX, deterring those little pests.
A Root-Cause Approach
Modern day agriculture is full of top-down, symptom-addressing thinking. I would argue that we need to start thinking from the bottom-up, or root-cause thinking to make substantial progress. Just page through any typical ag publication and you will be inundated with ads touting the latest innovation to address… what? You got it, symptoms. I maintain that we cause most of those symptoms because we haven’t taken into account the need for a hospitality department for biology, which in turn will build the house (soil aggregate) if we supply them with enough carbon, the currency of the soil.
Does your soil have a living room for its biology? Are we in the hospitality business for the millions of little critters that work so hard beneath our feet to keep our soil functioning?
The start of all of this is a plant’s root system. We’ll get to that part in Part II – what’s a living root got to do with it?