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Perennial Hay/Alfalfa/Pastures: The Pasture group has the highest average soil health scores of these three crop groups. Although the Pasture group has lower supplemental water days and lower organic matter added, their very high days of living cover and very high grazing days, along with their very low tillage intensity and lower soil pH seem to more than make up for their water challenges, in terms of soil health.
Commodity Row Crops: The Commodity crop group has the lowest average scores of these three groups. Although they have done an excellent job of reducing their tillage intensity, that fact alone cannot make up for their high soil pH, lowest days of living cover and lowest organic matter added. They have only 2/3rds of the water availability as the Commercial Veg/Flower/Fruit group, which explains their lower days of cover crops that often require fall seeding and fall water. Inter-seeding cover crops aerially or when the main crop is still small are work-arounds but not always practical. Low commodity prices mean the cost of additional organic matter inputs like compost and manure are hard to justify.
Commercial Veg/Flower/Fruit: The Commercial Veg group has the highest tillage intensity by far, but also triple the organic matter inputs of the other 2 groups. These huge organic matter inputs, along with their longer water season, greater use of cover crops, and lower soil pH overpower their intense tillage and boost their average soil health scores above the commodity crops’ averages. Their longer water season means they can plant more fall cover crops and string together succession plantings for a longer growing season. Their high value vegetables mean that they can afford organic matter input costs and hauling fees.
In the top graph above, 71 sites with both grazing animals and organic matter inputs (OMI) are each represented by a quadruplet of data points connected by a vertical black line (a blue square for 2019, red circle for 2020, green triangle for 2021, and yellow diamond for 2022). Each square-circle-triangle-diamond-black-line combo represents the Soil Organic Matter (SOM) values for one site for 4 years. According to the literature, SOM is supposed to be quite stable and very difficult to change, and yet we are seeing large swings in individual sites’ SOM data, especially when grazing animals are present or organic matter is imported to the site, as is the case in the top graph above.
We only have 12 sites in our study which have no grazing animals or imported organic matter for 3 or more years. The second lower graph shows that the variability in SOM values for these 12 sites is much less than for sites with grazing animals or organic matter inputs.
Elizabeth Black is the producer of the Citizen Science Soil Health Project
The Citizen Science Soil Health Project
4340 N 13th St.
Boulder, CO 80304