Time to talk ‘soil health’

If there is such thing as an evangelist for soil quality, it’s Ray Archuleta. A specialist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service in North Carolina, he traveled to Indiana to spread the message about the importance of soil health.

“Seven years ago I was frustrated because a friend couldn’t produce good crops on what should be good soils,” he said. “He put on commercial inputs, but he wasn’t getting results. Since then, I’ve discovered that he and many others have become disconnected from the soil.

“We need to follow the principles that build up the soil and allow farmers to reduce outside inputs. We formed a soil quality team. We talk about ‘humic hope’ and the understanding that if we restore the health of soils, we can grow better crops.”

Key Points

It’s time to restore soil health on Midwest farms.

Expect more runoff from conventional-tilled fields.

Pores hold together in no-till soils, allowing more infiltration.


Soil health is basically soil quality. What are the properties of the soil that promote root development and plant growth? They include things like adequate pore space and the ability of roots to penetrate and find nutrients in the soil, he added.

“We’re talking about a holistic approach,” he said. Translated, that means looking at the big picture, not just one piece at a time, such as no-till by itself, filter strips by themselves or cover crops without reduced tillage. It takes all those things and more to fix soils that have been abused, he says.

“Filter strips alone don’t solve the issue,” he said. “They help, but we don’t have a runoff problem, we have an infiltration problem. The soil needs to be able to absorb the water in the first place so it won’t run off onto the filter strip.”

To see is believe

Talk is cheap. Walking the talk is much tougher. Archuleta walks the talk.

He placed six large plastic, see-through tubes of water in the front of the room where he was speaking. In three of the tubes, he placed soil from conventional fields, formed into clods. He included soil from North Carolina, Indiana and Kentucky.

In the next three tubes he placed chunks of soil from the same three states. Only these chunks were from no-till fields. Almost immediately, the three conventional chunks of soil began to break apart and sink as individual pieces toward the bottom of each tube. The no-till chunks held together.

“What you’re seeing is that the conventional chunks fall apart because the pore spaces collapse,” he explained. “That’s why they can’t take in much water before the pores collapse, and they’re saturated. The rest of the rain runs off.”

Conversely, water infiltrated the chunks from no-till fields. “It’s not because they’re hard, either,” he insisted. He broke one apart that was soaked to the middle. The pores held together, letting water infiltrate. In a field situation, that would mean more water could infiltrate into the soil in no-till fields with that type of soil structure, instead of running off toward the filter strip.

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Soil evangelist: The NRCS in North Carolina let Ray Archuleta travel to Indiana to spread the word about soil health.

This article published in the September, 2011 edition of INDIANA PRAIRIE FARMER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2011.