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Montana Soil Health Strategy

Healthy, functioning soil as the foundation for all working lands in Montana

A plan to meet current and future challenges in agriculture

While the U.S. agricultural industry has made significant strides in improving farming practices to decrease soil erosion and improve water quality, we still face numerous challenges in the 21st century. Herbicide resistant weeds, large fluctuations of input costs, overuse of inputs and the resulting environmental degradation, continued erosion, and new diseases and insects all threaten producers’ livelihoods. The Soil Conservation Service, created during the Dust Bowl era, concentrated on ways to decrease soil erosion. Today, we recognize we have to consider more than getting to “T,” tolerable soil loss levels, for successful conservation. The average annual erosion on Montana cropland was 11.4 tons per acre in 1987. Twenty years later, in 2007, the average annual erosion rate was 6.4 tons per acre. This is progress. It is keeping rivers and air cleaner, but it is treating a symptom rather than the problem of unhealthy soil.

We must change our minds about soil health and how it functions. Many of our problems, regardless of land use, are actually symptoms of the main problem, dysfunctional soil. A healthy functional soil does not erode, keeps pests in check, supplies plants and animals with what they need when they need it, and provides for long-term sustainable systems. A soil health approach to conservation planning can better address the opportunities we have to improve resource conditions.

A simple definition of soil health is “the capacity of a soil to function.” Soil is a living factory of macroscopic and microscopic organisms that need food to eat and places to live. Without these organisms, soil does not function efficiently. These organisms control soil’s ability to supply water and nutrients to plants, and they ultimately determine how successful ranching, forestry, and farming operations will be. A healthy soil contains a multitude of individual organisms, including bacteria, protozoa, nematodes, fungi, molds, and yeasts and can be decomposers, pathogens, parasites, predators or grazers. Beetles, mites, and small animals feed on the tinier creatures to cycle nutrients.

The challenges are to harvest sunlight through photosynthesis, allow microorganisms to break down carbon from plant residues, and cycle nutrients so they are available to growing plants in order to manage farms, ranches, and forests sustainably for food and fiber in the future. Managing for soil health and improved soil function is mostly a matter of maintaining a suitable habitat for the myriad of creatures that comprise the soil food web. That means disturbing the soil as little as possible, growing as many different species of plants as practical, keeping living roots in the soil as often as possible, keeping the soil covered all the time with plants and plant residues, and managing livestock to benefit the soil. Managing for soil health has implications regardless of land use; range, crop, pasture, hay and forest lands can all benefit.

Soil health must become part of the NRCS culture. Because soil is the foundation of conservation planning, we should consider soil health first. By focusing on soil health we can provide the best return on our nation’s conservation investment and on the farmer or rancher’s bottom line.

Goal 1: Get More Conservation on the Ground Resulting in Improved Soil Health
  1. Increase knowledge and adoption of soil health principles and practices by farmers, ranchers, forest landowners, and others.
    1. Create soil health demonstration projects as models for local producers to follow.
    2. Establish the Bridger Plant Materials Center as a Center of Sustainability in cooperation with the Montana-Wyoming PMC Board of Managers for long-term demonstrations of technologies that improve soil health.
    3. Create NRCS soil health website as the leading source of current online technical information for soil health.
    4. Provide outreach to agricultural groups, lenders, and others to convey the message of soil health e. Develop new training materials covering soil health and agro-ecosystem sustainability.
  2. Identify research needs.
    1. Meet with research partners to address NRCS needs related to soil health.
    2. Facilitate awareness of research funding opportunities such as Conservation Innovation Grants and Sustainable Agriculture Research Education grants.
    3. Review external decision support tools and aids for potential use by NRCS, such as the Soil Food Web.
  3. Provide an inventory of research related to soil health accessible on the Web.
Goal 2: Increase Organizational Effectiveness and Efficiencies to Promote Soil Health.
  1. Form and support a statewide Soil Health Team to conduct outreach and advise the state conservationist.
  2. Provide training to NRCS and conservation partner employees to promote and practice soil health as part of the conservation planning process.
    1. Establish eight area-level soil health professionals as our core training team.
    2. Use National Employee Development Center soil health training as the framework for training to be delivered, supplemented by webinars and other training sources.
    3. Provide a one-hour webinar for all NRCS and partner employees to ensure a base level of knowledge of soil health concepts.
    4. Conduct soil health training to provide NRCS employees with the skills to promote ecosystem-based conservation planning.
    5. Require training on soil health and agro-ecology principles as part of conservation planning certification.
  3. Develop strong partnerships with the Montana Association of Conservation Districts and Montana Department of Natural Resource Conservation to ensure statewide efforts cross agency lines.
    1. Organize and support a partnership outreach team.
    2. Reach out to agribusiness, agricultural lenders, and other organizations to educate them on the benefits of soil health concepts
    3. Ensure that all conservation districts have NRCS support in presenting soil health technical information at workshops and events.

NRCS in Montana is fully engaged in this Soil Health Strategy. Farmers, ranchers, forestland owners, and our employees have seen the important difference healthy, functioning soil can make in supporting our other water, air, plant, animal, and energy resources. We are committed to making soil health a priority for the producers of Montana.

Joyce Swartzendruber,
State Conservationist

If you encounter any problems with the following file, please contact Technical Resources at 406-587-6822.

The Montana Soil Health Strategy is available in Adobe Reader format.

The Montana NRCS Soil Health Strategy (PDF; 21 KB)