6 Principles of Soil Health


Think about implementation over the long-term. Not all at once.

Living Roots

Cover crops/living roots reduced nitrate loss to groundwater (https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1300/J064v29n03_06)


Intentionality is key. Envision what you would like your system to be and use the tools at your disposal to make it happen. This element of creation is one of the most fun parts about working with the land! For example, say a farmer is wanting to implement cover crops into their rotation for the first time. It’s vitally important that they think about their “resource concern” that the cover crop will be helping them with. Is their goal primarily to reduce erosion? Increase organic matter? Provide nutrition for the next crop? And on what time scale? Think about the timing of lime applications. While benefits for lime may occur within the first few months, lime typically takes two to three years to react completely in the soil.1 A farmer would be sorely disappointed with their decision if they took the pH of their soil a month after liming. However, most farmers know this is not the correct time scale. Paying for lime is an investment that won’t pay off for years. The same holds true for implementing regenerative practices like cover cropping. Benefits stack on top of each other over time, such as a decreased or eliminated need for applying acidifying N fertilizer, which may render the purchase of lime unnecessary in the first place.  These things matter and they will help the farmer design a plan. Additionally, it helps the farmer gauge what a “successful” cover crop will do and look like.


I think it’s also helpful to think of implementing the 6 principles of soil health like we do with human health. If there were 6 broad principles to human health, what would they be? My list would look something like this:



2)Do Not Smoke

3)Eat a Healthy Diet

4)Exercise Regularly

5)Sleep the Appropriate Amount/Rest/Reduce Chronic Stress

6)Have as Many Deep Relationships as Possible


Imagine an angry, lonely smoker that eats terribly, never exercises and has a horrible sleep schedule. We know intuitively that our example is likely to be very unhealthy, based on the length of time they’ve lived this lifestyle. Now, imagine this person decides to include more fruits and vegetables in their diet. Hooray! This is a good thing! However, they still have no real friendships, smoke like chimney, sit down all day and average 2 hours of sleep a night. How sensible would it be for the person to give up eating fruits and vegetables after a week based on the fact that the person still feels horrible? Not sensible, in my opinion. I understand farming and ranching operations can have more variables, but a similar situation arises with something like cover cropping or no-till. A common story I hear is that “Well, we tried (insert regenerative practice here) and it didn’t work, so we quit. This proves (insert regenerative practice here) doesn’t pay off and doesn’t work in our area, so we will not be doing it anymore.”


The principles of human health are synergistic in that they build off of each other. Working out is great for you. Eating a good diet is great for you. BUT working out and eating a healthy diet is better for you than each of them individually! 1+1 =3. (-1) + (-1) = (-3) as well. The same goes for the principles of soil health. Each one individually is great for the soil, but the compounding effects of all of them is where the most progress, money and time savings are made.


1 https://www.canr.msu.edu/resources/facts_about_soil_acidity_and_lime_e1566