All About Sustainable Farming Systems with Dave Huggins – Part 1

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Episode Transcription:

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Drew Lyon: Hello, and welcome to the WSU Wheat Beat podcast. I’m your host, Drew Lyon, and I want to thank you for joining me as we explore the world of small grains production and research at Washington State University. We have weekly discussions with researchers from WSU and the USDA-ARS to provide you with insights into the latest research on wheat and barley production.

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Drew Lyon: My guest today is Dave Huggins. Dave is a USDA-ARS soil scientist with the Northwest Sustainable Agroecosystems Research Unit in Pullman, Washington. Dr. Huggins conducts research in sustainable farming systems including soil health and issues such as soil organic matter, soil acidification, soil fertility, and nutrient use efficiency. Hello, Dave.

Dave Huggins: Yeah, good morning, Drew.

Drew Lyon: So, the big buzzword these days is soil health. What is soil health?

Dave Huggins: Well, that’s a good question, Drew, and you’ll definitely find different answers to that question depending on where you look. But kind of a definition I like is just the soil’s capacity to function as a vital living system, provide various kinds of goods and services that sustain life on the planet.

Drew Lyon: Okay. So, what are some of the important functions that are related to soil health?

Dave Huggins: Yeah, if you look at functions, you have to first understand that soils are pretty unique, and so different soils have different capacities to provide different kinds of goods and services. So, it always has to be in some sort of context from the standpoint of your discussion of soils. For instance, a soil that is in the irrigated Columbia basin is going to be very different than a Palouse-type of soil under our dryland systems. And consequently, the kinds of functions that you might expect from those soils are different.

Drew Lyon: Okay. So how would you go about measuring soil? I’ve seen various people advertising services for measuring soil health, but I imagine everybody probably has a different test. What do you see as the important parameters to test, and what can we actually test for these days, related to soil health?

Dave Huggins: Yeah, it kind of comes back to that question of what kinds of issues you might be trying to look at from the standpoint of how your soil is functioning. I tend to be more diagnostic from that perspective. But going back to, you know, the whole concept of soil health, some people make the analogy with human health. That we have a set of measurements that we can take, then having taken those, we can say, “Oh, this person is a healthy person.” Well, that analogy starts to fall apart a little bit with soils, because there’s so many different kinds of soil. So, for example, if you took all those metrics that you just used to assess a healthy person and applied it to a lizard or a butterfly or an earthworm, you know, obviously, those wouldn’t be the kinds of measurement that you would want to take in order to assess their health. And soils are kind of the same way, from that perspective. So, worldwide, from the standpoint of soil health in general, there’s kind of a quiet crisis going on right now. And, you know, from that standpoint, we’re concerned throughout the world with some of the degradation processes. And part of this just is, you know, a result of our human population putting pressure on the resource itself, in terms of our capabilities of, and desire to produce more food. But, our soils are expected to, you know, be able to respond. And really, you know, from that perspective, the — kind of the health of the planet and the fate of our civilization kind of rests with what happens to the soil itself. So, getting back to more specifics, in terms of measurements. What’s different with soil health, is that in the past, we’ve tried to assess soil chemical and soil physical properties. And we’ve looked at — we’ve understood that soil biology is also important. But there hasn’t really been that many tests that we’ve applied that have been more soil biological in nature. So, part of the whole effort behind soil health is to be more holistic from the standpoint of trying to introduce not just our traditional, physical, and chemical tests, but to add some of these soil biological tests to the suite of different kinds of measurements that we have, in order to assess soil health. And, you know, I mentioned that I’d like to be more diagnostic in terms of trying to assess things. If you look, for example, at our Palouse soil circumstances, there, some of the issues that we’re trying to look at from the standpoint of soil health are, well, are we actually providing a really good environment for healthy root systems for our crops? And that would come back to, you know, in our case, one, we’d like to store lots of water. So, water storage capacity is important to us. And, you know, if you ask a grower what might be their most important soil property in the Palouse, it’d be well, having about six feet of it is really important. Because, you know, you understand that your productive capacity is going to be based on how much water you could store. And having a deeper soil is going to allow the root systems to explore that. You know, going further than that, you know, if water’s going to get into that soil, then we have to have certain soil properties that enhance some of the infiltration properties. So, you know, from that standpoint, having really good, organic matter near the surface might be a diagnostic-type of test that you might want to go forward with to see well, have we got good organic matter and good soil aggregation. In other words, how the soil particles are bound together, that really do help water to infiltrate into the soil itself and start to, you know, fill some of the water-holding capacity that may be there. And, you can also think about some of the issues that we’re faced with, here in the Palouse anyway, that might be symptomatic that that’s not happening. One is just water runoff, right? So, that is something that’s associated with soil erosion processes, etc., that would be symptomatic that our soils aren’t healthy. You know, from the standpoint of getting water into the soil itself. And over time, of course, soil erosion results in less soil depth. So, you know, from that perspective, we’re also impairing some of our capabilities in the long-term to store water. Other issues that we’re kind of trying to look at here in the Palouse, would be organic matter. Depletion over time. Some of our tillage and cropping systems tend to result in organic matter declining over time, and that’s something that we’d like to try to increase as much as we can. Recognizing that organic matter’s kind of the heart of the soil, in a way, from the standpoint of providing a lot of food. Not only for the microorganisms and the other biology that inhabits the soil, but also really important from the standpoint of providing nutrients and water-holding capacity for our crops as well. So, from that standpoint, organic matter’s kind of one of those key variables in terms of the measurements that we like to assess soil health. It’s kind of a real, you know, master variable because it impacts so many things. Both physically, chemically, and biologically. And another issue that we’re kind of faced with here, is just soil acidification. And so, you could think from a diagnostics standpoint that it would be nice to be able to go in and recognize what kind of soil pH or base saturation that we have, also, we might be looking out for toxicities, particularly from aluminum or manganese. So those are important kinds of factors that we might go in and measure, if we think acidification is an issue and be more diagnostic about it. So, those are some kind of standard tests. Some of the more recent biological tests include the Salvida test. This is a test looking at a 24-hour burst of carbon dioxide from our soil. And what this tries to measure is some of our soil biological activity. And so, the idea here is that — and the way that the test is actually run — is that you dry down the soil, and this kind of desiccates a lot of the critters that are living in the soil itself. And consequently, you have a lot of dead bodies around. Subsequent to drying out the soil, then the soil’s rewetted, and all of a sudden, this again, provides a lot of the kinds of environment that’s required for the biology that’s remaining to respond quite rapidly. And of course, the biology of respires and they respire CO2 just like we do. So, from that standpoint then, do you measure the amount of C02 that occurs during a 24-hour period? And this is called the “CO2 burst”. You know, so, from that standpoint, this is then related to how much microbial activity is in the soil. And so, this is one of the biological measures that we’re trying to look at right now from the standpoint of how useful those kinds of measurements are in terms of diagnosing what’s going on with our soil, and if there’s something that we could do from a management perspective, to actually improve things. What we are finding with a lot of the biological kinds of measures, is that they tend to be quite variable. And this is understandable, because the biology in your soil is responding to various kinds of environmental drivers. You know, important things like precipitation and temperature and the environment itself, from the standpoint of the soil, really shape the kinds of activity that these organisms have. So consequently, during the course of the season or the year, you can have quite a bit of variability in some of these kinds of measures, depending on what kinds of conditions you’ve had.

Drew Lyon: Thanks, Dave. Well, we can certainly see that soil health is a complex topic. For our listeners, please check in next week for Part 2 of my interview with Dave Huggins, where we will be continuing our discussion on soil health.

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Drew Lyon: Thanks for listening to the WSU Wheat Beat podcast. If you have questions for us, that you’d like to hear addressed on future episodes, please email me at You can find us online at You can also find us on social media on Facebook and Twitter @WSUSmallGrains. Subscribe to this show through iTunes or your favorite podcasting app. The WSU Wheat Beat podcast is a production of CAHNRS Communications in the College of Agricultural Human and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University. I’m Drew Lyon; we’ll see you next week.

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