We all know the saying “no foot, no horse,” an adage that rings true in a multitude of contexts. Simply put, a strong foundation is key to success. As we inch closer to the cooler months, it is time to start looking at the foundation of our pastures: the soil. To maximize the benefits that next spring will bestow on our fields, it is wise to prepare the soil this fall. Now, soil science can get very complicated, so to de-mystify our dirt, let us take a closer look at the major components of soil health.

One of the most attractive facets of the Piedmont region is the varying terrain that we encounter. As appealing as this rich variety of topography is, it can prove to be a challenge when establishing pasture. The needs of the soil along the Blue Ridge will be very different than the requirements of our lovely red clay. It is first important to identify what species of grasses you would like to foster (more on that next month), then have a soil analysis performed to better guide you in building your nutrient profile.

Drainage is paramount in maintaining a healthy soil bed. Aeration, routine dragging, and runoff management will all help to mitigate the likelihood of standing water on your fields (unless you are looking to grow rice). Being that our region is in the heart of the Chesapeake Bay watershed, runoff is a major consideration when identifying the types of fertilizers to apply to your land. We are blessed to have some very talented agronomists in our area, and I would recommend seeking their guidance. Next on the list of important considerations is the acidity or pH of the soil. Included with the results of soil analysis are recommendations for soil conditioners, most notably lime, nitrogen, phosphate (phosphorous), and potash (potassium). These recommendations are interpreted in pounds per acre. Many of the grasses that we cultivate in Virginia do very well in more alkaline (higher pH) dirt. The application of lime is very effective in raising the pH of acidic soil. There are two major types of lime; calcitic and dolomite. The key difference lies in the need for magnesium. Both types of lime are composed of crushed limestone, however dolomite lime contains magnesium, whereas calcitic lime is strictly calcium carbonate. Soils that contain a large percentage of clay usually benefit from calcitic lime, as clay tends to retain magnesium. As far as the other nutrients are concerned, there is a very wide spectrum of commercially available fertilizer mixes. Everything from the chicken litter (technically called “poop”), to fish meal, to processed bio-solids (technically called “human poop”), can be applied to achieve your desired results. Once again, the guidance of an agronomist will simplify this selection process.

I hope that this has given my readers a little mental jolt to start thinking about maintaining the health of a commonly overlooked natural commodity. Allow the results of your soil analysis to be your guide, and remember that there is no such thing as a stupid question. The professionals are here to help…. just make sure that they have a little dirt under their fingernails. Thank you for reading!

See you in the field.