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The Power of Living Roots

Updated May 18, 2022
Professional headshot of Anthony Bly

Anthony Bly

SDSU Extension Soils Field Specialist

A clump of healthy soil.
Figure 1. A clump of soil dug with a shovel showing soil aggregates forming along and clinging to plant roots.

There is no question that living roots build soil! Roots provide structure for the soil to hang on to when destructive forces of wind and water occur.

Accomplishing this process occurs through the “great exchange” of nutrients and water from the soil in exchange for carbon (carbohydrates) from the plant.

The soil microbiology plays a big role in this exchange! Without living roots in the soil, the microbiology slows in existence. The increases in soil microbiology in the soil because of the living roots is directly responsible for healthy soil structure creation (Figure 1).

Building Healthy Soil Structure

Cornfield with visible salt buildup on soil surface.
Figure 2. A Field planted to corn that is about 6-leaf stage with stunted growth due to salts accumulated in the soil. The surface of the soil appears white from the salts.

Superior soil structure promotes water and air exchange into and out of the soil. Superior structure also gives the soil greater ability to support more weight from tractors or animals.

This question will explain it perfectly. After a 2-inch rain, would you rather cross a grass pasture or a tilled field in your truck?

Besides building healthy soil, living roots are the tool to fix marginal lands. Salt-affected soils are an example of a hard-to-fix marginal land situation in South Dakota (Figure 2).

There are annual and perennial plants that can tolerate more soil salts (below).

Plant Species Tolerant to Salty Soil Conditions

Perennial Species

  • AC Saltlander Green wheatgrass
  • Garrison Creeping Foxtail
  • Alfalfa-Salinity Max
  • Yellow Blossom Sweet Clover
  • Intermediate wheatgrass
  • Tall wheatgrass
  • Slender wheatgrass
  • Switchgrass
  • Common Milkweed
  • Altai and Russian Wildrye

Annual Species

  • Barley
  • Sugarbeet
  • Wheat
  • Rye
  • Tritical
  • Durum Wheat

Restoring Salty-Soil Areas

Getting plants established in the salty soil areas are key to fixing the problem. The living roots help lower the water table, which then allows more infiltrating water to move the salts back down in the soil profile, resulting in other less-tolerant plant species to grow. Thus, returning productivity to the salt-affected area. The big question is, could annual crop production be restored to these areas? Maybe. However, if precipitation remains high or above normal, the salts will come back to the soil surface, starting this process over. Side by side, examples of how living roots and plant species tolerant soil salts can greatly improve the productivity of salty soil by comparing Figure 3 and Figure 4. These fields are directly adjacent to each other and only separated by a fence and differing land management.

Bare field with visible salt buildup on soil surface.
Figure 3. Land management not addressing salt affect soil. Soil surface is bare, and white salts are covering soil surface.
Salt-impacted field recovering, with active plant life growing throughout.
Figure 4. Similar view as Figure 3, except the soil is covered and growing plant species that are tolerant to soil salts. Producer has baled forage from the salt affect soil area.

Every Acre Counts

aerial view of the James River Valley

The Every Acre Counts program seeks to help producers with solutions to profitable management of marginal lands. Please contact Anthony Bly 605-782-3290 or Matt Diersen 605-688-4864 to see how Every Acre Counts can help you better manage your marginal lands, or follow the link below to learn more.

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