Dirt is Dirt… but Soil is Something Else

We have already talked a little about stocking rate and that is something that is easy for anyone to understand because you can see the number of horses and what they are doing to your property. A slightly more difficult concept for many horse people ( because it is out of sight under our feet and the grass we hope to have on our fields) is that the type of soil that makes up your property has a big impact on what you can do with it and what will grow well there.

WHAT? Dirt is dirt, right? Well… dirt is basically what you take home on your boots and jeans at the end of the day… the runaway that has left its home and family. Soil is something different. Soil is a living thing that is made up of air, water, minerals and organic matter in differing degrees depending on its type.  This video is part 2 of a good series that explains the basics.


When I had a farm in the Sierra Foothills the local joke was the farms there had either “dirty rock” or “rocky dirt”. The elements that made the area such great mining country tended to make it difficult to farm overall.  This combined with California’s Mediterranean, somewhat arid climate also required that the soil be capable of utilizing periodic irrigation. Luckily this is available by the “miners inch” in most of the foothill counties.

This method of measuring flow probably came from Europe and arrived in the U.S. during the California Gold Rush years. The measurement can vary but is generally defined as the rate of water flow in a miner’s sluice through an orifice one inch square, or one-inch in diameter, through a two-inch thick plank with a head of six inches. This single orifice was limited to low flows in the range of 1.5 cubic feet per minute (11.25 gallons per minute).*

Having  access to this irrigation source and  being able to locate pockets of very fertile soils made it possible to create successful pastures. And because I was married to an extension agent at the time, who knew enough to test the soil before we bought the acreage ( was going to say bought the farm there but thought better of it…), we found ourselves with 11 very fertile acres with access to irrigation water, well suited to the grazing activity we intended for it

To really understand what type of pasture and therefore the ultimate carrying capacity of your property there are a few really great online tools available. This article discusses how you can use some of them.


The  Web Soil Survey (WSS) provided by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) mentioned in this article is a great tool that is easy to use. Next week I’ll walk you through the steps by using the Agricultural History Farm Park where I work as a test farm.

* thanks to LeRoy W. Hooten, Jr for this definition. http://www.slcdocs.com/utilities/NewsEvents/news2009/news8292009.htm

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Shelly Ingram

I am a third generation horsewoman; My father operated a 50 horse boarding and training facility in northern California, where he specialized in re-training spoiled horses. I was his demonstration rider and general assistant in all aspects of running the ranch. I went on to work for several major show and race horse trainers, eventually opening my own barn where I focused on Junior and Amateur riders. I have trained numerous champion horses and riders on all levels and in variety of disciplines. I have also worked as a journalist and have more than a decade of experience in land use planning.

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