Soil health can play a big role in the success of any crop. From how much water and nutrients your soil is able to hold, to earthworm populations and soil organic matter, there are a number of considerations when it comes to how healthy your soils are. You have to work with what you’ve got, but if you only make a crop this year and then do what it takes to make the next one, you may run out of productive soils to keep that cycle going.
Five Ways to Achieve Healthy Soil:
1. Continual living root
Depending on what you keep in the ground, having a living root in the soil can do two things:
Provide a constant food source to soil microbes
Release nutrients into the soil
By releasing nutrient compounds (which can include valuable acids, proteins, sugars, etc.) into the soil, a living root can fix carbon and increase the availability of some micronutrients. Living roots can also improve the overall structure of soil aggregates, or the groups of soil particles that bind together well, and help to create space for water retention.
2. Minimal soil disturbance
No till and minimum tillage systems allow farmers to conserve soil moisture and decrease soil erosion in their fields, all while cutting the labor, equipment and fuel costs associated with tillage operations. Minimizing soil disturbance can also help to keep carbon in the soil, instead of gassing off or washing away.
3. Soil armor
Soil armor (or soil cover) is an excellent method for improving soil health. This soil cover provides many benefits, including:
Reduced moisture evaporation
More moderate soil temperatures
Reduced compaction due to rainfall
4. Livestock integration
Animals can play an important part in the overall health of the agricultural ecosystem. When livestock are used to enhance soil health, balance is they key:
Through fall and winter grazing, they convert high carbon annual crop residue to low carbon organic material.
If they’re in the field and off the feedlot, we reduce transport or feed and waste by allowing them to recycle nutrients and carbon, all in the same location.
Grazing helps manage weeds pressure and possibly decrease herbicide usage. (Be sure to manage possible challenges associated with animal confinement, such as runoff.)
5. Plant diversity
Before modern agriculture, much of the Corn Belt and prairies were populated with native plants that utilized and introduced resources in a variety of ways—high water users, low water users, tap root, fibrous root, high carbon crops, low carbon crops, legumes, and non-legumes - which helped to enhance the biodiversity of the soil. With an annual cropping system, the soil is only inhabited by one variety at a time. By developing a diverse crop rotation, we can improve the soil nutrient cycle as well as water infiltration.
Many progressive farmers are thinking about what it will take to protect and enhance their soils for next year, and the future beyond, so that they can continue to farm for generations.
Read this next: Put Carbon to Work in Your Soil (3 min read)