Community Ag Alliance: Soil Health 101
August 27, 2015
Have you ever thought of soil as a living ecosystem, composed of billions of tiny organisms working to support plants, animals and humans? Healthy soil is the foundation that sustains plentiful croplands and healthy forests, filters pollutants from air and water, maintains productive grazing lands for livestock and wildlife and helps control surface water flows. When we view soil in this way, rather than as an inert growing medium, we are able to recognize the importance of managing this ecosystem so it remains intact for future generations.
Humans have the ability to change soil for better or worse, depending on how it is managed and protected. These management decisions can impact key functions provided by the soil, including, nutrient cycling, water relations, biodiversity and physical stability and support. Whether you farm or ranch hundreds of acres of land or compost in your backyard garden, the indicators of soil health remain the same. The ability to recognize these indicators and adapt management practices to improve soil health could save your operation time and money.
Two ways to improve the biological and physical integrity of soil are to increase the diversity of plants and keep live roots in the soil year round through the use of cover crops. Plant a variety of species, including legumes, that naturally fix nitrogen in the soil and increase plant-available, organic nitrogen and other nutrients. High plant diversity and cover will also decrease disease and pest problems, decrease susceptibility to drought, suppress weed growth and boost the microbial activity responsible for cycling water and other nutrients.
Limit disturbances to the soil surface and upper horizons as much as possible. Disturbances can include physical practices, such as tillage, overgrazing to a point of root mass reduction and misapplication of chemicals, such as fungicides or fertilizers. High disturbance practices diminish habitat for soil microbes and increase bare ground and compaction, making land vulnerable to wind and water erosion. No-till farming technology, implementation of grazing management plans and management of pests and nutrients with proper timing and mitigation techniques allows for crop and grass production with minimal disturbance of the soil.
Finally, annual soil tests will reveal the current state of your soils and indicate whether they are in balance. Tests also provide nutrient recommendations and evidence of salt-build up, helping determine whether management techniques are improving, degrading or maintaining soil health.
Managing for soil health, or anything related to land management and conservation, is a lengthy process and an investment. As global populations and food production demands rise, millions of acres of prime farmland in the U.S. are being lost to development. Improving the health and productivity of this living ecosystem is of vital importance.
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Franklin D. Roosevelt's statement, "The nation that destroys its soil, destroys itself," is as true today as it was 75 years ago amidst the severe drought and dust bowl epidemic of the 1930s.
Christine Shook is a conservationist for Natural Resources Conservation Office. For more information and ideas on managing for soil health, contact your local Natural Resources Conservation Office located at 1475 Pine Grove Road, Suite 201A.