Healthy soil: Plan for the future

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The concept of “Soil Health” has received a lot of attention recently. This phrase shows up in magazines, it’s discussed at farmer meetings, research projects are designed to study it, and federal programs attempt to promote it. It’s one of those simple –yet-complicated topics.

Soil health

Soil is a mixture of living and non-living things – sand, silt, clay particles, organic matter, air, water, soluble nutrients, and organisms. The combined effects of these components five a soil its important characteristics – pH, nutrient content, erodibility, drainage class and sustainability for many various uses.

The five functions of soil are: Habitat for soil organisms, medium for plant growth, water supply and purification, recycling nutrients and organic wastes, and engineering medium, soil health refers to a soil’s capacity to carry out these functions.

Some factors that determine soil health are fixed or unchangeable soil features such as; topography, soil texture, and local climate. We, as land managers, have quite a bit of influence over soil health too.

Enhance soil health

Depending on our choices of tillage and planting methods, crop rotation sequences, manure applications and other amendments, we can enhance soil health or cause it to deteriorate over time.

The combination of management and fixed soil characteristics determines soil function and overall health.

Soil organic matter

On key soil component that contributes to several of the functions is soil organic matter (SOM). SOM consists of living and dead plant and animal tissues in various states of decomposition.

Organic matter contains energy and nutrients that support plant and soil organism growth and it contributes to a soil’s water and nutrient storage capacity. SOM is critical for maintaining soil structure. The amount of SOM in any soil is determined by the balance of organic material that is added, and how much is lost through respiration, over time.

Intensive tillage

Loss of SOM through respiration is normal and unavoidable, but it is dramatically accelerated with regular intensive tillage. No-till and reduced tillage implements were designed to reduce this respiration loss. Many fields that have a long history of frequent intensive tillage are in declining health and are losing function. They erode more easily; they do not hold water and nutrients as well, their surfaces become crusted, rain water runs off the surface and infiltrates less.

Future plans

Now is the time to start planning for the future for these fields, talk to your local Soil and Water Conservation District about incorporating soil health and building into your conservation plan.

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Ray Rummell retired the NRCS after 35 years of service with USDA. He is now working part time with Carroll SWCD as a Technician. Ray and his wife Rhonda live in Carroll County and are very active with the Carroll County Fair.

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