Most of us don’t spend much time (or any time) thinking about the ground under our feet. But soil is one of a landowner’s most valuable assets and one most of us take for granted. Our soils are pretty busy growing food for people and animals, producing lumber for our homes, storing water for us to drink, serving as a base for buildings and roads, and more! The many ways we use our soils impact their health and long-term productivity.
What is healthy soil? Looking at your soil can tell you quite a bit, whether you are growing corn and soybeans on 500 acres, an apple orchard, a dozen tomato plants for homemade spaghetti sauce, or landscaping plants to beautify your surroundings.
• Soil should be darker in color, soft and crumbly, like chocolate cake. That means the soil has plenty of space between soil particles for the air and water that plants need.
• Soil should be covered with residue on the surface. The residue breaks down into organic matter. The carbon in organic matter is the main source of energy for soil microbes and is also the key for making nutrients available to plants.
• Soil should be covered with growing plants. A vegetative cover on the soil offers food and shelter to beneficial macroorganisms (visible to the unaided eye) and microorganisms (too small to see with the naked eye).
• Soil should have a sweet, earthy aroma. Microbes in the soil decompose plant and animal residues in and on the soil, generating this scent called geosmin.
What can you do to keep your soil healthy? Avoid tilling the soil. Tillage destroys the soil’s structure, which is the habitat for millions of species and billions of organisms on and in the soil, many of which you can’t even see. There are more soil microorganisms in a teaspoon of soil than there are people on earth! Tillage mixes up the soil and destroys the pore spaces in the soil that allow movement of air, water and roots. Eliminating tillage leaves the previous year’s crop residue on the surface to protect topsoil from wind and water erosion.
Grow a cover crop. Even better, leave residue and grow a cover crop so your soil is covered all year long and protected from the impact of rain drops. According to the Conservation Cropping Systems Initiative, rain drops can hit the ground as fast as 20 miles per hour. This can dislodge soil particles three to five feet, causing valuable topsoil to wash away. This one-two punch of leaving residue and growing a cover crop suppresses weeds, the bane of every farmer and gardener, giving desirable plants an early advantage.
Crop rotation is another simple way to care for your soil. It breaks up weed, insect, and disease cycles, saving you time and money. More plant diversity above ground creates more root diversity below ground, enhancing the environment for all those soil creatures. Growing the same crop in the same place for several years depletes the soil of certain nutrients, resulting in lower productivity.
Lastly, practice the 4Rs of nutrient stewardship. Apply fertilizers by the right source for your plants, at the right time when your crop needs them, at the right rate for your plants’ needs, and in the right place for easy crop uptake.
Implementing conservation measures to improve soil health can increase yields and reduce labor and input costs. But did you know that your efforts to help your soil also advances water quality? Healthy soil absorbs rainwater and snowmelt, keeping nutrients in place, holding water for plants to use, and replenishing groundwater.