• Kevin Pifer

Healthy soil requires farmers to work with the land, not against it.

Soil Health and Soil Productivity

If you want to keep productivity and food quality high on a farm, you have to start with healthy soil.

• Healthy soil, which is the foundation of our food system, requires farmers to work with the land, not against it.

• Just like us, healthy, productive soil needs the right amounts of water, nutrients and oxygen.

• In order to ensure this, the soil should be taken care of in such a way as to reduce erosion and maximize water and air infiltration.

• Healthy soil then goes on to nourish people and animals, and this, in turn, helps the environment because sustainable land practices offset carbon emissions.

How do you get and maintain healthy soil when farming? The following four recommendations are the best ways you can take care of your soil, and they’re all interrelated.

· Less disturbance: When soil is continually exploited for crop production without restoring organic matter and nutrient contents, soil fertility declines and the balance in the soil’s ecosystem is damaged.

Healthy soil is a living, dynamic ecosystem, full of beneficial organisms that perform many important functions, including: converting dead and decaying matter as well as minerals to nutrients; reducing plant diseases; reducing pests and weeds; improving soil structure, and ultimately improving crop production.

• One way to avoid over-working the soil is to employ no-till farming practices. Tilling aerates the soil, which can be beneficial, but at a steep price: it tears up helpful organisms and heavily compacts the ground below the till depth. Over time, the soil becomes depleted of the nutrients and structure it needs to produce crops.

• Another way to minimize disturbance is to allow the land to lay fallow for a season. To do this, you avoid tilling a section of farmland, thereby allowing it to rest and rejuvenate.

More plant diversity/crop rotation: The more diverse your crops, the more opportunities you have to rotate them, which greatly helps with soil health.

When a plot of land exclusively grows corn (which needs a lot of nitrogen) over and over again, the soil becomes depleted of nutrients. This forces farmers to add more inputs like nitrogen-rich fertilizer to try to compensate for poor soil health.

When a plot of land grows numerous things or even just one more, soil health can greatly improve. Soybeans, for example, fix nitrogen in the soil. So, if that same plot of land that only grew corn grew soy the one season, the soil would be healthier and the corn would produce better.

Cover crops: Planting cover crops allows farmers to manage soil erosion, improve soil fertility, help with water irrigation, manage weeds, control pests, avoid diseases, and increase biodiversity and wildlife in an agroecosystem.

Some examples of cover crops are: ryegrass, clover, vetch, barley, and oats. (Basically, most of your cereals!)

During seasons in which the land is not being used, such as winter, cover crops will replenish the soil for the next growing season.

Cover crops can also be planted alongside other crops as companion crops. This helps to keep weeds down, among other things, which allows farmers to use fewer synthetic inputs.

Organic matter: Another way to establish and maintain healthy soil (both those that are high in clay and high in sand) is by adding organic matter to it. This can be done through the use of cover crops, but organic matter can also be added to the soil.

One of the most common soil amendments is manure. High in nitrogen and nutrients, raw manure can be tilled into the soil and allowed to sit until it has composted. Crops can then feed off the nutrients and microorganisms the manure provides.

Other forms of organic matter include: compost, peat moss, worm castings, mushroom compost, and many, many more. Because of the expense, some of these are not suitable for large-scale operations, which may need to rely on synthetic fertilizers during some of the year.

Mulching: Mulching involves applying residual plant matter or other suitable materials to the soil’s surface to compensate for the loss of living plants due to tilling.

Some examples of mulch are straw, wood chips, pine straw, grass clippings, and leaves.

Mulch can be laid down right along crops and left to decompose, so all you have to do is reapply it when it gets sparse.

Like many of the other methods listed here, mulching reduces erosion, maintains soil moisture, and increases organic matter in the soil. It also greatly reduces weeds.

Rotational grazing: This is another form of allowing ground to lay fallow, but instead of crops, this is for farms that specialize primarily in livestock

To accomplish rotational grazing, pastureland is divided into smaller plots referred to as paddocks, and livestock are moved from one paddock to another.

• The livestock graze on one piece of land at a time, allowing it to receive nutrients from the animal’s manure (see how all of these things are related?) while the animals receive the nutrition from the pasture.

• Then, to ensure that the land is not overgrazed, the animals are moved and, as a result, the land can rejuvenate and the animals can forage for fresh food.

Like the previous methods, rotational grazing is a more sustainable method of raising of livestock. And the more sustainable the method is for the farm, the more sustainable it is for the earth. When practiced, it’s remarkable to watch how these renewable, productive cycles benefit farms on every level: the farmers, the soil, the crops, the animals, water quality, air quality, and the environment overall.