Today we read articles and hear talks about the importance of soil health and learning to pay more attention to it, and adopting practices that improve and sustain it.
Soil health is a term appearing in many articles, presentations and product advertisements. The NRCS defines the term as “… the capacity of a soil to function as a vital living ecosystem that sustains plants, animals, and humans.” That definition is predicated on a strategy using four “core” principles: providing continuous living roots, minimizing soil disturbance, maximizing biodiversity and maximizing soil cover. Minimizing soil disturbance and maximizing soil cover are principles that have been emphasized for quite a long time. That means reducing tillage and adopting cover crops.
The renewed focus, however, is bringing an awareness of the importance of what takes place in our soils “below ground”, particularly the importance of the soil food web. Indicators of soil health such as organic matter, aggregate stability, water infiltration, nutrient cycling and erosion are impacted by microbial activities. Harnessing the benefits of the soil food web activity also depends on providing continuous living roots and promoting biodiversity in our cropping systems. These latter two strategies are aided by the many different ways that farmers are currently using cover crops.
As with any new terminology, there seems to be an urge to get in on the latest “bandwagon.” The term “soil health” or “healthy soil” has a nice ring to it at a time when modern farming practices are being increasingly scrutinized by the general public. The challenge will be to think through how to best implement these strategies in a way that achieves profitable results.
Brett Roberts is a State Conservation Agronomist for the United States Department of Agriculture.