Soil Quality / Soil Health Management
How well we manage soil quality
or soil health in a large
part helps determine how well the soil does what we want it to do. Go
to Agronomy - Cropland,
Grazing Lands, Forest,
Urban, for more information by land use.
Use the following documents to help teach
basic management concepts to improve soil
Nitrogen Ratios in Cropping Systems (PDF, 199KB) - Understanding carbon to
nitrogen ratios (C:N) of crop residues and other material applied to the soil is
important to manage soil cover and crop nutrient cycling. Feeding soil
microorganisms, C:N effects on soil cover and nutrient cycling, and influence of
cover crops are discussed in this fact sheet.
Farming in the 21st Century: a practical approach to improve Soil Health
(PDF, 8MB) - Four practical approaches for improving soil health are presented
as a publication. The four practical approaches are: manage more by disturbing
soil less, diversify with crop diversity, grow living roots throughout the year,
and keep the soil covered as much as possible.
Farming in the 21st
Century: a practical approach to improve Soil Health Fact Sheet (PDF, 4MB) -
practical approaches for improving soil health are presented as a fact sheet.
Six components of soil quality / soil health management:
Choosing specific practices within each component depends on the situation
since different types of soil respond differently to the same practice. Each
combination of soil type and land use calls for a different set of practices to
enhance soil quality.
- Enhance organic matter:
Whether your soil is naturally high or low in organic matter, adding new
organic matter every year is perhaps the most important way to improve and
maintain soil quality. Regular additions of organic matter improve soil
structure, enhance water and nutrient holding capacity, protect soil from
erosion and compaction, and support a healthy community of soil organisms.
Practices that increase organic matter include: leaving crop residues in the
field, choosing crop rotations that include high residue plants, using optimal
nutrient and water management practices to grow healthy plants with large
amounts of roots and residue, growing cover crops, applying manure or compost,
using low or no tillage systems, and mulching.
- Avoid excessive tillage:
Reducing tillage minimizes the loss of organic matter and protects the soil
surface with plant residue. Tillage is used to loosen surface soil, prepare
the seedbed, and control weeds and pests. But tillage can also break up soil
structure, speed the decomposition and loss of organic matter, increase the
threat of erosion, destroy the habitat of helpful organisms, and cause
compaction. New equipment allows crop production with minimal disturbance of
the soil. For more information about conservation tillage, visit the
- Manage pests and nutrients efficiently:
An important function of soil is to buffer and detoxify chemicals, but soil's
capacity for detoxification is limited. Pesticides and chemical fertilizers
have valuable benefits, but they also can harm non-target organisms and
pollute water and air if they are mismanaged. Nutrients from organic sources
also can pollute when misapplied or over-applied. Efficient pest and nutrient
management means testing and monitoring soil and pests; applying only the
necessary chemicals, at the right time and place to get the job done; and
taking advantage of non-chemical approaches to pest and nutrient management
such as crop rotations, cover crops, and manure management.
- Prevent soil compaction:
Compaction reduces the amount of air, water, and space available to roots and
soil organisms. Compaction is caused by repeated traffic, heavy traffic, or
traveling on wet soil. Deep compaction by heavy equipment is difficult or
impossible to remedy, so prevention is essential.
- Keep the ground covered: Bare
soil is susceptible to wind and water erosion, and to drying and crusting.
Ground cover protects soil, provides habitats for larger soil organisms, such
as insects and earthworms, and can improve water availability. Ground can be
covered by leaving crop residue on the surface or by planting cover crops. In
addition to ground cover, living cover crops provide additional organic
matter, and continuous cover and food for soil organisms. Ground cover must be
managed to prevent problems with delayed soil warming in spring, diseases, and
excessive build-up of phosphorus at the surface.
- Diversify cropping systems:
Diversity is beneficial for several reasons. Each plant contributes a unique
root structure and type of residue to the soil. A diversity of soil organisms
can help control pest populations, and a diversity of cultural practices can
reduce weed and disease pressures. Diversity across the landscape can be
increased by using buffer strips, small fields, or contour strip cropping.
Diversity over time can be increased by using long crop rotations. Changing
vegetation across the landscape or over time not only increases plant
diversity, but also the types of insects, microorganisms, and wildlife that
live on your farm.