Improving Soil Health on Your Farm

Richard Halopka, CCA

Clark County UW-Extension Crops & Soils Agent

Many articles have covered presentations on how farmers have improved soil health on their farm. The speaker provides the results of many management changes on their farm, but very little is mentioned as, where did they started? So, how can a farmer improve soil health?

First and foremost forget buying a product or a piece of equipment. Neither of these will improve soil health. Improving soil health begins with an attitude and a management change from the farmer.

Soil health is a buzz word today, but really it has been around for many years and the new name has rekindled an interest with farmers. So what are the key management components these farmers implemented to improve soil health on their farm? Here is a list of the mentioned management changes.

  1. Diversity; farmers reviewed their operation and diversified their operation from 1 to 2 crops to multiple crops and most added a perennial crop with livestock.
  2. Reduce tillage; all have decreased tillage activity, some became no-tillers. Understand to improve soil health you must increase stored carbon in the soil profile. Each tillage pass releases stored carbon and no-till is tillage; however it disturbs a very small area in a field compared to multiple tillage passes per season.
  3. Live roots; to improve soil health you must have live roots in the soil for a greater part of the growing season. Live roots feed the soil microbiology (soil critters) and improved living conditions benefits your soil critters. Cover crops will contribute to this concept along with perennial crops. Live roots in the ground share some sugars to feed your soil critters.
  4. Residue on the surface; residue on the soil surface will feed your large soil critters. Residues will feed worms and improve soil structure as they till your soil and digest residue. Worms thrive when residue and live roots are present. Residue will also protect the soil surface from rain splash impacts and extreme temperature changes from cool mornings to very warm afternoons. Why is this important? Remember your worms and the conditions they work best. Moderate temperatures in the soil profile will increase their activity.
  5. Long term investment; this will be long term process. It is hard to set a timeline, but each year you implement these management practices you will see an improvement in soil health.
  6. Feed your crops; improving soil health will require some investment. If pH is low, lime will be required as soil critters prefer a neutral soil. Plants require 17 essential nutrients to grow, improving soil health doesn’t make nutrients magically present, and you may have to add some nutrients (fertilizer) required for your crop.

Soils are alive, dynamic, resilient, and in some state of flux (never in balance). So what are some noticeable results when soil health improves on your farm?

  1. Reduced soil erosion. With improved soil health, your management will reduce potential soil loss from wind and water erosion. The farm leaves residues on the surface and/or a live crop growing in the field for a greater period of time during the growing season. Stabilizing both, the soil surface and sub-surface.
  2. It will take years, but as stored carbon level increases in the soil profile, the physical, chemical, and biological components of your soil will improve.
    1. The physical component is comprised of four areas. Texture is the relative amount of clay, sand, and silt present in a soil. Soil health has little influence on soil texture. Structure is the general appearance of the soil related to shape, size, and pore space. Soil health will improve your soil structure and stability. Bulk density is the weight for a known volume of soil; as weight per volume decreases soil health has improved. Color is related to parent material and organic matter (OM) present. With improved health OM will increase.
    2. The chemical component is pH and plant available nutrients in the soil. This chemical component is determined from a soil test. Improving soil health will allow a greater number of cations to be present in a soil volume.
    3. The biological component is the interaction between the living, the dead, and the very dead in soil. A teaspoon of soil has more life (living critters present) than the human population of the world. Soil critters require decaying residues (including other dead critters) and live roots to survive. Providing food and shelter will allow the biological component of soil to multiple and flourish. If you build a house for the soil critters they will come and flourish.

First and foremost remember there are no silver bullets to improve soil health. Purchasing a product or piece of equipment will not cure years of soil abuse. The farmer must be comfortable making management changes or there will be very little improvement in your soil.

Soil health is a combination of good structure, availability of essential nutrients, and a diverse group of living critters. Currently there is no system in place to measure soil health, although a soil test can measure organic matter (OM), pH, and the present level of plant available nutrients. Improving soil health increases the nutrient holding capacity of your soil and with adequate environment during the growing season may increase yields.

Improving soil health is a journey on your farm, not a destination and will require the due diligence from you the farmer for a number of years. The goal is to leave the farm (soil) in better condition than the day you began farming.

If you have questions on improving soil health or crop production please contact or 715-743-5121.

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