Soil Health is the continued capacity of the soil to function as a vital living ecosystem that sustains plants, animals, and humans. This includes nutrient cycling, water infiltration and availability, filtering, physical stability, and habitat.
Why is this important to us?
As the world’s population grows, estimated to be 9.1 billion by 2050, food production will need to rise by 70%. Between 1982 and 2007, 14 million acres of prime farmland in the U.S. were lost to development. In the future, healthy soils will be integral in the challenge to feed the world.
4 Soil Health Principles
There are four soil health principles. They include:
minimize soil disturbance
maximize plant diversity
keep living roots in the soil
always cover the soil with living plants
The characteristics of a stable ecosystem include low disturbance, high diversity, low human inputs and highly functioning ecosystems. Historically, intensive tillage was a common farming practice used to ready the soil for planting and to control weeds. Overgrazing and high stocking rates have impacted pasture land as well. Decades of intensive tillage resulted in the loss of soil organic matter, increased erosion, soil compaction, decreased water infiltration and decreased soil biodiversity. Compaction, poor plant health, and low plant diversity have resulted in unhealthy pastures.
In the late 1960s, a few pioneers in Montgomery County began to experiment with low disturbance equipment to help reduce soil erosion and improve crop production. In the summer of 2018, the County celebrated 50 years of Conservation Tillage.
Healthy soils are teeming with biodiversity. This includes plants, animals, and micro-organisms. Healthy soils have stable soil aggregates that stick together and are less prone to erosion. Healthy soils infiltrate water more effectively. Research has shown that continuously tilled soil will infiltrate water at a rate of 1.5” per hour. A field which has been no-tilled for 10 years will infiltrate at a rate of 2.6” per hour. In a year like 2018, when heavy rain events were more frequent, a no-till system will better utilize the rain water and will therefore reduce runoff and soil erosion. Reduced soil erosion is critical to maintaining productive soils and the overall health of the Chesapeake Bay.
Another important tool in the farming toolbox is cover crops. Maryland farmers have been utilizing winter cover crops for years to help reduce erosion and sequester excess nutrients in the soil. Cover crops also provide additional benefits. These include adding biomass, preventing erosion, moderation of soil temperatures, reduction of evaporation, reducing compaction, feeding the soil microbes, and feeding nutrient cycles.
The Best Management Practices available to farmers that help improve soil health include no-till planting as well as other common practices. These are multi-species cover crops, nutrient management planning, diverse crop rotations, animal waste utilization, pest management and crop residue management.
If you are having problems with soil compaction, erosion, water infiltration, poor yields, pest and disease issues, there are ways to combat these problems. Changes whether good or bad don’t typically happen overnight. So a long-term plan may be needed for your farm. The Soil Conservation District can assist you with any resource concerns you might have. Improved soil health on your farm can lead to reduced inputs, improved yields, and a more sustainable farming operation. Feel free to contact us to discuss any problems you might have.