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Conservation Corner

Consider Soil Health

Thu, October 26, 2017

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service defines soil health as “the continued capacity of soil to function as a vital living ecosystem that sustains plants, animals, and humans.”  The biology, physics and chemistry of the soil impact plant growth, crop resilience, yields at harvest and long-term earning potential. Management with soil health in mind seeks to optimize these soil factors for positive outcomes by using practices like conservation tillage, nutrient management, cover crops and crop rotations.

A few of the advantages of healthy soil can include:

• Reduced erosion and soil loss—Direct comparisons of soil erosion under conventional and no-till methods show that no-till practices reduce soil erosion up to 1,000 times more effectively.

• Nutrient use efficiency and retention—When legumes (e.g., clover) and/or brassicas (e.g., turnip, radish) follow corn or wheat, they help to decompose residues, making nutrients available to the next season’s crop.

• Farm resilience with weather variability—Increasing water holding capacity by building soil organic matter can decrease variability in yields by 20 percent.

• Improved water utilization and management—More soil organic matter can improve water retention by increasing infiltration rates and improving soil structure. Water holding capacity can more than double when soil organic matter increases.

Advantages of soil health

■ Decreased erosion and soil loss

■ Improved percentage of organic matter in soil

■ Decreased variability in productivity over time

■ Nutrient use efficiency

■ Better crop health and weed suppression

■ Improved water retention


Conservation Approach

Soil health can be achieved through the use of one or more practices like the ones outlined below.

Cover Crop
Cover crops are planted during or after harvest to keep living roots in the soil through most of the year. Cover crop species may include grasses (like annual ryegrass and spring oats) or legumes (including hairy vetch or red clover). Cover crops are either killed by cold temperatures or are terminated by the operator in the spring.

Soil structure and biological cycles can be disrupted through tillage. No-till or low-till allows crop growth with less soil disturbance, which can lead to better plant growth and decreased erosion.

Nutrient Management

Nutrient management seeks to manage soil nutrients and nutrient amendments to meet crop production needs while minimizing the impact on the environment. Regular soil testing can allow both the owner and operator to understand the locations of high- and low-nutrient areas on the farm. With this knowledge, nutrient planning and precision agriculture—a suite of tools that can improve efficiencies and resource use—can be applied to achieve optimal economic and conservation returns.


Consider soil health and some of the practices mentioned above or all of them.  You don’t have to go all out on all acres.  Consider a 40 -50 acre field and go slow, learning as you go.  Attend cover crop workshops, talk to others who are doing cover crops or practices that you are interested in.


NRCS EQIP has cost sharing available for helping with these practices.  Applications for the first round of funding consideration have to be signed by November 17, 2017.