Click on any major urban area media outlet, and there are a lot of myths out there when it comes to soil health. People may think modern “big ag” farms or “monocultures” are bad, but are they? Today’s modern farmers understand that soil health is the foundation of productive farming. Healthy soil supports robust plant growth and contributes to the agricultural ecosystem’s overall “sustainability” – a major buzzword. Recent studies have shed light on some of the best practices farmers can adopt to enhance the quality of their soil. Below are some of these practices, backed by scientific research, that are both effective and easy to understand for the casual reader.
- Organic Matter Addition
One of the most emphasized recommendations across agricultural research is adding organic matter to the soil. Organic matter, which can be sourced from compost, manure, or crop residues, is pivotal in improving soil structure. This enhancement in structure subsequently leads to better water retention capabilities and provides essential nutrients to plants. The benefits don’t just stop there. Organic matter also aids in increasing the microbial activity in the soil, which is crucial for nutrient cycling and overall soil vitality.
- Crop Rotation
The age-old practice of crop rotation has been given a nod of approval by modern science, farmers and agronomists worldwide. By planting different crops in the same area in sequential seasons, farmers can disrupt the life cycle of pests and diseases, which reduces the need for pesticides or other chemical inputs. However, the benefits of crop rotation go beyond pest management. For instance, legumes like beans and peas have the unique ability to fix atmospheric nitrogen. When these crops are part of a rotation, they enrich the soil with this essential nutrient, ultimately improving yield. Simply put- different crops provide different nutrients to different plants, especially when rotated over the years.
- Reduced Tillage
Traditional farming often involves turning the soil over, a practice known as tillage. However, there is so much research to prove that minimizing soil disturbance through reduced tillage or adopting no-till farming practices can have amazing benefits for soil health. These methods help preserve the soil’s structure and organic matter content. Furthermore, farmers can reduce soil erosion and enhance water infiltration by not tilling the soil, ensuring that plants have a steady water supply. Here are additional benefits of no-till farming when it can be done on specific crops in certain regions.
One of the latest trends or crazes, particularly in row crop farming, is the idea of utilizing biologicals in your field to allow plants to better uptake nutrients. Companies like Holganix Midwest offer 800+ different “bugs” that help plants better uptake nutrients, break down field “trash” or fodder, improve root mass and yield, and focus more on biology and the soil microbe.
- Soil testing
So, how do we know what our plants need? Rather than blanket applications of input products, we can use testing like “Biome Makers” or the “Haney” test to know exactly how our plants are doing. Sending off soil samples gives experts the data they need to help farmers decide their best management practices to maximize input expenses. For example, the “4Rs” is also an excellent way to know when to use fertilizer inputs: the Right source, rate, time, and place. Soil testing is one of the best ways to be a good steward!
The journey to improved soil health is a combination of traditional wisdom and modern science but is always at the forefront of any farmer’s mind. Farmers can ensure that their soil remains productive and healthy for generations to come by adding organic matter, rotating crops, improving biology, testing soil, and reducing tillage. It’s essential to remember that while these practices offer numerous benefits, they should be tailored to specific local conditions, considering factors like soil type and climate. Consulting with local agricultural experts can provide invaluable insights into the best practices for individual farms.