Diane Turner - Conservation Technician and Outreach Coordinator
As a landowner or farm operator, you face many decisions when managing your natural resources. When it comes to improving soil health, Hamilton County SWCD is here to provide reminders and tips to guide your decision making. Soil health is defined as the capacity of a soil to function as a vital, living ecosystem that sustains plants, animals, and humans. Landowners that encourage healthy soils can not only sustain productivity but maintain environmental quality while enhancing plant and animal health. Some characteristics of healthy soils include good soil tilth, good soil drainage, large population of microorganisms, sufficient (but not excessive) levels of essential nutrients, and low weed pressure. Lets look closely at the recommended key soil health principles, that if incorporated into your practices, will help improve the health of your soil.
Soil armor (surface plant materials/residue) is important for reducing water and wind erosion, decreasing water evaporation, moderating soil temperatures, reducing the impact of energy from raindrops, suppressing weed growth and providing a habitat for surface dwellers, which are an important part of the soil food chain.
A continual living plant root either from the commodity crop, cover crop or forage crop provides carbon exudates to feed the soil food web, which is exchanged for nutrients for plant growth. This process is also important for soil aggregate formation, which increases soil pores for improved water and air exchange.
Minimizing soil disturbance, either biological, chemical, or physical tillage, enables the soil armor to persist. Biological disturbance includes overgrazing of forages that reduce soil armor and below ground biomass. Physical and chemical disturbance occurs from tillage burying crop residues and over stimulating microbial breakdown and excessive carbon release into the atmosphere.
Prairie plant diversity aided and allowed soils to develop prior to the introduction of annual cropping systems. Plant diversity uses sunlight and water to sequester carbon and other nutrients, preventing leakages into ground and surface waters. Understanding the four crop types — warm-season grasses and broadleaves, and cool-season grasses and broadleaves — is necessary for designing cropping systems that improve soil health. Livestock integration balances soil carbon and nitrogen ratios by converting high carbon forages to low carbon organic material, reducing nutrient transport from the soil, and promoting pasture and rangeland management in combination with cover crop grazing.
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