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Four tips for sustainable soil management

Regenerative agriculture photo

Using sustainable soil management practices, we can build healthy soils for the next growing season.

You may be wondering, “When is the right time to begin building healthy soil?” While this answer may surprise you, the right time is always now. Whether you are choosing the seeds for your next crop or have just finished harvesting your fields, planning your sustainable soil management strategies should always be top of mind. 

Through seasons of use, soils can become depleted of nutrients and organic matter. If left unattended, this will lead to a decrease in yields for the grower. Additionally, soil depletion is not a phenomenon that is limited to the farmer; the home grower and gardener can face the same issues in their own front or backyards. 

Proactive growers work for their soil to ensure that it works for them.

Healthy soil — which is soil that has a high organic matter content, a balanced structure and high nutrient availability — provides an excellent basis for plants. It can decrease the amount of inputs that a grower needs to use, since many of the nutritional requirements of the crops will already be supplied through the soil. This increased nutrient availability can also help plants to develop stronger roots and become naturally more resistant to environmental stressors. 

The four tips included below will help increase your soil health in a sustainable way and will lead to noticeable improvements for years to come. 

Increase soil organic matter

Between all the animals (like worms and insects) and the millions of microbes that make their homes in the ground, healthy soil is teeming with life. Each of these creatures plays a role in nutrient cycling, which is the process of breaking down crop residue, such as corn stubble, and degrading it into organic matter in the soil. Once the breakdown process is complete, the nutrients then become available for use by the plants. When plants use the nutrients that are available in the soil, growers can begin using more specific additives and fertilizers instead of deploying widespread “just in case” spraying. 

Minimize tillage

Tilling can damage the soil environment and should only be used to improve problem areas, including where the soil is compacted or where drainage issues are heavily impacting the fields. Tilling can also increase the number of weeds in a field by bringing them to the surface, where they can germinate and grow. These weeds will compete with the intended crop for nutrients and take over precious field space, potentially decreasing crop yields.

Keep the surface of the soil covered

Using cover crops has become increasingly popular, and for good reason. Not only do cover crops offer another opportunity for growers to improve their soil makeup, since their use increases the availability of nutrients like nitrogen in the soil, but they also significantly reduce the likelihood of soil erosion. When fields are kept uncovered after harvest and during the winter, they become susceptible to erosion from wind and rain, which leaves the grower a step behind in building a healthy foundation for springtime crops.

Rotate crops

The type and amount of nutrients used by different crops will vary depending on which crop is being grown. Different crops also will increase the availability of different nutrients, which can be used by the crops that follow. Crop rotation also plays a part in preventing soil erosion. Not only does the field remain covered, but as each crop’s roots grow to varying lengths, they will hold onto the soil at different depths throughout the seasons, maintaining stability against heavier rains and winds.

While these steps are great ways to improve your soil and ensure that it will continue to be the hardworking first step toward producing a healthy plant and a profitable yield, their results can be maximized when combined with other management tools. Soil testing throughout your fields, for instance, will help you pinpoint areas of concern. Field scouting during the growing season will help the grower catch any areas where there might be a nutrient deficiency or disease pressure before the problem becomes widespread and requires more intervention. By combining all the tools at their disposal, growers can give crops the best possible foundation for seasons to come in a proactive and sustainable way.

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