Why Does Healthy Soil Matter?
By kevin.erb | 2:14 AM, 08/07/2014
Scientists agree that soil is a vital living resource, critical to boosting yields to meet our ever-growing demand for food. A good foundation for healthy soil includes creating just the right mix of physical, chemical and biological characteristics. When in balance, healthy soils not only benefit crop production, but also mitigate the effects of extreme weather events and can create sustainable, lower cost operations.
Like skin, soil breathes and changes its composition depending upon conditions. Actively managing those soil conditions effectively builds resilient soils needed to grow abundant crops. Practices like keeping soil covered, improving water infiltration and soil moisture holding capacity, reducing tillage, rotating crops and mulching all contribute to healthier soil conditions.
Improving the health of our nation's soil is one of the Natural Resource Conservation Service’s top priorities. Healthy soils benefit our environment in many ways including:
Natural Resource Protection – Healthy soils hold more available water. The soil’s water-holding capacity reduces runoff that can cause flooding, and increases the availability of water to plants during droughts. Good infiltration and less need for fertilizers and pesticides keep nutrients and sediment from loading into lakes, rivers, and streams. Groundwater is also protected because there is less leaching from healthy soils. Additionally, fewer trips across fields with farm machinery mean fewer emissions and better air quality.
Increased Production – Healthy soils typically have more organic matter and soil organisms which improve soil structure, aeration, water retention, drainage and nutrient availability. Organic matter holds more nutrients in the soil until the plants need them.
Increased Profits – Healthy soils may increase profits by requiring fewer passes over fields because they are only minimally tilled and they aren’t over-reliant upon excessive nutrient inputs to grow crops. Healthy soils can increase farmers’ profit margins by reducing labor and expenses for fuel, and optimizing inputs.
For more information, visit NRCS' excellent soil health website. To access courses on healthy soils concepts and management practices, check out CPTP's initiative website.
author Kevin Erb is a University of Wisconsin-Extension Specialist
Photo by USDA NRCS