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Assess Soil Health

Soil health is linked to agricultural productivity. So why do we treat soil like dirt?

After all, soil is much more than a growing medium, says Ray Archuleta, a Natural Resources Conservation Services (NRCS) conservation agronomist in Greensboro, North Carolina.  Understand that soil is a habitat – a uniquely balanced system for a plethora of soil life ranging from earthworms to microbes. Management has the ability to improve or to degrade this habitat, he says. 

At first glance, soil just seems like a big, black glob. Look a bit closer, though. Healthy soil is teeming with life.

“Just look and see if you have earthworms, spiders, even things like wireworms,” says Jill Clapperton, principal scientist with Rhizoterra, Inc., a Spokane, Washington, soil health firm.“These can be an indication of soil health. Maybe you need more balance, but at least it has something alive in it. ”

Earthworms particularly play a beneficial role. Ever get a splitting headache or a churning stomach when a 4-inch cloudburst disrupts and delays planting, spraying, or harvesting? Water pools on unhealthy soils devoid of soil life, resulting in multiple-day delays.

Not so in healthy soils teeming with earthworms. They’re busy moving about, carving a vast network of subterranean channels. These channels provide a way for water to penetrate soil, rather than remain on top. These channels also provide a path for plant roots to follow as they develop.

If you aren’t digging in your field, how can you assess soil health? Grab your shovel and look for indicators of soil health, such as earthworms, roots, and soil structure. To know what’s happening within the soil, you have to go and dig in your field.

“Dig a soil pit,” says Terry Taylor, a Geff, Illinois, farmer. “Poke around and see what’s there. See how deep the corn roots are.”

Digging a soil pit will help you identify what you’re doing correctly and will show you any shortcomings. Once you’re able to identify the problems, you can begin to correct them.  Digging a soil pit allows you to see how deep crop roots grow. Since many benefits from cover crops happen below ground, it provides an opportunity to evaluate them, as well. Looking beneath the surface enables you to evaluate the soil for compaction.

Adding livestock to your operation brings the natural system full circle.

“I believe in integrating livestock into the system,” Clapperton says. “Livestock will add a moneymaking enterprise to your operation.”

Livestock provide a natural source of fertilizer. When you combine livestock with cover crops, there’s an opportunity to graze cover crops. Cover crops can provide high-quality forage for livestock. In return, pastures are allowed an opportunity to recover.

But it’s important to consider the additional time livestock require.

“Any time you diversify your enterprise, it essentially means more management,” she says.

If you don’t have the management skills or the available labor, though, coordinating livestock with a neighbor who has them could be an option. “Essentially, it would be like custom-feeding,” she says. “It can make a cropping system better by using livestock.”

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