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Ways to Build Soil Health

By Kacey Birchmier and Gil Gullickson   

Everyone is jumping on the soil health bandwagon these days. Before you do so, consider the answers to these two questions.

  1. Can you define soil health?
  2. Can you obtain it?

Easy answer first. According to Ray Archuleta, a conservation agronomist at the Natural Resources Conservation Services (NRCS), soil health is the continuing capacity of the soil to function.

The answer to the second question is much harder. Reaching optimal soil health and maximum soil productivity means more than switching to no-till or adding cover crops to your rotation, says Archuleta. They’re tools – not goals. Your goal is to farm in nature’s image.

What’s that? When you have a chance, grab a soil probe and pull a soil sample from a fencerow. The probe easily plunges through the pliable soil. That bodes well for water infiltration. It’s alive, booming with earthworms and other soil life forms. Then, plunge the probe into a nearby tilled field. Chances are you’ll hit slabby soils with nary an earthworm carving soil tunnels. The fencerow soil best mimics nature, much like an undisturbed native prairie or forest. The tilled field mirrors man’s attempt to control it.

To help you identify if your soil is capable of functioning on its own, here are seven soil health indicators. 

  • Soil organic matter
  • Soil structure and stability
  • Nutrient cycling
  • Water infiltration and holding capacity
  • Soil porosity
  • Soil life, such as earthworms
  • Soil respiration 

Understand your context
You have to completely change your thought process on how you view soils, says Archuleta. “It’s a living system. You have to go through a process and understand that the soil is a living mechanism.”

To see the soil as a living system, you have to plug yourself back into the system. Realize that soil is more than a matrix for holding plants. Once you accept that premise, you can start to make conscious decisions to improve soil health.

“The soil is alive,” explains Archuleta. “Once you treat it as alive, you’re going to respect it.”

Limit disturbances
To keep the natural soil balance, Archuleta wants you to avoid three types of soil disturbances. These disturbances are part of normal farming operations.

  • Chemical disturbances. These include the misuse of pesticides and fertilizers. To avoid chemical disturbances, Archuleta encourages more active field scouting. The misuse of pesticides and chemical fertilizers can impact soil biology, he says.
  • Physical disturbances. These include tillage and compaction. Limit the physical disturbances of the soil, since they can disrupt the natural soil balance. 
  • Biological disturbances. These include overgrazing and lack of diversity.

Once you understand that soil is a habitat and you’ve limited your disturbances, there’s one more step. Archuleta wants you to feed it. Like you, the soil needs a balanced diet brimming with diversity.

“You have to feed the soil a diversity of crop rotations, cover crops, manure, and carbon,” says Archuleta.

Here's how.

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