Production agriculture is tasked with the challenge of providing enough food to meet our world’s growing demands. For producers in MFA’s trade territory, the ultimate challenge is to not only meet this goal, but to exceed it on less land and with fewer resources. To do it, you need to be efficient. You need to embrace technology. And you need to understand biology. The No. 1 resource for production agriculture is your soil. To be efficient and productive you need to have healthy soils to reach top yield potential and to protect your investment in land.
Soil health, also referred to as soil quality, is defined as the continued capacity of soil to function as a vital living ecosystem that sustains plants, animals and humans. This definition speaks to the importance of managing land so it is healthy and sustainable for many generations to come. To maintain and improve soil health, you need to be conscious of the fact that soils contain living organisms that perform functions required to produce food.
Soil is not a nonliving growing medium, but rather a living ecosystem filled with billions of bacteria, fungi and other microbes. The ecosystem within the soil can be managed to provide nutrients for plant growth. Managed properly, it absorbs and retains water during dry periods and buffers against potential pollutants escaping crop fields. Soil is the firm foundation for agricultural activities.
Soil has both natural and active properties. Natural soil properties are the soil’s natural ability to function. For example, sandy soil drains faster than clay soil. Deep soil has more room for roots than soils with bedrock near the surface. These characteristics do not change easily.
Active soil properties are how soil changes depending on how it is managed. Management choices affect the amount of soil organic matter, soil structure, soil depth as well as the soil’s water and nutrient holding capacity. Soils respond differently to management depending on the natural properties of the soil and the surrounding landscape.
Living organisms in the soil are important for crops. Mycorrhizae, a microbial extension of plant roots, help our crops uptake nutrients in the soil such as phosphorus and zinc—minerals that can be bound tightly within the soil. Rhizobia bacteria in the soil are necessary for leguminous plants to form a symbiotic relationship that produces nitrogen. Earthworms and insects play a critical role in maintaining soil structure and water filtration as well as maintaining the organic material in the soil profile.
Planting cover crops provide many benefits to producers and improving soil health. Cover crops can influence and actively change soil properties such as structure along with water and nutrient holding capacity. The plant material cover crops produce, if properly managed, can increase soil organic matter and regulate water loss in the soil.
Healthy soil gives us clean air and water, bountiful crops, productive grazing lands and diverse wildlife. Soil does all this by performing five essential functions:
- Regulating water
- Sustaining plant and animal life
- Filtering and buffering potential pollutants
- Cycling nutrients
- Physical stability and support
Understanding soil health means assessing and managing soil so that it functions optimally now and is not degraded for future use. Monitoring changes in soil health, a producer can determine if a set of practices is sustainable. By using soil health principles and farming systems that include no-till, cover cropping and diverse rotations, your soils will increase organic matter and improve microbial activity. As a result, you will be improving and maintaining soil health, all while harvesting better profits and often better yields.