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What Makes Healthy Soil?

January 7, 2013
By: Darrell Smith, Farm Journal Conservation and Machinery Editor
Healthy Soil
One of the easiest steps you can take to improve soil health is to create uniform density by using proper vertical tillage techniques. Uniform density makes it easier for crop roots to penetrate.  
 
 

Take the first step toward more stress- and drought-resistant soils by adopting the Systems Approach to soil management

Nearly 75 years ago, USDA soil scientist Charles E. Kellogg wrote: "Essentially, all life depends upon the soil." Expressing a similar sentiment, President Franklin D. Roosevelt said: "The nation that destroys its soil destroys itself."

Think about it: No matter how much management, labor and fertilizer you apply, and regardless of the quality of seed you plant, it’s the soil that underpins how much food and fiber you produce.

During the hard-hitting drought this past summer, it wasn’t uncommon for one field to vary from 170 bu. to 240 bu. per acre while a nearby field of the same soil type struggled to make 100 bu. Some fields yielded zero because they folded under stress.

Farm Journal Field Agronomist Ken Ferrie saw it, too. "Some of the low yield may have been due to planting date or hybrid selection," he says. "But some of the difference was due to poor soil health.

"In adverse conditions, healthy soil will hang on longer," Ferrie says. "But unhealthy soil may burn up before the crop gets started.

"Farmers have always looked at the individual components of soil health, such as fertility, tillage and water management. But to really improve soil, we have to look at all the components together, in a Systems Approach to soil management."

Farm Journal’s new series of in-depth articles about soil health will help you do that.

The first step is defining your objective. "I like to define soil health as sustained productivity," Ferrie says.

"But we could also call it ‘maintaining profit,’ not just for ourselves but for our kids and grandkids."

Soils were not created equal in terms of yield capacity, Ferrie notes. "Soils differ in their ability to produce a crop," he explains. "Your lightest soil, even in the best of health, may not keep up yieldwise with a darker soil in poor health. It’s like comparing a 17-year-old to an 80-year old. Eventhough both are healthy, the teenager is more athletic.

"Even if he’s overweight, the 17-year-old may still outrun and outjump a fit 80-year old. With soils, too, some are naturally more athletic. But by making all our soils as healthy as possible, we maximize each one’s productive capacity."

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FEATURED IN: Farm Journal - January 2013

 
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