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Healthy Soil? Not Before You Address These Three Things

July 18, 2013
By: Ben Potter, AgWeb.com Social Media and Innovation Editor google + 
good dirt
  

Would you describe your soil as pretty weatherproof, able to handle harsh conditions and poised to bounce back quickly? That’s how Farm Journal field agronomist Ken Ferrie describes healthy soil.

"All soils have a certain level of health and a certain level of sickness," he says. "You have to be respectful of the soil type. The more athletic field you have, the more abuse it can take. Other fields, you can destroy in a heartbeat."

The good news is that any farmer can give his or her fields a physical and begin to take steps to improve or maintain sustainable soil.

"Soil health needs to be tackled with a systems approach, just like everything else," Ferrie says.

Specifically, three components of soil need to be evaluated and addressed – its chemical, physical and biological properties.

  1. The chemical component can be monitored with a soil test. Fixes are relatively easy, Ferrie says – apply fertilizer to achieve balance, and maintain it over time to keep that balance.
  2. The physical component is a little more complicated because there are a variety of potential root causes and corresponding solutions. For example, compaction and old horizontal barriers can be removed through vertical tillage or cover crops such as radish. Becoming familiar with tools such as slake tests and soil penetrometers can help you more accurately diagnose problem areas.
  3. The biological components of soil can be detected through in-field and lab testing. For in-field testing, consider using a dragger tube (but be aware it is affected by environmental conditions and might not be repeatable from one year to the next). It is still a good test to make comparisons between low-yielding and high-yielding zones. Several lab tests are also available that are more repeatable from one year to the next. Test in the spring when soil moisture is close to field capacity for best results.


Although you can improve certain chemical or physical properties in a relatively short time, a wounded soil’s biological health will take the most time to heal, Ferrie says.

"Improving soil biology is a long-term commitment with very little short-term payback," he says. "It might be a 10-, 15- or even 20-year process. So the moral of the story is, don’t get there. Keep your soil healthy."

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