Soil health: Viewing our soils as living ecosystems

by Sara Berges, Allamakee SWCD
 
Soil is often thought of as an inert growing medium rather than a living ecosystem. Therefore, we tend to focus on chemical inputs to sustain our crop production. If we shift our focus to improving the health of our soils, it is likely that we can reduce our chemical inputs.  Maximizing soil health is essential for maximizing profitability. Healthy soils are also more resilient, which is especially important in wet or dry years.

Healthy soils are full of living organisms such as bacteria, fungi, other microbes and earthworms that need to have the basic necessities of life – food, shelter, and water.  Many of these organisms feed on soil roots, organic material, and other soil organisms. We can ensure food is available year-round by having growing plants as much of the year as possible. One way to do this is by following a cash crop with a cover crop. Diverse plant mixes increases the diversity of associated underground organisms. Many of these organisms are non-mobile and their habitat is their immediate surroundings.

When we till the soil, we expose these organisms to the sun and air, which often desiccates them.  Soils that have more organic matter have greater water-holding capacity, which helps to keep the soil organisms moist but also provides necessary water to our crops.

NRCS provides four key ideas for managing soil health.

1. Use plant diversity to increase diversity in the soil.
2. Manage soils more by disturbing them less.
3. Keep plants growing throughout the year to feed the soil.
4. Keep the soil covered as much as possible.
 
As you consider fall and spring management options for your farms, remember that soils are living ecosystems. Take care of your “underground livestock” to improve soil health and ensure the long-term productivity of the soils. If you have questions about how to improve your soil health, contact the Waukon NRCS/SWCD office at 563-568-2246 ext. 3.

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