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4 ways to boost soil health and maintain yields

cover crop mix of grasses and legumes
GREAT DIVERSITY: This mix of grasses and legumes as a cover crop helps add biodiversity to the soil.
Salute Soil Health: Maintaining soil cover is a key to improving profitability.

By Don Donovan

A great way to start the new year is to make a commitment to invest in soil health. The soil is much more than a medium for growing crops; it is a living biological ecosystem. We rely on millions of tiny microorganisms to do their jobs and create a favorable environment for plants to grow. Allow these microorganisms to work for you and, in turn, reap the benefits. 

Farmers have been farming soils that have been degraded over the last 75 years by tillage and a monoculture cash-cropping system of corn and soybeans. Farmers have been able to produce ever-improving yields through use of fertilizer, pesticides and improved seed hybrids.

Now it’s time to emphasize soil health. The information in the Salute Soil Health column is prepared by Indiana Conservation Partnership personnel, led by a team of USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service employees. It’s my pleasure to share information in this issue.

Improve soil health
Farmers across Indiana who have implemented the principles below are finding they can improve the health of their soil, maintain yields, possibly reduce inputs over time and build a soil that is resilient to changes in weather. Here are four key ways to begin the process.

1. Increase diversity. There are no monocultures in nature. The plant community on the soil surface directly impacts the soil biological community below the surface. The plant community and its roots are a food source for soil biology. Different kinds of crops and cover crops help feed and support biology in the soil.

2. Lengthen the growing season with continuous living roots. The sun is the ultimate source of free energy. Capture more sun and put that energy into your soil, with the goal of reducing inputs that you must purchase. One way to do this is to plant a cover crop to continue capturing sunlight well after your production crop has shut down. Roots growing all year long help keep microbiology in the soil healthy and productive.

3. Decrease disturbance. Extensive tillage is detrimental to soil health. When soil is tilled, the biological community is flipped upside down, pore channels are broken, and organic matter is lost. No-till operations will improve soil health. Tillage is warfare on your soil!

4. Maintain soil cover. Keep soil cover such as residue, mulch or plant stalks on the surface. Soil cover also includes cover crops. The purpose for soil cover is not just erosion protection. Residue maintains conditions for microorganisms. Soil microbes live in that residue at the soil surface and convert it into organic matter and nutrients. Microbiology is more active under constant moisture and temperature conditions. Residue on the surface goes a long way in maintaining that consistency.

Donovan is an NRCS district conservationist based in Parke County, Ind. Contact your local NRCS or soil and water conservation district office to start your 2018 intentions to improve soil health. Talk to local farmers who are using soil health systems to see how it is working for them. Make 2018 the year you start working to regenerate the soils on your farm!

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