February 6, 2023
by Amanda Kautz
“Soil health” is a buzz phrase today. Do you know exactly what this phrase means?
Soil health is defined as the capacity of the soil to function as a living ecosystem that sustains plants, animals and humans. That may sound complicated, but the simple version is that soil supports life. To help it do so, you need to build soil structure and organic matter and have a functioning soil food web.
If you’re just starting on this journey, building soil health can seem like an impossible task. You may be unsure of how to take the first step. Don’t let it overwhelm you. Soil health can be built through a series of small, manageable steps. Here is a closer look at some key steps:
Start small. Begin with a small acreage. You will have a manageable area to learn on, and you won’t be overwhelmed trying to convert your entire operation.
Think before you select the spot. When picking this area, think about your least-productive field or area of a field. Use that as your test plot. If it’s your worst field, what do you have to lose? But remember, it’s your worst field for a reason. You may need to do more work outside of a soil health system, like tiling or applying lime, to see bigger results. Once you’ve mastered your new soil health system, you can expand to more acres.
Pick a practice. Not ready to jump into a full soil health system with no-till, cover crops, nutrient and pest management, and buffers? Start with just one practice and work your way up. Just by leaving out a fall tillage pass or reducing depth and intensity of tillage, you will impact your soil positively. Less soil disturbance will give the soil time to recover from your last tillage pass and begin to build the structure and organic matter it needs to function as that living ecosystem. Eventually, keep backing off tillage, or convert to no-till or strip-till for even more benefits.
Try cover crops. Try an overwintering cover crop to help provide soil cover and a living root over winter. This reduces erosion and feeds soil biology. Increased biology decomposes residues from high-residue cropping systems.
Use winter-kill cover crops. If you’re not comfortable terminating a cover crop, winter-kill cover crops are an option. They won’t provide that living root, but they will cover the soil and prevent erosion. As you get more comfortable, try multispecies mixes and termination methods that don’t involve tillage.
Keep moving. Don’t get stuck in a rut and procrastinate taking the next step. Once you feel more comfortable with your first step, take the next step. The more soil health practices you combine, the more benefits you can gain. Seek out guidance from another farmer in your area who has a successful soil health system, attend educational events, or visit with your local conservation staff.
Kautz is a district conservationist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service. She writes on behalf of the Indiana Conservation Partnership.
Read more about:No till
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