Advancing a soil health movement

Corn in compacted soil, left, cannot access water and nutrients. Dense rooting, right, allows for greater uptake of soil moisture and nutrients. (Photo provided — Building Soils for Better Crops, Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education; U.S. Department of Agriculture)

On July 18, the New York Soil Health Initiative hosted the state’s first Soil Health Summit. The summit provided an opportunity for attending farmers, researchers, agriculture service professionals, government agencies, nonprofits, policy makers interested in advancing soil health efforts, and other soil health advocates to speak out about actions that have been taken to modify on-farm soil management systems and the subsequent changes that have been experienced. Their comments and observations will help with the creation of a New York Soil Health Roadmap, which is planned for release sometime this fall.

The New York Soil Health Initiative works to help farmers identify opportunities and barriers to employing soil health management practices and build on identified strengths and stipulated priorities. It’s coordinated by Cornell University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and funded by New York state’s Environmental Protection Fund.

Soil is a complex mixture of different-size mineral particles, living organisms and microorganisms (worms, insects, fungi, bacteria), and living and decayed organic matter (plant residues, animal remains and microbial tissue). Healthy soil teems with life. In fact, I’ve heard it said that there are more individual organisms in a spoonful of healthy soil than there are people on Earth.

The importance of healthy soil cannot be overstated. Healthy soil supports plant life. And plant life supports everything that terrestrial life requires to live; oxygen, food, fiber, habitat, shelter, energy, and clean air and water.

It’s the active interactions between a soil’s physical, biological and chemical components that determine how healthy that soil is — in other words, how well that soil functions, how well it supports the ecosystem that it’s part of. Whether that ecosystem is natural or managed, healthy soil infiltrates and cycles nutrients into water to feed plants; promoting robust, vigorous plant growth.

Improved soil health can lead to increased productivity and improved crop-hardiness during severe weather events (drought and flooding). Other benefits include the following:

¯ Suppression of weeds and disease

¯ Reduced nutrient loss

¯ Improved water quality

¯ Decreased carbon footprint.

Threats to soil health include:

¯ Compaction, sometimes called soil structure degradation, which may occur because of detrimental tillage practices, tamping down or compressing of soil by heavy equipment, and/or depletion of organic matter, all of which diminish water and air infiltration and root penetration, thereby reducing plant nutrient and water uptake and crop yield.

¯ Erosion, which is the wearing away of topsoil by the natural physical forces of water and wind, or forces associated with farming activities such as tillage, ultimately resulting in the decline and eventual underperformance of the soil’s productivity.

¯ Agro-chemicals (fertilizers and pesticides), which are used in farming to increase crop yield but disrupt many of the biological functions of the soil and can, over time, alter the microorganisms in the soil, resulting in more harmful instead of beneficial bacteria.

Kitty O’Neil is Cornell Cooperative Extension’s regional field crops and soils specialist, team leader of the Northern New York Regional Ag Team and a certified crop adviser.

She contends that “good tilth provides a desirable combination of particle size, moisture content, aeration, water infiltration and drainage,” which, in turn, “promotes sufficient, but not excessive nutrient content, good, deep rooting depth, and sufficient water storage and drainage.” She emphasizes that “healthy soils are free from harmful toxins, contain plenty of active, beneficial organisms, few pathogenic, parasitic organisms, and few weeds,” and adds that “well-functioning soils are resilient. They recover without much difficulty from disturbances and are able to resist degradation and erosion.”

I asked her about the principles of good soil health management for agriculture. She recommended, “Reducing compaction and disturbing the soil as little as possible by reducing the frequency and intensity of tillage operations,” adding that conservation tillage methods including “no-till, strip-till, ridge-till, mulch-till and vertical-till are all designed to disturb as little soil as possible.” She also suggested using “long-term crop rotations that include perennials where possible, increasing organic matter inputs, and using cover crops and cover crop mixes.

“Don’t leave soils bare.” she said. “Maintain a living plant throughout as much of the year as possible. And leave plant residues on the soil surface.”

The Cornell Soil Health Testing Laboratory’s Comprehensive Assessment of Soil Health was created to help farmers, gardeners, agricultural service providers, landscape managers and researchers develop appropriate solutions for building and maintaining healthy soils, in addition to providing standard nutrient analysis. It’s the first commercially available laboratory soil test of its kind. Learn more at soilhealth.cals.cornell.edu.

A copy of the Cornell Soil Health Team’s manual for assessing soil health is available for free download. Just click on the CASH Training Manual link.

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