Creating Sustainable Soil – Tips for Long-Term Soil Health
Soil is a living ecosystem–it’s home to billions of microorganisms that make up the soil food web and interact through nutrient cycles and energy flows.
Each of these organisms feeds on the dead parts of plants, animal waste, and other organic materials that are in the soil. This process decomposes the materials into nutrients that plants can use for growth and development.
Use Cover Crops
Cover crops can provide a variety of benefits to the soil, such as improving soil moisture and nutrients, controlling weeds, and preventing erosion. However, these benefits can only be realized if the farmer understands what kind of cover crop to plant and how to manage it effectively.
Depending on the type of soil and climate, there is a specific cover crop for each situation. For example, a summer cover crop is ideal for breaking soil compaction or a window in a small-grain rotation to supply much-needed nitrogen, while winter cover crops are ideal for scavenging excess nitrogen from previous crops and sequestering nutrients to be released back into the soil for the next crop.
In addition to helping improve the soil, cover crops may increase microbial communities and help reduce pests by suppressing nematode populations. Grassy cover crops such as crimson clover and lupine may have a higher level of soil microbes than broadleaf cover crops such as corn.
Some cover crops, like legumes, add available nitrogen and phosphorus to the soil by taking up excess nutrients from previous crops, and they are able to release these nutrients back into the soil for the next crop. Some non-legumes, such as sorghum and barley, also take up available nitrogen and phosphorus by decomposing them in the soil, making these nutrients available to the next crop.
Managing cover crops for long-term soil health takes time, experimentation, and a commitment to understanding the nuances of a particular species. As with any technique, effective cover crop use requires a shift from mechanical practices and chemical fertilizers to biologically based solutions.
Maintain Soil Moisture
The key to long-term soil health is to keep the soil moist enough for plants to thrive. This can be accomplished by watering regularly, adding soil amendments that hold moisture, and mulching.
Ideally, the soil should be about 25 percent moist, but this varies depending on weather and soil types. For example, soils rich in organic matter tend to hold more moisture than sandy soils.
There are several ways to test the moisture in your soil, including using a moisture meter and physically checking it with a finger. Soil moisture meters are easy to use and can give you accurate results if you have a good-quality meter.
Moisture sensors can be used for one-time testing or placed at different depths in your soil to take readings over a period of time. They work by measuring the amount of electrical resistance that is caused by water.
Another easy way to test the moisture in your soil is by digging a hole and pouring water into it. If the water doesn’t drain completely, the soil is dry.
Soil moisture is a critical parameter for agriculture, but its data vary widely, based on factors such as the location, season, soil type, and depth of the cropping system. It is important to understand the best methods for analyzing soil moisture data to ensure that it supports your needs.
For example, some soil moisture data and maps are based on a mixture of sensors and satellites; others represent numerical models. They may also include metrics such as volumetric water content, mm, anomalies, and daily ranking percentages. These variables can help to describe the different conditions in the field, which are vital to understanding how to optimize water use and plant productivity.
All plants require nitrogen to grow, but not all plant varieties are tolerant of high levels of this critical nutrient. Adding too much nitrogen to your garden soil can have serious negative impacts on your crops and the health of your soil.
Often, over-fertilization is the root cause of poor growth and lower yields. The primary reason for this is that a plant has to work harder to absorb the excess nitrogen in its soil. This can lead to weak growth and stunted flowering or fruiting.
While a lot of gardeners like to use chemical fertilizers to boost their soil’s nitrogen levels, the most effective way to increase soil nitrogen is to add natural organic fertilizer. The best type of organic matter to add to your garden is composted manure.
Soil microbes break down and release nitrogen when they come into contact with organic matter. This is a process called denitrification, and it’s particularly important on sandy soils that leach out nitrogen as they dry out in the summer or winter.
Another way to increase soil nitrogen is to incorporate cover crops into your farming operation. These can be planted as part of your grazing or cropland operations, and they can provide a habitat for organisms and pollinators that cycle the nutrients your crops need.
The most important thing to remember is that your soil needs to maintain healthy nitrogen levels in order for you to have healthy, productive crops. Increasing soil organic matter is one of the easiest ways to do this and will improve your crops’ ability to thrive long-term.
Nitrogen is one of the most important macronutrients for plant growth, but it’s also a common contaminant in our waterways and ecosystems. It’s easy to see why this is such a big issue: Too much nitrogen in the environment can cause algal blooms, fish kills, and bacteria proliferation that threaten human health.
Use Organic Fertilizers
Using organic fertilizers is one of the best ways to increase long-term soil health. These products can be made from decomposing plant material, such as compost and manure, or from powdered mineral sources. They also contain a variety of nutrients, including trace elements and micronutrients.
They can improve the quality of your soil by helping to protect it from many soil-borne diseases and by making it easier for crops to absorb water and nutrients. Additionally, they can help to build a healthy environment for beneficial bacteria and fungi in your soil.
These organisms are key to keeping your soil healthy and can be killed by chemical fertilizers. Organic fertilizers are a safe and natural way to keep your soil in tip-top shape.
Moreover, they can be used in conjunction with other practices to achieve optimal results. For example, when you combine cover crops with an organic fertilizer application, you can ensure that your soil is getting the right amount of nutrients to support crop growth.
This helps to create sustainable soil that will be able to handle future droughts and storms. It also allows you to use less fertilizer, so you can save money in the long run.
Another benefit of using organic fertilizers is that they are less likely to end up in the waterways, causing environmental pollution. This is especially important if you live near a lake, as nitrogen-heavy synthetic fertilizers can cause toxic algae blooms that kill fish and other aquatic life.
Lastly, they can boost the water-holding capacity of your soil by increasing its aggregation and making it more porous. This means that it can hold more water against gravity, which is helpful for drought-stricken areas.
Over-irrigating soil leads to increased runoff that can negatively affect groundwater. The excess water carries pollutants into the water system, including pesticides and fertilizers. In addition, the extra water erodes topsoil and becomes sediment.
In addition to pollution, over-irrigation can also lead to excessive salt buildup in the soil. Soil salinity and sodicity are major environmental hazards that can affect crop growth, nutrient availability, and groundwater contamination. They can also impact dependent ecosystems, including fish and aquatic plants.
While not the only cause of soil degradation, over-irrigation is a common problem in dryland agriculture. The soil can become bare or compacted, disrupting the microbes that live there.
If you do need to irrigate, use small irrigation pipes (drip hoses) placed right along each row. This will allow the water to drip more uniformly when the rows are level or slightly downhill.
A study that compared the effect of nitrogen and irrigation on the bacteria community found that fertilizer boosted the presence of Proteobacteria while irrigation reduced the abundance of Gemmatimonadetes. It’s not clear why this was the case, but it may be due to a combination of factors, such as fertilizer reducing soil oxygen levels, and/or limiting the amount of time that the water can interact with the soil.
As a result, it’s important to use fertilizers appropriately and not over-irrigate soils. This will help improve soil health and reduce the risk of soil degradation. Then, when you need to irrigate your soils in the future, you can do so with confidence that you’re doing what’s best for them.