Start Soil Health with Baby Steps
Toddlers know the secret. Success begins with baby steps. USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service recommends a similar, practical, “baby step” approach for farmers who want to improve the health, resilience and productivity of their soil, too.
“If farmers really want to do something good for their soil, they first need to decide what they want to do, what they’re willing to try,” said Sally Kepfer NRCS’ State Resource Conservationist. “They don’t have to go whole hog and change everything all at once. They can just start with a few little baby steps like doing one less tillage pass on a field. Even a baby step is a positive step towards better soil health,” she said. “Using this technique gives producers time to watch, measure changes or results, and go from there.”
According to Kepfer, building healthy soil depends on having good levels of organic matter, which can be managed by farmers using the right soil health-building practices. “What farmers do on the farm and on the tractor directly affects organic matter levels in soil,” she said. “They can do one little thing to help-- by either adding organic matter to the soil to replace what’s lost through tillage or by building organic matter using no-tillage methods. It’s that simple,” Kepfer said. “That’s how important soil organic matter is.”
According to Kepfer, the benefits of improved soil health include increased crop yields; farm resiliency; improved nutrient cycling; reduced fuel costs; better water infiltration; reduced runoff; less erosion and downstream flooding; and improved pest management.
“Healthy, properly functioning soils yield enormous benefits both on and off the farm,” she said. “The journey to improving soil health begins with a basic understanding that soil is alive with trillions of microorganisms—and so we have to farm with conservation practices and principles that allow those living organisms to thrive so they provide us with their many production and environmental benefits.”
When it comes to understanding their soil, NRCS urges Delaware farmers to “dig a little—and learn a lot.” Farmers can learn a lot from just looking at, feeling and smelling their soil.
“They can also use tests to measure soil density and carbon levels. That way, producers can measure improvements,” Kepfer said. “Even taking just one or two ‘baby steps’ this fall can set farmers on their way to building healthier soils—and reaping all the benefits that follow.”
NRCS encourages farmers to consider planting cover crops early this fall as a first step to building soil health and organic matter. To learn more about the basics and benefits of soil health, farmers can visit www.de.nrcs.usda.gov or contact their local USDA Service Center. In Sussex County, call 302-856-3990, ext 3; in Kent County, call 302-741-2600, ext. 3; and in New Castle County, call 302-832-3100, ext. 3. More information on soil health is also available here through NRCS' Unlock the Secrets in the Soil.
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