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More Than Dirt

More Than Dirt

By Joel A. Willhoft, Resource Conservationist
Natural Resources Conservation Service
Hays, Kansas

A healthy soil is more than just “dirt”. Healthy soils have organic matter on the increase. They are darker in color, crumbly, and porous. Healthy soils are home to living organisms such as insects, worms, and micro-organisms. These organisms feed the soil by increasing soil organic matter and improving nutrient cycling. They also create a stable soil structure that adsorbs more water. Healthy soils are more productive, increase profitability, and help improve environmental concerns such as water quality and soil erosion.

Improving soil health is not difficult. The key concepts are: till the soil as little as possible, diversify crop rotations, keep living plants in the soil as long as possible, and leave the soil surface covered with plant residues.

Use tillage as little as possible. Excessive tillage destroys organic matter, soil structure, and the habitat for soil micro-organisms. Excessively tilled soils diminish nutrient cycling making the soil less fertile. Destroying soil structure causes less water infiltration into the soil and increases run-off and soil erosion.

Use diverse crop rotations. Crop rotations that include different crop types such as warm-season grasses, cool-season grasses, legumes, and other broadleaf crops, provide more biodiversity. Biodiversity above the ground increases biodiversity below the ground creating better habitat for soil micro-organisms. Micro-organisms are the builders of healthy soils.

Grow plants at all times throughout the growing season. Try to eliminate fallow periods by planting multi-specie cover crops that include a mixture of crops like rye, wheat, oats, clovers, legumes, turnips, radishes, and cabbage-like plants. Multi-specie cover crops typically planted in late summer and before spring planting add living roots to crop rotations. Living roots in the soil for longer periods feed micro-organisms longer leading to improved nutrient cycling and storage. The use of cover crops increases surface residues that keep the soil surface from eroding or drying out.

Leave the soil surface covered. Tilling in plant residues leaves the soil surface vulnerable to harsh environmental extremes. Uncovered soils dry up sooner and are susceptible to erosion from both wind and water. Nutrients cycling and storage is diminished in dry soils.

To learn more about soil health management on your farm, please contact your local Natural Resources Conservation Service office or conservation district office located at your local county U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Service Center (listed in the telephone book under United States Government or on the internet at More information is also available on the Kansas Web site at Follow us on Twitter @NRCS_Kansas. USDA is an equal opportunity provider and employer.