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Cover Your Soil

By Robert C. Schiffner, Resource Conservationist
Natural Resources Conservation Service
Hays, Kansas

Soil should always be covered by growing plants, their residues, or a combination of the two. Healthy soils are full of microorganisms living in the soil that have the same needs as other living creatures. They need food and cover to survive. The healthiest soils are those with a diversity and abundance of life.

When you have a vegetative cover on the soil, especially in living cover, you offer those microbes both food and shelter. Some feed on dead organic matter and some eat other microbes. As a group, they cycle nutrients and build the soil and give it structure.

The tiny fraction of soil composed of anything and everything that once lived— organic matter—is more than an indicator of healthy soil. The carbon in organic matter is the main source of energy for all-important soil microbes and is the key for making nutrients available to plants. Organic matter supplies, stores, and retains such nutrients as nitrogen, phosphorous, and sulfur. Soil properties influenced by organic matter can increase water infiltration rates and increase the ability to store water, soil structure, and soil organisms. One percent of organic matter in the top six inches of the soil can hold approximately 27,000 gallons of water per acre. Organic matter can also help reduce soil erosion.

Cover crops, green manure crops, and perennial forage crops add organic matter, as do compost and manure. Soil organic matter can be increased by minimizing tillage, planting as many different species as possible in your rotations, and planting diverse mixtures of cover crops that keep the soil covered with residue year round.

In other words, if you are trying to make your soil healthier, you should not see the surface very often. Consider keeping your soil covered.

For more information on soil health please contact your local Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) office or conservation district office located at your local county USDA Service Center (listed in the telephone book under United States Government or on the internet at offices.usda.gov). More information is also available on the Kansas Web site at www.ks.nrcs.usda.gov. Follow us on Twitter @NRCS_Kansas. USDA is an equal opportunity provider and employer.