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Getting Back to Basics – Soil Quality

MARK SCARPITTI,  STATE CONSERVATION AGRONOMIST

Soil quality is usually not something we often think about, yet if our soil is not healthy crop yields will be suppressed and the environment will suffer. Despite the long list of conservation practices available to producers that reduce erosion and improve water quality, we are seeing a resurgence of nitrates and soluble phosphorous in our lakes and streams contributing to algae blooms in Lake Erie and hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico.

If we look at an individual conservation practice as a stand alone management tool, it will likely fail. Many of our conservation practices are dependent on one another and on a healthy soil for their success. Therefore instead of looking at an individual conservation practice, we should look at a system of conservation practices. A conservation system considers soil quality factors such as adequate drainage, soil erosion, compaction, soil structure, nutrient management, surface crusting, water infiltration, and organic matter content.

For example, a continuous no-tillage cropping system, if used alone, will probably not be successful in northwest Ohio unless we look at all the soil quality factors. Many producers in that area of Ohio complain that the soils are too wet and cool for continuous no-tillage to work and that they need to till the soil to break up compaction. Instead of just implementing no-tillage, we should first consider whether the soil is adequately drained in order to make no-tillage viable. Good subsurface drainage is important for no-tillage to be successful.

Controlled traffic has become very feasible with the onset of RTK and auto-steer equipment. If compaction cannot be eliminated, it can at least be confined to designated traffic areas, significantly improving soil structure and water infiltration in the non-traffic areas. If compaction is controlled, the need to till the soil in order to break up compaction is dramatically reduced.

With adequate soil drainage, controlled compaction, and improved soil structure, a continuous no-tillage cropping system now has a good chance for success, which in turn reduces soil erosion, improves water infiltration and increases organic matter.

Taking it a step further, in addition to no-tillage, cover crops have proven to be very effective for controlling soil erosion, fixing nitrogen (legumes), reducing compaction, increasing soil organic matter, and tying up soluble phosphorus and nitrogen.

Rather than trying to implement a single stand alone conservation practice, consider looking at a system of practices that work together to improve soil health, water quality, and crop production.

For more information, contact your local NRCS office or me at 740-653-1500 ext 40.