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News Release

Dig A Little, Learn A Lot!

Molly McDonough

Dig A Little, Learn A Lot!

Spring is a great time to investigate you soil's health

As temperatures go UP and the weather begins to feel more Spring-like, it is the perfect time to focus your attention by looking DOWN at the ground. It’s time to investigate your SOIL.

Did you know that there are as many living organisms in a teaspoonful of healthy soil as there are people on Earth? Every inch of healthy soil contains its own small world of life, complete with millions of builders, decomposers, rivals, and partners. These micro-organisms filter contaminants, cycle nutrients, regulate water usage, and stabilize soil into aggregates. As an agricultural producer, taking care of these micro-organisms will go a long way in increasing your crop production, mitigating the negative effects of drought, and ensuring overall success on your farm.

You can take care of these micro-organisms by improving and managing for soil health. There are several key steps that agricultural producers can take to manage and improve soil health:

  1. Increase Soil Organic Matter by Leaving Behind Crop Residue: Crop residue provides soil with a protective cover that not only reduces erosion, but also maintains essential food for soils’ living organisms. By introducing organic matter into the soil, crop reside improves water infiltration and maintains soil moisture that crops can use in dry periods, resulting in higher yields without irrigation. One acre of healthy soil can store more than 160,000 gallons of water.
  2. Plant a Cover Crop: Plant roots are “hot spots” for biological activities like nutrient cycling and soil aggregate stability. Both living and dead or dying roots improve water infiltration and break up compacted soils. Using diverse cover crops throughout the year helps ensure natural fertilizer is delivered to plants, less nitrogen leaches into subsurface water, phosphorus run-off is reduced, and grazing seasons are extended. Soil Health benefits multiply when two or more cover species are planted together, a cover crop cocktail, using a no-till drill and no pre-plant tillage.   For livestock producers, crop residue can extend the grazing season. Cereal rye grain is a popular choice in Pennsylvania because it grows into early winter, greens-up early in the spring, and in a pinch, can be used as a forage crop, either as pasture or made into early spring silage. Rye is a good scavenger of soil nitrates that could otherwise be lost through leaching over winter. Its fibrous root system increases soil organic matter, which increases crop tolerance to summer drought and provides nutrient efficiency improvements. When planted after silage, rye provides a good vegetative canopy that protects the soil surface from pounding rain, slows runoff, and stabilizes the surface so the organisms that improve aeration, infiltration, residue decomposition, and natural pest protection can thrive.
  3. Minimize Soil Disturbance: When farmers plow or till the soil, it can cause compaction or “plow pan” which restricts water infiltration and increases runoff. Like all living things, soil organisms need air and water to breathe and to deliver nutrients that support the food web. Practices like no-till enable soils to hold water like a sponge and allow better infiltration, along with reducing erosion. In contrast, disturbances like conventional tillage destroy pore structure, making it impossible for soil, air, and water to reach living organisms within the soil.
    Earthworms are a sign of healthy, living soil.
  4. Evaluate your soil: To investigate your soil’s level of health, you’ll need a few simple tools: a garden spade or shovel, your nose, your eyes, and your hands.

LOOK- One of the first soil health and soil quality indicators to evaluate is the color of the surface layer. Soils with a dark color in the surface tend to have a lot of organic matter contained within the upper twelve inches of the soil profile. The soil structure should resemble chocolate cake with air holes permeating throughout. You also should see organic matter and live roots that extend through the soil profile, along with earthworms, soil’s wonderful engineers!

SMELL- Healthy soil should have the aroma of geosmin, which is a byproduct of soil microbes and has a sweet, earthy aroma.

TOUCH- Soil should be loose and crumble easily. In healthy soils, roots can grow straight and deep, allowing plants to reach nutrients and water they need to produce the foods we love to eat.

The USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service provides assistance to producers who want to improve their soil health with these and other conservation practices. For additional soil health farming practices and information, contact your local USDA NRCS Service Center, or visit us at A soil health checklist and assessment worksheet are also available for download to assist you in obtaining optimal soil health.

Also, be sure to visit us during Ag Progress Days this year. NRCS will have several stations set up in and around the Conservation Building where participants can experience demos, presentations, and hand-on activities to learn more about the importance of soils and soil health. See you in August!