How well we manage soil in a large part helps determine how well the soil does what we want it to do.
Choosing specific practices within each component depends on the situation since different types of soil respond differently to the same practice. Each combination of soil type and land use calls for a different set of practices to enhance soil quality.
Enhance organic matter: Whether your soil is naturally high or low in organic matter, adding new organic matter every year is perhaps the most important way to improve and maintain soil quality. Regular additions of organic matter improve soil structure, enhance water and nutrient holding capacity, protect soil from erosion and compaction, and support a healthy community of soil organisms. Practices that increase organic matter include: leaving crop residues in the field, choosing crop rotations that include high residue plants, using optimal nutrient and water management practices to grow healthy plants with large amounts of roots and residue, growing cover crops, applying manure or compost, using low or no tillage systems, and mulching.
Avoid excessive tillage: Reducing tillage minimizes the loss of organic matter and protects the soil surface with plant residue. Tillage is used to loosen surface soil, prepare the seedbed, and control weeds and pests. But tillage can also break up soil structure, speed the decomposition and loss of organic matter, increase the threat of erosion, destroy the habitat of helpful organisms, and cause compaction. New equipment allows crop production with minimal disturbance of the soil. For more information about conservation tillage, visit the Conservation Technology Information Center.
Manage pests and nutrients efficiently: An important function of soil is to buffer and detoxify chemicals, but soil's capacity for detoxification is limited. Pesticides and chemical fertilizers have valuable benefits, but they also can harm non-target organisms and pollute water and air if they are mismanaged. Nutrients from organic sources also can pollute when misapplied or over-applied. Efficient pest and nutrient management means testing and monitoring soil and pests; applying only the necessary chemicals, at the right time and place to get the job done; and taking advantage of non-chemical approaches to pest and nutrient management such as crop rotations, cover crops, and manure management.
Prevent soil compaction: Compaction reduces the amount of air, water, and space available to roots and soil organisms. Compaction is caused by repeated traffic, heavy traffic, or traveling on wet soil. Deep compaction by heavy equipment is difficult or impossible to remedy, so prevention is essential.
Keep the ground covered: Bare soil is susceptible to wind and water erosion, and to drying and crusting. Ground cover protects soil, provides habitats for larger soil organisms, such as insects and earthworms, and can improve water availability. Ground can be covered by leaving crop residue on the surface or by planting cover crops. In addition to ground cover, living cover crops provide additional organic matter, and continuous cover and food for soil organisms. Ground cover must be managed to prevent problems with delayed soil warming in spring, diseases, and excessive build-up of phosphorus at the surface.
Diversify cropping systems: Diversity is beneficial for several reasons. Each plant contributes a unique root structure and type of residue to the soil. A diversity of soil organisms can help control pest populations, and a diversity of cultural practices can reduce weed and disease pressures. Diversity across the landscape can be increased by using buffer strips, small fields, or contour strip cropping. Diversity over time can be increased by using long crop rotations. Changing vegetation across the landscape or over time not only increases plant diversity, but also the types of insects, microorganisms, and wildlife that live on your farm.