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Soil Health in field and forage crop production

Soil health in field and forage crop production





Improving Soil Health in Field and Forage Crop Production

Soil health is the continued capacity of soil to function as a living ecosystem that sustains plants, animals, and humans. Viewing soil as a living ecosystem that has 'health' reflects a fundamental shift in the way we think about soil. Soil isn't an inert growing medium that needs to be filled up with water and nutrients when it runs out. Rather, if the soil is healthy, it is teeming with large and small organisms that live together in a dynamic, complex web of relationships. Farm crops and animals become part of this unique 'cycle of life.'

A healthy soil enables a cropping system to run smoothly, just like the well-oiled hub of a wheel. In contrast, a 'sick' soil has an ecosystem that is out of balance, lacks certain key organisms, or lacks the food these organisms need. This results in problems such as low yield, increased runoff, soil moisture deficits, pest and disease problems, and nutrient deficiencies. In the past, it was common to treat the symptoms of poor soil health with temporary patches. For example, runoff problems might be dealt with by tilling the soil to increase pore space, not realizing that the fundamental problems were lack of soil armor (i.e., cover) to protect the soil from raindrop impact, absence of continuous living vegetation to capture solar energy to feed soil organisms which create spongy soil structure, and a living root system that stimulates aggregation!

Lack of soil health is usually the reason farmers, researchers, and policy makers struggle with no-till. If soil is healthy, success with no-till is achievable and problems such as the excessive use of pesticides or nutrient runoff are avoided. Considering the negative impacts of tillage on soil health continuous no-till is recommended to achieve optimal soil health. Continuous no-till is planting all crops without the use of any prior tillage.

Continuous No-Till for Soil Health

No-till is a powerful tool to combat erosion. It increases residue cover and creates firmer soil and better soil structure. No-till reduces erosion by more than 80 percent versus chisel plowing in a corn-soybean rotation where crop residue is left after harvest. To learn more Continuous No-Till for Soil Health, click here!

Soil health is like the hub of a wheel, while continuous no-till is the rim.Wagon wheel diagram with labels












These 14 spokes are management principles and techniques to improve soil health:

1. Diversify Crop Rotations

2. Plant Cover Crops

3. Diversify Cover Crops

4. Maximize Living Roots

5. Grow Living Plants

6. Manage Carbon

7. Use Interseeding

8. Plant Green

9. Enhance Soil Armor

10. Manage Nutrients

11. Manage Manure

12. Manage Pests

13. Avoid Compaction

14. Integrate Crops and Livestock

STOP And take a few moments to review each topic (spoke) to learn more!

When spokes are missing, the wheel starts to weaken and malfunction, but when they are present, the system is highly productive, profitable, environmentally sustainable, and stronger. Let’s explore into how to build soil health, increase profit from a diversity of enterprises, reduce risk by weather-proofing crops against extremes in rainfall and temperature, protect crops from pests and diseases, and utilize animals as an integral part of the farm. Select one of the spoke topics to learn more!

What conclusion can be drawn after reviewing all this information? Remember no-till works best when all the spokes are addressed!

Soil health is like the hub of a wheel and continuous no-till is the rim. When all 14 spokes connecting hub and rim are present, the system is highly productive, profitable, and environmentally sustainable. Click here to learn more...

This subject matter was based on the publication entitled: "Improving Soil Health in Field and Forage Crop Production" (PDF, 10.7MB), read it or download it, click on the the title.


Last updated:  May 26, 2021