In recognition of World Soil Day, it is worthwhile to take a minute to reflect on the significance of soil health and soil conservation and recognize the importance of maintaining a healthy soil on your farm. Soil is one of the most valuable resources on a farm and in order to sustain its long-term productivity it requires special management considerations. Soil features such as soil structure, organic matter content, soil moisture and soil organisms are all affected by cropping practices. The goal of any cropping system should be to maintain or improve overall soil health. Cropping practices that adversely affect any of these features are not sustainable and will result in decreased yields and increased potential for erosion. Unfortunately, soil erosion is often only identified as a problem when deep channels are cut through a field, but in fact, soil erosion is occurring at unsustainable levels when even small rills are recognizable in the field.
Soil structure is important because it determines the ability of the soil to hold and conduct water, nutrients and air, necessary for plant root activity. All crops need a good root system to be productive. Compaction occurs when a farming activity occurs in a field when the soil is too wet. A compacted soil has less pore space and can result in rutting, reduced internal drainage, increased surface water runoff, decreased moisture holding ability and decreased yield. Soil structure and compaction can be improved by implementing the following practices:
- Monitor and manage organic matter levels since high levels can help prevent compaction and erosion
- Apply solid manure and compost to help maintain or increase soil organic matter
- Add several years of forage in the crop rotation. Forage crops can improve soil structure, build organic matter and add nitrogen, while also providing excellent soil coverage
- Plant a cover crop. When crops are harvested before October 1st, a cover crop will usually have time to become established
- Reduce the number of trips over a field by combining jobs when possible
- Stay off wet soils whenever possible
- Reduce the weight of equipment
- Use deep rooted cover crops
- Subsoil where necessary
Soil organic matter binds soil particles together improving soil tilth and reducing erosion potential. Soil organic matter can also retain water and nutrients within the soil and is a source of nitrogen and other nutrients through the growing season. It is important to monitor organic matter levels, because of the increased risk of soil erosion in fields with low (less than 4%) organic matter. If manures and composts are difficult to obtain, growing forages or other cover crops will also help increase organic matter levels in the soil.
Check out our various soil, nutrient management and cover crop factsheets on the factsheets section of our website!
An on-line cover crops decision tool is also available for eastern Canada: http://decision-tool.incovercrops.ca/. It provides performance ratings and planting windows for a variety of crops for each county in the province.