Healthy soil, healthy field: Finding the answer to successful yields begins by looking down

Wednesday, July 30, 2014
(Contributed photo)

The ground is full of dirt. It can also be said to be full of life. The ground, which is used for farming and agriculture, has been the foundation of life basically since we (humans) have been here. A good, healthy, rich soil can bring forth many of the nutrients we need to survive. That is why soil health is so important.

It seems now if farmers and ranchers continue down the path of heavy tillage use, eventually the soil that so many depend on will lose organic matter, and ultimately, its productivity in providing the food and sources we depend on.

There is a term being used known as conservation agriculture. Information obtained from the Agriculture and Consumer Protection Department simply puts it as a way to manage land for improved and sustained productivity in order to increase food security. It is guided by the following three principles:

-- Continuous minimum mechanical soil disturbance.

-- Permanent organic soil cover.

-- Diversification of crop species grown in sequences and/or associations.

A table showing the amount of time and labor it takes between conventional farming and conservation farming. (Photo from Food and Agricultural Organization)

When we look at these three principles, the idea of no-tillage and importance of soil health becomes more apparent. No-tillage is accomplished by direct seeding where the seed is delivered through a seed slot, which is covered by mulch after seeding. This is done in conjunction with using cover crops, and as anyone in agriculture should know, the use of cover crops help maintain the soil's fertility and quality. It also provides some protection against the elements. This leads to crop diversification or crop rotation. The purpose of crop rotation is to provide various nutrients to the soil microorganisms and penetrate different layers of the soil for those nutrients.

USDA Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Krysta Harden said the use of cover crops is important because it spreads life and there needs to be a soil health management system in place.

The importance of soil health is evident here as it contributes to a system that sustains plants, animals and humans. Information retrieved from the Agriculture and Consumer Protection Department explains this definition speaks to the importance of managing and maintaining soil, so it's sustainable for future generations. In order for this to occur, we need to remember that soil contains living organisms that perform the functions needed to produce food and fiber.

It has been said a healthy soil can offer clean air and water, plentiful crops and forests, productive and attractive grazing lands, a wide range of wildlife and beautiful landscapes. Soil does this by performing five essential functions:

-- regulating water

(Photo from Natural Resource Defense Council)

-- sustaining plant and animal life

-- filtering and buffering potential pollutants

-- cycling nutrients

-- physical stability and support

Advantages to conservation agriculture include economic benefits, agronomic benefits and environmental and social benefits. By the adoption of conservation agriculture, the amount of time and labor can be greatly reduced. With the reduction of time and labor, costs would decrease for fuel, machinery costs and maintenance, among other costs. A final economic benefit would be a higher output for less input. Agronomic benefits include a rise in organic matter; in-soil water conservation, allowing the soil to hold and retain more water; and overall improvement in the soil structure, and ultimately, the rooting zone. The environmental benefits would include the reduction in soil erosion, and then would lead to a reduction of costs to maintain road, dam and hydroelectric power plants, improvement of water and air quality and an increase in biodiversity.

"Improving soil health will make farms and ranchers sustain and recover from all conditions," Harden said. "Stop treating soil like dirt and start treating it like our life depends on it."

Very bold words from Deputy Secretary Harden, but very true words. Life flows from the soil. There should be ways to protect and preserve that for the future.

For more information about conservation agriculture, please visit www.fao.org/ag/ca/index.html. For other information about sustainable agriculture, log on to www.sustainableagriculture.net.