Soil Quality/Health

The educational materials listed on this page are about Soil Quality/Health.

Farmers and ranchers use the term soil health to describe the condition of the soil. Scientists usually use the term soil quality, but both refer to the same idea — how good is the soil in its role of supporting the growth of high-yielding, high-quality, and healthy crops? Healthy soil generates higher crop yields, it absorbs and holds rainfall, and erosion is therefore reduced.  The information here will show you how to improve soil fertility and build healthy soil. Two comprehensive books to consult are Building Soils for Better Crops and Managing Cover Crops Profitably.

Crop rotation, the use of diverse soil management practices, composting, and cover crops all contribute to healthy soil by conserving and building soil organic matter, absorbing rainfall, and retaining crop residues on the soil surface. Major conservation practices include conservation tillagecontour farming, strip cropping, terraces, diversions, and grassed waterways.

Soil consists of four parts: mineral solids, water, air, and soil organic matter. All four are important characteristics of fertile soil.

Soil organic matter consists of three parts: living organisms, fresh residues, and well-decomposed residues. The living part of soil organic matter includes a wide variety of microorganisms, such as bacteria, viruses, fungi, protozoa and algae. It includes plant roots as well as insects, earthworms, and larger animals in the soil. The fresh residues consist of recently deceased microorganisms, insects, earthworms, old plant roots, crop residues and recently added manures. This part of soil organic matter is the active, or easily decomposed, fraction. As soil organic matter is decomposed, many plant nutrients are released. The well-decomposed organic material in soil is called humus.The already well-decomposed humus is not a food for organisms, but its very small size and chemical properties make it an important part of a healthy soil. Humus holds on to some essential plant nutrients, storing them for slow release to plants. Good amounts of soil humus can both lessen drainage and compaction problems that occur in clay soils and improve water retention in sandy soils by enhancing aggregation, which reduces soil density, and by holding on to and releasing water.

The soil water, also called the soil solution, contains dissolved plant nutrients and is the main source of water for plants. Soil nutrients are made available to the roots of plants through the soil solution. The air in the soil provides roots with oxygen and helps remove excess carbon dioxide from respiring root cells. When mineral and organic particles clump together, soil aggregates are formed, resulting in a healthy soil with good soil structure and more spaces, or pores, for storing water.

Traditional Fertilizer, Modern Applications for Iroquois White Corn

Farmers have long relied on liquid fish fertilizers because they are a source burn-free nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. Traditional Native American growers were well aware of the benefits that decaying fish could bring to their soil; they buried fish under mounded soil and planted the 3 Sisters (corn, beans, and squash) directly on top of […]

Cover Crop-based Reduced Tillage for Fall Production of Cabbage,Cauliflower and Broccoli Using a Roller-Crimper and No-Till Planting Aid

Cover crops can reduce erosion, improve soil health, slow weeds, enhance nutrient and moisture availability, control pests, and offer other benefits to vegetable producers. After vegetable grower, Thomas Ruggieri, planted cover crops on his farm in rural Clay County, Missouri in 2004, he noticed dramatic improvement in soil fertility and plant health. Ruggieri and Rebecca […]

Managing the Environment in High Tunnels for Cool Season Vegetable Production

Light, temperature, and relative humidity influence how crops grow and develop. With support from SARE, Purdue University Extension developed this publication, which introduces important factors to consider during design, operation, and daily management of high tunnels, and explains plant responses to the environment.

Research Team Studies Biofuel Cropping System to Increase Crop Profitability

The North Central region has over 11 million acres of claypan and claypan-like soil areas that are disproportionate sources of nonpoint pollution and soil quality degradation when used for grain production. Hank Stelzer wanted to determine whether a short-rotation willow biofuel cropping system on claypan soil could improve crop profitability, but establishing a willow crop […]

Producers and Researchers Collaborate to Improve Soil Health in North Dakota

Soil—and whole farms—have been renewed through soil-improving practices like cover crops and no till. In the semiarid plains of western North Dakota, a team of producers and researchers are working to boost soil health for improved yield stability, farm income, and natural resource health of farms. The Southwest North Dakota Soil Health Project is a […]

Women Caring for the Land: Cover Crops Booklet

Women landowners say that they want their family farms to remain healthy and productive for future generations. But many feel they don't have all the information they need to protect their land. This booklet introduces cover crops as an option, one of the simplest techniques to try with the most visible benefits. 

SARE Cover Crops Webinars

As part of the Missouri SARE State Program, Debi Kelly hosted two webinars on Cover Crops in fall 2012. Presenters included Charles Ellis, a Natural Resource Engineer with the Lincoln County University of Missouri Extension Center, and Rich Hoormann, an Agronomy Specialist with Montgomery County University of Missouri Extension Center. 

Women Caring for the Land: Improving Conservation Outreach to Female Non-Operator Farmland Owners Curriculum Manual

With the help of an NCR-SARE Research and Education Grant and funding from other sources, WFAN developed an award winning curriculum called Women Caring for the LandSM (WCL), which is designed to serve female non-operator landowners who are interested in learning more about conservation and other land management topics. The materials are also appropriate to teach youth about sustainable agriculture through hands-on conservation activity lesson plans.

Dakota Farmer’s Success Catches On

Dan Forgey has always had an abiding respect for the land that he has farmed for more than 40 years, which is why, as manager of the 8,500-acre Cronin Farms in Gettysburg, S.D., he strives to build soil health—and yields—sustainably. First, he shifted the farm to 100 percent no-till in 1993, around the time that […]