Soil Management main page
Publications to help you get more from your soil
Improving soil performance requires different actions on each farm. Most soil-friendly farm practices fall into one of six groups. Each of these practices is further explained in other publications in the series.
Regular additions of organic material may be the most important way to enhance soil quality. Organic matter improves soil structure, enhances water and nutrient holding capacity, protects soil from erosion and compaction, and supports a healthy community of soil organisms. Organic matter includes residue and roots from the previous crop, animal manure, cover crops, or amendments from off the farm.
Tillage is valuable for loosening surface soil, preparing the seedbed, and controlling 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. Reducing tillage minimizes the loss of organic matter and increases the residue protecting the soil surface. Compaction reduces the amount of air, water, and space available to roots and soil organisms. Compaction is caused by traveling on wet soil or by heavy equipment.
In this century, pesticides and chemical fertilizers have revolutionized U.S. agriculture. In addition to their desired effects, they can harm non-target organisms and pollute water and air if they are mismanaged. Nutrients from organic sources also can become pollutants when misapplied or over-applied. Efficient pest and nutrient management means applying only the necessary chemicals, at the right time and place to get the job done; testing and monitoring soil and pests; and adding non-chemical approaches to your management toolbox (such as crop rotations, cover crops, and manure management).
Bare soil is susceptible to wind and water erosion, and to drying and crusting. Groundcover protects soil, provides habitats for larger soil organisms (such as insects and earthworms), and can improve water availability. Farmers often leave crop residue on the surface to cover the ground between growing seasons.
Living cover crops create new organic matter and help feed soil organisms. Groundcover must be managed to prevent problems with delayed soil warming in spring, diseases, and excessive build-up of phosphorus at the surface.
Diversity is beneficial for several reasons. Each crop contributes a unique root structure and type of residue to the soil. A diversity of soil organisms helps control pest populations, and a diversity of cultural practices reduces 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 adding crops to the crop rotation or by varying tillage practices. 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.
Nothing can replace the value of "casual" observations of how your land is changing from day to day and year to year. Yet, to fine-tune management practices and promptly determine whether changes in soil or crops are significant, you also need to make systematic observations of the soil.
How do I keep soil records?
Soil records should allow you to assess your soil, identify problem areas, and track changes in management practices and soil condition. A record-keeping system could consist of:
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