October 26, 2021

Curry: Soil health — What is the big deal?

Soil health is still a relatively new idea and it is currently getting a lot of attention. The U.S. Department of Agriculture awarded $6.3 million dollars in soil health grants in April 2021.

But, really, what is soil health and why does it matter? The USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service defines soil heath “as the continued capacity of soil to function as a vital living ecosystem that sustains plants, animals and humans.”

In order to understand soil health, we must first realize that soil is an ecosystem and is home to billions of macro fauna and microorganisms that make production agriculture possible. Soil macro fauna play a key role in nutrient cycling and controlling harmful pests.

We rely on soil microorganisms to decompose organic matter, fix nitrogen for plant uptake, improve soil aggregate stability, increase plant root area for nutrient uptake and help break disease cycles. A thriving ecosystem containing macro fauna and soil microorganisms is vital for soil health.

Principles of soil health are to minimize disturbance, maximize living cover, maximize biodiversity and maximize continuous living roots. The principles feed and protect the soil, which improves soil aggregate stability.

In turn, this improves soils’ resiliency to the increasing number and intensity of weather incidents, like heavy rainfall events or drought, by increasing infiltration and decreasing evaporation.

Improving soil health also improves a field’s uniformity and can increase profitability. Additional benefits to the producer include an eventual reduction in the need for pesticides and fertilizer.

There is a variety of ways to improve soil health, depending on your system. Minimizing disturbance can be achieved through reduced tillage or no-tillage practices and reducing the number of passes you make across your field through nutrient management and integrated pest management.

You can maximize soil cover through the addition of cover crops, prescribed grazing, the addition of forage or biomass crops and managing residue. Maximizing biodiversity can be done through using a diverse cover crop mixture, increasing diversity within your crop rotation and integrating livestock grazing.

Achieve maximized living roots through growing crops in the off-season, including cover crops or managed grazing to your system, decreasing re-cropping intervals, avoiding fallow and adding perennial crops to your system.

These are just some ideas to help you improve your soil health; other options may be a better fit for your operation. Do your research and experiment with new techniques on a small field or a few acres before trying a new practice on a large scale.

Soil health is something that has been taken for granted for too long. There are many things that you can do to help improve and restore your soil health.

For more ideas you can incorporate into your production system, contact your local U of I Extension commercial agriculture educator or find a soil health specialist near you on the Illinois Sustainable Ag Partnership webpage under the “Contact” tab.

Rachel Curry is a University of Illinois Extension watershed outreach associate.