Healthy soil is the foundation of productive, sustainable agriculture.
Managing for soil health allows producers to work with the land – not against – to reduce erosion, maximize water infiltration, improve nutrient cycling, save money on inputs, and ultimately improve the resiliency of their working land.
Whether you grow corn in Alabama, raise beef cattle in Wyoming, or something in between, we’re here to help you build the health of your soils and strengthen your operation. Learn here about the principles of soil health and usable best practices. Then visit your local USDA service center where we can help you develop a management plan that supports your goals.
Four Principles of Soil Health
1. Minimize Disturbance
From hooves to plows, soil is disturbed in many ways. While some disturbance is unavoidable, minimizing disturbance events across your operation is an important step to building healthier soils.
2. Maximize Soil Cover
As a general rule, soil should be covered whenever possible. You can plant cover crops in both grazing and cropland operations to accomplish this goal. On grazing lands, you can also practice rotational grazing to maximize perennial grasses and forbs.
3. Maximize Biodiversity
Increasing diversity across your operation can break disease cycles, stimulate plant growth, and provide habitats for pollinators and organisms living in your soil. Healthy systems are diverse systems.
4. Maximize Presence of Living Roots
Living roots reduce soil erosion and provide food for organisms like earthworms and microbes that cycle the nutrients your plants need.
Best Practices for Your Working Lands
Reduce or Eliminate Tillage
We’ve learned that most operations do not need heavy tillage – or often any tillage at all – to produce healthy crops. Minimizing tillage can reduce soil erosion across your operation while saving time and money.
Can fuel and labor reductions really make up for the money invested in switching to no-till farming? A Natural Resources Conservation Service fuel savings report can help you answer this question for your operation.
Read the USDA blog story: Saving Money, Time and Soil: The Economics of No-Till Farming
Plant Cover Crops
Though not typically harvested for a profit, cover crops still provide valuable services to your operation. The roots of cover crops make channels in the soil that improves its ability to take in water. Cover crops also build soil organic matter, hold soil in place that might otherwise erode, and feed soil organisms that provide valuable nutrients to cash crops during the traditional growing season.
Integrate Livestock with Rotational Grazing
Grazing animals recycle nutrients across the landscape. By managing your livestock to graze where and when you want, you can return valuable nutrients and organic matter back to your land and ultimately your soil.
Best Practices Crop Rotations
Use Diverse Crop Rotations
Diversity can be improved with cash crops as well as cover crops. Diverse crop rotations can reduce pests and diseases that are specific to certain plant species, build the health of soil microbes that provide nutrients to your plants and ultimately lead to improved yields.