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Soil

Healthy soil is critical to successful agriculture and is vital to produce the food and fiber we use every day. When soil issues arise, from soil organism habitat degradation to erosion to nutrient depletion, they can have long-term and costly impacts to soil health and production goals.

Illustration of farm land with a barn

Get Assistance for Your Conservation Issues

Review common soil problems below and add issues you may be experiencing to My Conservation Concerns List. If you are experiencing other types of problems, continue to build your list by exploring the categories at the bottom of each page.

When you’re done, click Build Your List to finalize your list and get connected with free assistance from our conservation experts.

Soil Erosion

Non-concentrated water erosion

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Non-concentrated water sources, such as thin layers of water or small streamlets, can cause significant soil erosion damage if left untreated. This type of erosion can be classified into one of two categories based on how the water flows and the pattern of erosion.

Uniform shallow erosion

Water that flows uniformly over a wide surface can remove soil in thin layers (sheet erosion). This type of erosion can cause significant damage as it can cover large areas of land before a problem is identified. If left untreated, sheet erosion will gradually wash away important nutrients from the topsoil and can lead to unproductive soil.

"Evidence of erosion is shown in a tilled field"
Erosion in a conventionally-tilled field in Carbon County, Montana

Small streamlet erosion

Rainfall and runoff can cause small channels of concentrated water to form on land which can create streamlets (rills) that remove soil (detachment).

Causes

  • Bare or unprotected soil (i.e. lack of plant cover or residue cover)
  • Long and/or steep slopes
  • Intense rainfall or irrigation events when residue cover is at a minimum
  • Decreased infiltration by compaction, surface sealing, etc.

Possible Solutions

  • Residue management
  • Crop rotations
  • Cover crops
  • Adopting a soil health management system
  • Terraces
  • Contour farming
  • Stripcropping

Resources

  • Document

Wind erosion

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Wind erosion causes damage to land by transporting soil, which can cause soil loss, dryness, and soil deterioration. This type of erosion often occurs on flat, bare areas, where the soil is sandy, dry, and loose.

"A close-up photo of wind erosion"
Erosion by wind in Sheridan County, Montana

Causes

  • Bare or unprotected soil (i.e. lack of plant cover or residue cover)
  • Long, open fields
  • Strong wind events when residue cover is at a minimum
     

Possible Solutions

  • Residue management
  • Crop rotations
  • Cover crops
  • Adopting a soil health management system
  • Contour farming
  • Stripcropping
  • Windbreaks
  • Herbaceous wind barrier
     

Resources

Concentrated water erosion

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Concentrated streams of running water can cause soil erosion by creating sharp ditches or small valleys in land (gullies). This type of erosion can be classified into one of two categories based on the size and pattern of the damage.

Wide and shallow erosion

Certain events can cause temporary, wide areas of soil erosion that usually doesn’t run deeper than the tilled layer (ephemeral gullies). They typically occur in the same flow area and while they can usually be fixed over time through the use of conservation practices and minimized through practices that build soil health.

"A small, narrow ephemeral gully cuts across farm land"
Ephemeral gully in Hardin, Montana

Deep and narrow erosion

Running water can sharply erode soil and create large ditches or small valleys (classic gullies). If left untreated, these gullies may grow and create short cliffs or bluffs (head cutting) and grow deeper and wider when water removes soil from the stream’s bed or valley’s floor causing the banks to collapse (lateral widening).

Causes

  • Bare or unprotected soil (i.e. lack of plant or residue cover)
  • Excess runoff
  • Poor water infiltration into soil
  • Inadequate outlet for water
     

Possible Solutions

  • Residue management
  • Cover crops
  • Adopting a soil health management system
  • Terraces and/or grassed waterways
  • Grade stabilization structure
  • Lined waterway or outlet
  • Water and sediment control basin
     

Resources

Erosion along bodies of water

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Erosion that occurs on banks and shorelines can degrade water quality from the additional sediment that is added. This type of erosion occurs along large bodies of water such as lakes, rivers, and oceans, and also along smaller bodies of water such as streams.

Shoreline erosion

Shores of lakes, streams, rivers, and coastlines are naturally predisposed to erosion due to the moving water.

Bank erosion

Bank erosion occurs when the banks of a stream or river are gradually worn away. Water can erode soil and sediment underneath trees which can cause roots bound to soil to stick out over the water (abutments), however erosion can also occur in places where there are no trees.

Channel erosion

Erosion that occurs within areas between high banks (channels) is called channel erosion. Channel erosion can occur along a streambank, which directly erodes the bank, or directly along the streambed, which lowers the bed.

"Evidence of channel erosion is shown alongside the banks of a stream"
Channel erosion in Wallsburg, Utah

Causes

  • Increased runoff due to land use changes and degraded soil health in the watershed
  • Large runoff events
  • Degraded riparian areas
  • Uncontrolled livestock access
  • Tillage or other disturbance close to the stream bank
     

Possible Solutions

  • Watershed-wide adoption of soil health management systems
  • Bank armor and protection
  • Soil bioengineering practices
  • In-stream structures
  • Native material revetments
  • Riparian areas with native or locally adapted vegetation
  • Control livestock access to the water bodies
  • Vegetative buffers
     

Resources

Reduced Soil Health and Quality

Ground settling or sinking

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There are two situations where the grounds surface can gradually or suddenly sink or settle: the decay over time of the organic matter in organic soils, sometimes called muck or peat soils; and the gradual or sudden settling in other types of soils when subsurface support is removed. Both are called subsidence.

Since subsidence in organic soils occurs very slowly over time, the most common way to identify that it has occurred is to look at the difference between the field level and adjacent roads, windbreaks or other breaks between fields. If the field surface is noticeably lower than the edges, subsidence has probably occurred and is like still happening. Subsidence typically affects the entire field although it may not be evenly distributed.

In typical soils, subsidence is most often a sudden process where the soil appears to be level and intact and then suddenly collapses. In organic soils where subsidence has occurred, landowners often notice that the level of the field is now below the level of field roads, or other divisions between fields Affected areas are typically small, but broad and large areas of failure can occur.

"Farmers examine a large hole in their farm land"
Subsurface subsidence and dissolution cavities in Gordon County, Georgia

Causes

  • Drainage (organic soils)
  • Cultivation / Soil disturbance (organic soils)
  • Failure of existing agricultural infrastructure such as tile drains
  • Subsurface water movement above a natural or artificially compacted soil layer
     

Possible Solutions

  • Water table management (organic soils)
  • Management to reduce the risk of compaction (typical soils)
  • Appropriate maintenance of agricultural infrastructure 
     

Resources

Soil compaction

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Soil compaction occurs when soil particles become compressed. This can cause the soil to become overly dense which can impact the rate of drainage and saturation, can cause aeration-related problems, and can make it harder for roots to effectively penetrate the soil. Because soil properties can vary across the landscape, different soils have different risks for compaction. Management activities that cause compaction in one soil may not cause compaction in another.

"Photo of someone holding a large chunk of dry, compacted soil"
Dry, compacted soil in Virginia

Causes

  • Working wet soil
  • Excess traffic, machinery or livestock
  • Heavy machinery
  • Repeated tillage at the same depth
  • Poor aggregation
  • Low organic matter
  • Poorly managed grazing in pasture and range systems
     

Possible Solutions

  • Avoid working wet soil
  • Reduce traffic/tillage operations
  • Rotate crops
  • Controlled traffic patterns
  • Subsoil or rip compacted areas
  • Diversify cropping system
  • Conservation tillage or no till
  • Cover crops
  • Animal manures and compost
  • Non-compacting tillage
  • Grazing management
  • Adopt soil health management systems
     

Resources

Organic matter depletion

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If soil cannot adequately provide nutrition for plant growth, animal habitats, or soil biological activity, then it may suffer from organic matter depletion.

"A photo of two chunks of soil; healthy soil on the right with organic matter, and nutrient-depleted soil on the right"
Healthy soil with organic nutrients on the left; unhealthy, nutrient-depleted soil on the right

Causes

  • Soil disturbance
  • Intensive tillage systems
  • Low crop biomass (surface and subsurface)
  • Burning, harvesting or otherwise removing crop residues
  • Overgrazing in pasture and range systems
     

Possible Solutions

  • Diverse, high biomass crop rotations
  • Cover crops
  • Conservation tillage and no till
  • Grazing management
  • Adopt soil health management system
  • Perennials in rotations
  • Maintain crop residues on soil surface
  • Animal manure and compost
  • Water table management
     

Resources

Salts and chemicals in soil

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High levels of salt and other chemicals in soils can lead to pervasive problems such as negatively impacting germination, seedlings, vegetative growth, and a reduction in crop yields.

"A tilled field with white saline deposits"

Field with saline deposits in Liberty County, Montana

Causes

  • Naturally occurring in soils with high concentrations of soluble salts, e.g., sodium, calcium, and magnesium sulfates
  • Inadequate drainage to leach salt from the soil
  • Improper irrigation
  • Upward migration of salt from shallow ground water
  • Application of saline and/or sodic irrigation water

 

Possible Solutions

  • Proper use of irrigation water
  • Salt-tolerant crops
  • Removal of excess water from recharge areas
  • Maintenance of the water table at safe levels
  • Cropping and tillage systems that promote adequate infiltration and permeability
  • Reducing deep tillage

 

Resources

Soil organism habitat degradation

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Healthy soil is a living ecosystem that contains a diverse community of organisms. These organisms help stabilize and create space in the soil to enable air and gas exchange, allow water to infiltrate and be stored, and create an environment for fauna to reside and plants to grow well.

Soil health is the capacity of the soil to function as a vital living ecosystem that supports plants, animals, and humans. When there is inadequate food, cover, space, shelter, air, or water for these organisms to thrive, soil health is negatively impacted and soil functions degrade, causing a large number of symptoms including erosion, plant health issues, and water and air quality problems. Four soil health management systems principles contribute to maintaining soil organism habitat: maximizing soil cover and minimizing disturbance protects habitat, and maximizing the presence of living roots and biodiversity feeds soil biota.

"Photo of hands holding soil"
Examining soil in Ekalaka, Montana

Causes

  • Soil disturbance (physical, chemical and/or biological)
  • Fallow periods without living roots
  • Low biodiversity in the production system
  • Low plant biomass and surface cover 
  • Burning, harvesting or otherwise removing crop residue
  • Simplified crop rotations
  • Lack of animal integration in production systems
  • Overgrazing, reduce plant production which reduces food for soil biology 
     

Possible Solutions

  • Adopt a soil health management system
  • Conservation tillage
  • Cover crops
  • Diverse crop rotations
  • No-till cropping systems
  • Nutrient management
  • Grazing management
  • Maintain crop residues on the surface
  • Animal manure and compost
  • Irrigation water management
  • Mulching
  • Integrated pest management
     

Resources

Soil aggregate instability

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A soil aggregate, or water-stable aggregate, is made from particles of sand, silt, clay and organic matter that are bonded together. When stable, these aggregates greatly contribute to healthy soils by stabilizing soil carbon, allowing proper water infiltration and water holding capacity, aeration, and more. 

Many management activities used on working lands can lead to degradation of soil structure and aggregate stability

"Photo of someone holding and examining soil in a field"
Soil which displays soil aggregates in Havre, Montana

Causes

  • Poor soil health 
  • Degraded soil organism habitat
  • Soil disturbance (physical, chemical and/or biological)
  • Fallow periods without living roots
  • Low biodiversity in the production system
  • Low or no surface plant or plant residue cover
  • Low crop biomass (surface)
  • Burning, harvesting, or otherwise removing crop residue
  • Simplified crop rotations
     

Possible Solutions

  • Adopt a soil health management system
  • Cover crops
  • Diverse crop rotations with high residue crops
  • No-till/Strip-till cropping systems
  • Nutrient management
  • Grazing management
  • Maintain evenly spread crop residues on the surface
  • Well-managed animal manure and compost
  • Irrigation water management
  • Mulching
  • Reduced tillage
  • Pest management conservation system
     

Resources

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My Conservation Concerns List

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