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Common Soil Health Improvement Methods and their Financial Benefits


Soil health is a widely talked about issue that often leads to more questions than answers. What exactly is soil health? Do we all define it the same way? How do we know when soil is healthy? Do we need to constantly be improving soil health or is there a threshold we can reach where soil will maintain its own "health"?

To start, let's define soil health: "The ability of soil to support crop growth without becoming degraded or otherwise hurting the environment."

As soil becomes degraded, growers become more reliant on nutrition inputs to build fertility back into the soil. If plants cannot reliably use all of the added nutrients, those nutrients can leach out from the soil and either run off into waterways or seep into groundwater.

In Ontario, our soil is at risk from several threats, including but not limited to: an increased demand on food production with continuously shrinking amounts of farm land, increased frequency of extreme weather, and changes in cropping practices that can reduce soil health. There are several trends that have also led to reduced soil health in Ontario. This includes a major shift to more annual crops, the use of less diverse crop rotations, a reduction of hay and manure availability, and the use of increasingly larger and heavier equipment.


There are three main soil improvement actions we are going to focus on in this article:

  1. Building soil organic matter

  2. Diversifying crops

  3. Minimizing soil disturbance

  4. Keeping living roots all year

Building Soil Organic Matter


Soil organic matter (SOM) consists of plant and animal material at various stages of decomposition that soil microbes can metabolize and use to synthesize new substances. SOM gives a range of benefits to both the physical and chemical properties of soil and can provide regulatory ecosystem services. SOM also acts as a major sink and source of soil carbon, which is the driving force of the movement of energy in soil.

A common way of increasing SOM is through applications of compost or manure. These amendments help to improve SOM as they provide fuel for microorganisms, and help to improvement soil structure and aggregate stability. Additionally, improved SOM can increase water holding capacity as organic matter can hold up to 10 times its weight in water. By storing more water in the soil and improving soil structure, crops will start to become more resilient in the face of extreme weather.

Droughts may not have as big a detriment to your crop as there is more available water for plants to access. Extreme rain events may not be as destructive to the top soil as improved soil structure will allow more water to infiltrate into the soil horizon and increased SOM will absorb more stormwater. Increased water holding capacity would lead to a reduction in money spent on water usage. Fewer crop losses due to extreme weather leads to more earnings from harvest.

Diversify Crops


Monocultures have become an increasingly standard practice in Ontario. Though it may have some benefits in the form of simplicity there are also some significant disadvantages in the way of soil health. Monocultures negatively impact soil ecosystems in that the lack of plant diversity also correlates to a lack of microbial diversity, and soil microbes are responsible for nutrient cycling and inducing natural plant defences. Farmers generally need to use chemical inputs to feed plants as there is little nutrient content left in the soil, and the chemicals used will remain present in the soil if they have not already leached out into groundwater supply.

Farmers can support biodiversity by planting different kinds of crops over time. Crop rotations can be implemented, or cover crops can be used as well to increase biodiversity. A diversified crop rotation helps to control pests, effectively manage nutrients, and improve soil fertility and yield which increases the long term profitability of the field.

By controlling pests and managing nutrients through crop diversity, farmers can reduce the amount of fertilizer and pesticidal/fungicidal inputs needed for each crop. Increased yields directly lead to increased revenue from harvest. Additionally, some cover crops like peas can be brought to market, creating another source of potential revenue.

Minimize Soil Disturbance


Tilling involves turning over the 6-10 inches of soil prior to planting a new crop. This increasingly used practice works surface crop residues deep into the field, blending them into the soil. Tilling also warms and aerates the soil. Though this sounds advantageous, tilling can do more harm than good.

Tillage loosens and removes plant that covers the soil, leaving soil bare. Bare soil is much more likely to be eroded by wind and water. Undisturbed soil is like a sponge, with an intricate structure created by plant roots and soil organisms. Tillage disturbs soil structure and the soil becomes less able to absorb water and hold nutrients. Tillage also destroys the habitat of soil microorganisms and negatively impacts soil ecosystems.

By adopting no till practices, growers can reduce the amount of soil loss from wind and water erosion. A no-till approach also reduces the risk of soil structure degradation and soil compaction due to a limited use of heavy machinery on the field. By reducing or eliminating tillage practices, farm soils should be able to retain more water and nutrients, while maintaining an active soil microorganism population. The reduced use of machinery leads to fewer machine maintenance expenditures, less money spent on fuel and a reduction in labour. Some soils will even be easier to plant in under a no-till system, saving time and labour spent on planting.

Economic Challenges


Though there are economic benefits to the practices we mentioned above, there are still financial hurtles that farmers will have to maneuver. Manure and compost can be a logistical issue for farms that do not have easy access to those inputs. Often, soil health improvement provides financial benefits that are seen years down the road, creating an upfront cost that farmers may not see a return on right away. It's also difficult to put a real number on the financial losses caused by soil degradation. Not every farm will be using the same cultural practices so standardizing the financial losses will be difficult.


Nurture Growth Bio-fertilizer and Soil Health Improvement


We recognize that cultural practice changes can be daunting and may also incur risky overhead costs. However, there is a simple and economically effective solution that you can implement today to begin improving soil health: Nurture Growth Biofertilizer.

Improving microbial life in the soil can provide fast benefits for growers who are experience soil health issues. Nurture Growth Biofertilizer contains a proprietary, patent pending blend of powerful microorganisms that act fast to improve soil health and can help plants survive the toughest growing seasons. The microorganisms in our formula will fix nitrogen from the air, mobilize phosphorus and potassium that are locked in the soil, and synthesize organic compounds that drastically improve root development in plants. Nurture Growth Biofertilizer is the easiest to use biological on the market that will build resilience in your crops and soil.

Please read more about our solution at www.NurtureGrowthBio.com. If you want to know how Nurture Growth Biofertilizer can work on your farm or within your current input program, our dedicated technical representatives are ready to work with you.




Blogger Biography

Eric is a gradate of the Environmental Science program at the University of Toronto. Coming from the green roof and landscaping industries, he does not hesitate to get his hands in the soil. He is actively searching for new ways to learn about our agricultural systems and get involved with his local agricultural community. Eric is an avid birdwatcher and advocate for environmental responsibility.




 

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