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Sustainable Soil Management

Sustainable Soil Management

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ATTRA is the national sustainable agriculture information service operated by the National Center for Appropriate Technology, through a grant from the Rural Business-Cooperative Service, U.S.Department of Agriculture. These organizations do not recommend or endorse products,companies, or individuals. NCAT has offices in Fayetteville, Arkansas (P.O. Box 3657, Fayetteville,AR 72702), Butte, Montana, and Davis, California.
National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service
NCAT Agriculture SpecialistMay 2004S
This publication covers basic soil properties and management steps toward building and maintaininghealthy soils. Part I deals with basic soil principles and provides an understanding of living soils and how they work.In this section you will find answers to why soil organisms and organic matter are important. Part II covers manage-ment steps to build soil quality on your farm. The last section looks at farmers who have successfully built up their soil.The publication concludes with a large resource section of other available information.
©2004 NCAT
Table of Contents
Soybeans no-till planted into wheat stubble.Photo by Preston Sullivan
What are some features of good soil? Anyfarmer will tell you that a good soil:feels soft and crumbles easilydrains well and warms up quickly inthe springdoes not crust after plantingsoaks up heavy rains with little runoffstores moisture for drought periodshas few clods and no hardpanresists erosion and nutrient losssupports high populations of soilorganismshas a rich, earthy smelldoes not require increasing inputs forhigh yieldsproduces healthy, high-quality crops(1)All these criteria indicate a soil that functionseffectively today and will continue to producecrops long into the future. These characteris-tics can be created through management prac-tices that optimize the processes found in na-tive soils.How does soil in its native condition function?How do forests and native grasslands produceplants and animals in the complete absence offertilizer and tillage? Understanding the prin-ciples by which native soils function can helpfarmers develop and maintain productive andprofitable soil both now and for future genera-tions. The soil, the environment, and farm con-dition benefit when the soil’s natural produc-tivity is managed in a sustainable way. Reli-ance on purchased inputs declines year by year,while land value and income potential increase.Some of the things we spend money on can bedone by the natural process itself for little ornothing. Good soil management produces cropsand animals that are healthier, less susceptibleto disease, and more productive. To understandthis better, let’s start with the basics.
The Living Soil: T The Living Soil: T The Living Soil: T The Living Soil: T The Living Soil: T extur extur extur extur extur eeeeeand Structureand Structureand Structureand Structureand Structure
Soils are made up of four basic components:minerals, air, water, and organic matter. Inmost soils, minerals represent around 45% ofthe total volume, water and air about 25% each,and organic matter from 2% to 5%. The min-eral portion consists of three distinct particlesizes classified as sand, silt, or clay. Sand is thelargest particle that can be considered soil.Sand is largely the mineral quartz, though otherminerals are also present. Quartz contains noplant nutrients, and sand cannot hold nutri-ents—they leach out easily with rainfall. Siltparticles are much smaller than sand, but likesand, silt is mostly quartz. The smallest of allthe soil particles is clay. Clays are quite differ-ent from sand or silt, and most types of claycontain appreciable amounts of plant nutrients.Clay has a large surface area resulting from theplate-like shape of the individual particles.Sandy soils are less productive than silts, whilesoils containing clay are the most productive anduse fertilizers most effectively.
Soil texture
refers to the relative proportions ofsand, silt, and clay. A loam soil contains thesethree types of soil particles in roughly equal pro-portions. A sandy loam is a mixture containinga larger amount of sand and a smaller amountof clay, while a clay loam contains a largeramount of clay and a smaller amount of sand.These and other texture designations are listedinTable 1.Another soil characteristic—soil structure—isdistinct from soil texture.
refers to theclumping together or “aggregation” of sand, silt,and clay particles into larger secondary clusters.Sustainable: capable of being maintained atlength without interruption, weakening, orlosing in power or quality.
I.Characteristics of S
If you grab a handful of soil, good structure isapparent when the soil crumbles easily in yourhand. This is an indication that the sand, silt,and clay particles are aggregated into granulesor crumbs.Both texture and structure determine pore spacefor air and water circulation, erosion resistance,looseness, ease of tillage, and root penetration.While texture is related to the minerals in thesoil and does not change with agricultural ac-tivities, structure can be improved or destroyedreadily by choice and timing of farm practices.
The Living Soil: TheThe Living Soil: TheThe Living Soil: TheThe Living Soil: TheThe Living Soil: TheImportance of SoilImportance of SoilImportance of SoilImportance of SoilImportance of SoilOrganismsOrganismsOrganismsOrganismsOrganisms
An acre of living topsoil contains approximately900 pounds of earthworms, 2,400 pounds offungi, 1,500 pounds of bacteria, 133 pounds ofprotozoa, 890 pounds of arthropods and algae,and even small mammals in some cases(2).Therefore, the soil can be viewed as a living com-munity rather than an inert body. Soil organicmatter also contains dead organisms, plantmatter, and other organic materials in variousphases of decomposition. Humus, the dark-col-ored organic material in the final stages of de-composition, is relatively stable. Both organicmatter and humus serve as reservoirs of plantnutrients; they also help to build soil structureand provide other benefits.The type of healthy living soil required to sup-port humans now and far into the future willbe balanced in nutrients and high in humus,with a broad diversity of soil organisms. It willproduce healthy plants with minimal weed, dis-ease, and insect pressure. To accomplish this,we need to work
the natural processes andoptimize their functions to sustain our farms.Considering the natural landscape, you mightwonder how native prairies and forests func-tion in the absence of tillage and fertilizers.These soils are tilled by soil organisms, not bymachinery. They are fertilized too, but the fer-tility is used again and again and never leavesthe site. Native soils are covered with a layer ofplant litter and/or growing plants throughoutthe year. Beneath the surface litter, a rich com-plexity of soil organisms decompose plant resi-due and dead roots, then release their storednutrients slowly over time. In fact, topsoil isthe most biologically diverse part of the earth(3).Soil-dwelling organisms release bound-upminerals, converting them into plant-availableforms that are then taken up by the plants grow-ing on the site. The organisms recycle nutrientsagain and again with the death and decay ofeach new generation of plants.There are many different types of creatures thatlive on or in the topsoil. Each has a role to play.These organisms will work for the farmer’s ben-efit if we simply manage for their survival. Con-sequently, we may refer to them as soil livestock.While a great variety of organisms contributeto soil fertility, earthworms, arthropods, and thevarious microorganisms merit particular atten-tion.
Earthworm burrows enhance water infiltrationand soil aeration. Fields that are “tilled” byearthworm tunneling can absorb water at a rate4 to 10 times that of fields lacking worm tun-nels(4).This reduces water runoff, recharges groundwater, and helps store more soil waterfor dry spells. Vertical earthworm burrows pipeair deeper into the soil, stimulating microbialnutrient cycling at those deeper levels. Whenearthworms are present in high numbers, thetillage provided by their burrows can replacesome expensive tillage work done by machin-ery.
Table 1. Soil texture designationsranging from coarse to fine.
Texture DesignationCoarse-texturedFine-texturedSandLoamy sandSandy loamFine sandy loamLoamSilty loamSiltSilty clay loamClay loamClay

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