Sustainable Soil Management


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Sustainable Soil Management

  1. 1. SUSTAINABLE SOIL USTAINABLE MANAGEMENT SOIL SYSTEMS GUIDENational Sustainable Agriculture Information Service Abstract: This publication covers basic soil properties and management steps toward building and maintaining healthy 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.By Preston SullivanNCAT Agriculture SpecialistMay 2004©2004 NCAT Table of Contents Part I. Characteristics of Sustainable Soils ....................................... 2 Introduction ................................................. 2 The Living Soil: Texture and Structure ............................................ 2 The Living Soil: The Importance of Soil Organisms .......................................... 3 Organic Matter, Humus, and the Soil Foodweb .................................................... 7 Soil Tilth and Organic Matter ................... 8 Tillage, Organic Matter, and Plant Productivity ........................................... 10 Fertilizer Amendments and Biologically Active Soils ....................... 13 Conventional Fertilizers .......................... 14 Top$oil – Your Farm’$ Capital .............. 15 Summary of Part I .................................... 18 Summary of Sustainable Soil Management Principles ............... 19 Part II. Management Steps to Improve Soil Quality ............................ 20 Part III. Examples of Successful Soil Builders (Farmer Profiles) ............ 25 References .................................................. 27 Photo by Preston Sullivan Additional Resources .............................. 28 Soybeans no-till planted into wheat stubble.ATTRA is the national sustainable agriculture information service operated by the National Centerfor 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.
  2. 2. PART I. Characteristics of SUSTAINABLE SOILS Introduction Sustainable: capable of being maintained at length without interruption, weakening, or losing in power or quality.What are some features of good soil? Anyfarmer will tell you that a good soil: Textur exture The Living Soil: Texture • feels soft and crumbles easily • drains well and warms up quickly in and Structure the spring • does not crust after planting • soaks up heavy rains with little runoff Soils are made up of four basic components: • stores moisture for drought periods minerals, air, water, and organic matter. In • has few clods and no hardpan most soils, minerals represent around 45% of • resists erosion and nutrient loss the total volume, water and air about 25% each, • supports high populations of soil and organic matter from 2% to 5%. The min- organisms eral portion consists of three distinct particle • has a rich, earthy smell sizes classified as sand, silt, or clay. Sand is the • does not require increasing inputs for largest particle that can be considered soil. high yields • produces healthy, high-quality crops Sand is largely the mineral quartz, though other (1) minerals are also present. Quartz contains no plant nutrients, and sand cannot hold nutri-All these criteria indicate a soil that functions ents—they leach out easily with rainfall. Silteffectively today and will continue to produce particles are much smaller than sand, but likecrops long into the future. These characteris- sand, silt is mostly quartz. The smallest of alltics can be created through management prac- the soil particles is clay. Clays are quite differ-tices that optimize the processes found in na- ent from sand or silt, and most types of claytive soils. contain appreciable amounts of plant nutrients. Clay has a large surface area resulting from theHow does soil in its native condition function? plate-like shape of the individual particles.How do forests and native grasslands produce Sandy soils are less productive than silts, whileplants and animals in the complete absence of soils containing clay are the most productive andfertilizer and tillage? Understanding the prin- use fertilizers most effectively.ciples by which native soils function can helpfarmers develop and maintain productive and Soil texture refers to the relative proportions ofprofitable soil both now and for future genera- sand, silt, and clay. A loam soil contains thesetions. The soil, the environment, and farm con- three types of soil particles in roughly equal pro-dition benefit when the soil’s natural produc- portions. A sandy loam is a mixture containingtivity is managed in a sustainable way. Reli- a larger amount of sand and a smaller amountance on purchased inputs declines year by year, of clay, while a clay loam contains a largerwhile land value and income potential increase. amount of clay and a smaller amount of sand.Some of the things we spend money on can be These and other texture designations are listeddone by the natural process itself for little or in Table 1.nothing. Good soil management produces cropsand animals that are healthier, less susceptible Another soil characteristic—soil structure—isto disease, and more productive. To understand distinct from soil texture. Structure refers to thethis better, let’s start with the basics. clumping together or “aggregation” of sand, silt, and clay particles into larger secondary clusters.PAGE 2 //SUSTAINABLE SOIL MANAGEMENT
  3. 3. be balanced in nutrients and high in humus, Table 1. Soil texture designations with a broad diversity of soil organisms. It will ranging from coarse to fine. produce healthy plants with minimal weed, dis- Texture Designation ease, and insect pressure. To accomplish this, Coarse-textured Sand we need to work with the natural processes and Loamy sand optimize their functions to sustain our farms. Sandy loam Fine sandy loam Considering the natural landscape, you might Loam wonder how native prairies and forests func- Silty loam tion in the absence of tillage and fertilizers. Silt These soils are tilled by soil organisms, not by Silty clay loam machinery. They are fertilized too, but the fer- Clay loam tility is used again and again and never leaves Fine-textured Clay the site. Native soils are covered with a layer of plant litter and/or growing plants throughoutIf you grab a handful of soil, good structure is the year. Beneath the surface litter, a rich com-apparent when the soil crumbles easily in your plexity of soil organisms decompose plant resi-hand. This is an indication that the sand, silt, due and dead roots, then release their storedand clay particles are aggregated into granules nutrients slowly over time. In fact, topsoil isor crumbs. the most biologically diverse part of the earth (3). Soil-dwelling organisms release bound-upBoth texture and structure determine pore space minerals, converting them into plant-availablefor air and water circulation, erosion resistance, forms that are then taken up by the plants grow-looseness, ease of tillage, and root penetration. ing on the site. The organisms recycle nutrientsWhile texture is related to the minerals in the again and again with the death and decay ofsoil and does not change with agricultural ac- each new generation of plants.tivities, structure can be improved or destroyedreadily by choice and timing of farm practices. There are many different types of creatures that live on or in the topsoil. Each has a role to play. These organisms will work for the farmer’s ben- The Living Soil: The efit if we simply manage for their survival. Con- sequently, we may refer to them as soil livestock. Importance of Soil While a great variety of organisms contribute Organisms to soil fertility, earthworms, arthropods, and the various microorganisms merit particular atten- tion.An acre of living topsoil contains approximately900 pounds of earthworms, 2,400 pounds offungi, 1,500 pounds of bacteria, 133 pounds of Earthwormsprotozoa, 890 pounds of arthropods and algae,and even small mammals in some cases (2). Earthworm burrows enhance water infiltrationTherefore, the soil can be viewed as a living com- and soil aeration. Fields that are “tilled” bymunity rather than an inert body. Soil organic earthworm tunneling can absorb water at a ratematter also contains dead organisms, plant 4 to 10 times that of fields lacking worm tun-matter, and other organic materials in various nels (4). This reduces water runoff, rechargesphases of decomposition. Humus, the dark-col- groundwater, and helps store more soil waterored organic material in the final stages of de- for dry spells. Vertical earthworm burrows pipecomposition, is relatively stable. Both organic air deeper into the soil, stimulating microbialmatter and humus serve as reservoirs of plant nutrient cycling at those deeper levels. Whennutrients; they also help to build soil structure earthworms are present in high numbers, theand provide other benefits. tillage provided by their burrows can replace some expensive tillage work done by machin-The type of healthy living soil required to sup- ery.port humans now and far into the future will //SUSTAINABLE SOIL MANAGEMENT PAGE 3
  4. 4. Table 2. Selected nutrient analyses of worm casts compared to those of the sur- rounding soil. Nutrient Worm casts Soil Lbs/ac Lbs/ac Carbon 171,000 78,500 Nitrogen 10,720 7,000 Phosphorus 280 40 Potassium 900 140 From Graff (6). Soil had 4% organic matter. Earthworms thrive where there is no tillage. Generally, the less tillage the better, and the shal- lower the tillage the better. Worm numbers can be reduced by as much as 90% by deep and fre- quent tillage (7). Tillage reduces earthworm populations by drying the soil, burying the plant residue they feed on, and making the soil more likely to freeze. Tillage also destroys vertical Figure 1. The soil is teeming with organisms that cycle worm burrows and can kill and cut up the nutrients from soil to plant and back again. worms themselves. Worms are dormant in the hot part of the summer and in the cold of win- ter. Young worms emerge in spring and fall— they are most active just when farmers are likelyWorms eat dead plant material left on top of to be tilling the soil. Table 3 shows the effect ofthe soil and redistribute the organic matter and tillage and cropping practices on earthwormnutrients throughout the topsoil layer. Nutri- numbers.ent-rich organic compounds line their tunnels,which may remain in place for years if not dis-turbed. During droughts these tunnels allow Table 3. Effect of crop management onfor deep plant root penetration into subsoil re- earthworm populations.gions of higher moisture content. In additionto organic matter, worms also consume soil and Crop Management Worms/foot2soil microbes. The soil clusters they expel from Corn Plow 1their digestive tracts are known as worm casts Corn No-till 2or castings. These range from the size of a mus- Soybean Plow 6tard seed to that of a sorghum seed, depending Soybean No-till 14on the size of the worm. Bluegrass/ clover —- 39The soluble nutrient content of worm casts is Dairyconsiderably higher than that of the original soil pasture —- 33(see Table 2). A good population of earthworms From Kladivko (8).can process 20,000 pounds of topsoil per year—with turnover rates as high as 200 tons per acrehaving been reported in some exceptional cases As a rule, earthworm numbers can be increased(5). Earthworms also secrete a plant growth by reducing or eliminating tillage (especially fallstimulant. Reported increases in plant growth tillage), not using a moldboard plow, reducingfollowing earthworm activity may be partially residue particle size (using a straw chopper onattributed to this substance, not just to improved the combine), adding animal manure, and grow-soil quality. ing green manure crops. It is beneficial to leave as much surface residue as possible year-round.PAGE 4 //SUSTAINABLE SOIL MANAGEMENT
  5. 5. Cropping systems that typically have the most millipedes, centipedes, slugs, snails, and spring-earthworms are (in descending order) perennial tails. These are the primary decomposers. Theircool-season grass grazed rotationally, warm- role is to eat and shred the large particles of plantseason perennial grass grazed rotationally, and and animal residues. Some bury residue, bring-annual croplands using no-till. Ridge-till and ing it into contact with other soil organisms thatstrip tillage will generally have more earthworms further decompose it. Some members of thisthan clean tillage involving plowing and disking. group prey on smaller soil organisms. TheCool season grass rotationally grazed is highest springtails are small insects that eat mostly fungi.because it provides an undisturbed (no-tillage) Their waste is rich in plant nutrients releasedenvironment plus abundant organic matter from after other fungi and bacteria decompose it. Alsothe grass roots and fallen grass litter. Generally of interest are dung beetles, which play a valu-speaking, worms want their food on top, and able role in recycling manure and reducing live-they want to be left alone. stock intestinal parasites and flies.Earthworms prefer a near-neutral soil pH, moist Bacteriasoil conditions, and plenty of plant residue onthe soil surface. They are sensitive to certain Bacteria are the most numerous type of soil or-pesticides and some incorporated fertilizers. ganism: every gram of soil contains at least aCarbamate insecticides, including Furadan, million of these tiny one-celled organisms. ThereSevin, and Temik, are harmful to earthworms, are many different species of bacteria, each withnotes worm biologist Clive Edwards of Ohio its own role in the soil environment. One of theState University (4). Some insecticides in the major benefits bacteria provide for plants is inorganophosphate family are mildly toxic to making nutrients available to them. Some spe-earthworms, while synthetic pyrethroids are cies release nitrogen, sulfur, phosphorus, andharmless to them (4). Most herbicides have little trace elements from organic matter. Otherseffect on worms except for the triazines, such break down soil minerals, releasing potassium,as Atrazine, which are moderately toxic. Also, phosphorus, magnesium, calcium, and iron.anhydrous ammonia kills earthworms in the Still other species make and release plantinjection zone because it dries the soil and tem- growth hormones, which stimulate rootporarily increases the pH there. High rates of growth.ammonium-based fertilizers are also harmful. Several species of bacteria transform nitrogenFor more information on managing earthworms, from a gas in the air to forms available for plantorder The Farmer’s Earthworm Handbook: Man- use, and from these forms back to a gas again.aging Your Underground Moneymakers, by David A few species of bacteria fix nitrogen in the rootsErnst. Ernst’s book contains details on what of legumes, while others fix nitrogen indepen-earthworms need to live, how to increase worm dently of plant association. Bacteria are respon-numbers, the effects of tillage, manure, and live- sible for converting nitrogen from ammoniumstock management on earthworms, how 193 to nitrate and back again, depending on cer-chemicals affect earthworms, and more. See the tain soil conditions. Other benefits to plantsAdditional Resources section of this publica- provided by various species of bacteria includetion for ordering information. Also visit the increasing the solubility of nutrients, improvingearthworm Web sites listed in that section. soil structure, fighting root diseases, and detoxi- fying soil.As a rule, earthworm numbers can be in-creased by reducing or eliminating tillage. Fungi Fungi come in many different species, sizes, andArthropods shapes in soil. Some species appear as thread- like colonies, while others are one-celled yeasts.In addition to earthworms, there are many Slime molds and mushrooms are also fungi.other species of soil organisms that can be seen Many fungi aid plants by breaking down or-by the naked eye. Among them are sowbugs, ganic matter or by releasing nutrients from soil //SUSTAINABLE SOIL MANAGEMENT PAGE 5
  6. 6. minerals. Fungi are generally quick to colonize Protozoalarger pieces of organic matter and begin thedecomposition process. Some fungi produce Protozoa are free-living microorganisms thatplant hormones, while others produce antibiot- crawl or swim in the water between soil par-ics including penicillin. There are even species ticles. Many soil protozoa are predatory, eat-of fungi that trap harmful plant-parasitic nema- ing other microbes. One of the most common istodes. an amoeba that eats bacteria. By eating and digesting bacteria, protozoa speed up the cy-The mycorrhizae (my-cor-ry´-zee) are fungi that cling of nitrogen from the bacteria, making itlive either on or in plant roots and act to extend more available to plants.the reach of root hairs into the soil. Mycorrhizaeincrease the uptake of water and nutrients, es- Nematodespecially phosphorus. They are particularly im-portant in degraded or less fertile soils. Roots Nematodes are abundant in most soils, and onlycolonized by mycorrhizae are less likely to be a few species are harmful to plants. The harm-penetrated by root-feeding nematodes, since the less species eat decaying plant litter, bacteria,pest cannot pierce the thick fungal network. fungi, algae, protozoa, and other nematodes.Mycorrhizae also produce hormones and anti- Like other soil predators, nematodes speed thebiotics that enhance root growth and provide rate of nutrient cycling.disease suppression. The fungi benefit by tak-ing nutrients and carbohydrates from the plant Soil organisms and soil qualityroots they live in. All these organisms—from the tiny bacteria upActinomycetes to the large earthworms and insects—interact with one another in a multitude of ways in theActinomycetes (ac-tin-o-my´-cetes) are thread- soil ecosystem. Organisms not directly involvedlike bacteria that look like fungi. While not as in decomposing plant wastes may feed on eachnumerous as bacteria, they too perform vital other or each other’s waste products or the otherroles in the soil. Like the bacteria, they help substances they release. Among the substancesdecompose organic matter into humus, releas- released by the various microbes are vitamins,ing nutrients. They also produce antibiotics to amino acids, sugars, antibiotics, gums, andfight diseases of roots. Many of these same an- waxes.tibiotics are used to treat human dis-eases. Actinomycetes are respon- Roots can also release into the Research on life in the soil hassible for the sweet, earthy smell soil various substances that determined that there arenoticed whenever a biologically stimulate soil microbes. These ideal ratios for certain key or-active soil is tilled. substances serve as food for se- ganisms in highly productive soils. lect organisms. Some scientistsAlgae and practitioners theorize that plants use this means to stimulate the specificMany different species of algae live in the up- population of microorganisms capable of releas-per half-inch of the soil. Unlike most other soil ing or otherwise producing the kind of nutri-organisms, algae produce their own food tion needed by the plants.through photosynthesis. They appear as agreenish film on the soil surface following a satu- Research on life in the soil has determined thatrating rain. Algae improve soil structure by pro- there are ideal ratios for certain key organismsducing slimy substances that glue soil together in highly productive soils (9). The Soil Foodwebinto water-stable aggregates. Some species of Lab, located in Oregon, tests soils and makesalgae (the blue-greens) can fix their own nitro- fertility recommendations that are based on thisgen, some of which is later released to plant understanding. Their goal is to alter the makeuproots.PAGE 6 //SUSTAINABLE SOIL MANAGEMENT
  7. 7. of the soil microbial community so it resembles Organic matter and humus are terms that de-that of a highly fertile and productive soil. There scribe somewhat different but related things.are several different ways to accomplish this Organic matter refers to the fraction of the soilgoal, depending on the situation. For more on that is composed of both living organisms andthe Soil Foodweb Lab, see the Additional Re- once-living residues in various stages of decom-sources section of this publication. position. Humus is only a small portion of the organic matter. It is the end product of organicBecause we cannot see most of the creatures liv- matter decomposition and is relatively in the soil and may not take time to observe Further decomposition of humus occurs verythe ones we can see, it is easy to forget about slowly in both agricultural and natural settings.them. See Table 4 for estimates of typical In natural systems, a balance is reached be-amounts of various organisms found in fertile tween the amount of humus formation and thesoil. There are many Web sites that provide in- amount of humus decay (11). This balance alsodepth information on soil organisms. Look for occurs in most agricultural soils, but often at aa list of these Web sites in the Additional Re- much lower level of soil humus. Humus con-sources section. Many of these sites have color tributes to well-structured soil that, in turn, pro-photographs of soil organisms and describe their duces high-quality plants. It is clear that man-benefits to soil fertility and plant growth. agement of organic matter and humus is essen- tial to sustaining the whole soil ecosystem. Table 4. Weights of soil organisms in the The benefits of a topsoil rich in organic matter top 7 inches of fertile soil. and humus are many. They include rapid de- composition of crop residues, granulation of soil Organism Pounds of liveweight/acre into water-stable aggregates, decreased crust- Bacteria 1000 ing and clodding, improved internal drainage, Actinomycetes 1000 better water infiltration, and increased water Molds 2000 and nutrient holding capacity. Improvements Algae 100 in the soil’s physical structure facilitate easier Protozoa 200 tillage, increased water storage capacity, re- Nematodes 50 duced erosion, better formation and harvesting Insects 100 of root crops, and deeper, more prolific plant Worms 1000 root systems. Plant roots 2000 Soil organic matter can be compared to a bank From Bollen (10). account for plant nutrients. Soil containing 4% organic matter in the top seven inches has 80,000 pounds of organic matter per acre. That Organic Matter, Humus, Organic Matter, 80,000 pounds of organic matter will contain and the Soil Foodweb about 5.25% nitrogen, amounting to 4,200 pounds of nitrogen per acre. Assuming a 5% release rate during the growing season, the or- ganic matter could supply 210 pounds of nitro-Like cattle and other farm animals, soil live- gen to a crop. However, if the organic matter isstock require proper feed. allowed to degrade and lose nitrogen, pur- chased fertilizer will be necessary to prop up crop yields.Understanding the role that soil organisms playis critical to sustainable soil management. Based All the soil organisms mentioned previously,on that understanding, focus can be directed except algae, depend on organic matter as theirtoward strategies that build both the numbers food source. Therefore, to maintain their popu-and the diversity of soil organisms. Like cattle lations, organic matter must be renewed fromand other farm animals, soil livestock require plants growing on the soil, or from animal ma-proper feed. That feed comes in the form of nure, compost, or other materials imported fromorganic matter. //SUSTAINABLE SOIL MANAGEMENT PAGE 7
  8. 8. off site. When soil livestock are these aggregates become wetfed, fertility is built up in the soil, Ultimately, building organic again, however, their stabilityand the soil will feed the plants. matter and humus in the soil is challenged, and they may is a matter of managing the break apart. Aggregates canUltimately, building organic mat- soil’s living organisms. also be held together by plantter and humus levels in the soil is roots, earthworm activity, anda matter of managing the soil’s by glue-like products pro-living organisms—something akin to wildlife duced by soil microorganisms. Earthworm-cre-management or animal husbandry. This entails ated aggregates are stable once they come outworking to maintain favorable conditions of of the worm. An aggregate formed by physicalmoisture, temperature, nutrients, pH, and aera- forces can be bound together by fine root hairstion. It also involves providing a steady food or threads produced by fungi.source of raw organic material. Aggregates can also become stabilized (remain intact when wet) through the by-products of Soil Tilth and Organic organic matter decomposition by fungi and bac- Matter teria—chiefly gums, waxes, and other glue-like substances. These by-products cement the soil particles together, forming water-stable aggre-A soil that drains well, does not crust, takes in gates (Figure 2). The aggregate is then strongwater rapidly, and does not make clods is said enough to hold together when wet—hence theto have good tilth. Tilth is the physical condi- term “water-stable.”tion of the soil as it relates to tillage ease, seed-bed quality, easy seedling emergence, and deep USDA soil microbiologist Sara Wright namedroot penetration. Good tilth is dependent on the glue that holds aggregates togetheraggregation—the process whereby individual “glomalin” after the Glomales group of commonsoil particles are joined into clusters or “aggre- root-dwelling fungi (12). These fungi secrete agates.” gooey protein known as glomalin through their hair-like filaments, or hyphae. When WrightAggregates form in soils when individual soil measured glomalin in soil aggregates she foundparticles are oriented and brought together levels as high as 2% of their total weight in east-through the physical forces of wetting and dry- ern U.S. soils. Soil aggregates from the Westing or freezing and thawing. Weak electrical and Midwest had lower levels of glomalin. Sheforces from calcium and magnesium hold soil found that tillage tends to lower glomalin lev-particles together when the soil dries. When els. Glomalin levels and aggregation were MICROBIAL AND FUNGAL BYPRODUCTS GLUE THE PARTICLES TOGETHER DISPERSED STATE AGGREGATED STATE Figure 2. Microbial byproducts glue soil particles into water-stable aggregates.PAGE 8 //SUSTAINABLE SOIL MANAGEMENT
  9. 9. higher in no-till corn plots than in tilled plots clog the pores immediately beneath the surface.(12). Wright has a brochure describing glomalin Following drying, a sealed soil surface resultsand how it benefits soil, entitled Glomalin, a Man- in which most of the pore space has been dras-ageable Soil Glue. To order this brochure see the tically reduced due to clogging from dispersedAdditional Resources section of this publica- clay particles. Subsequent rainfall is much moretion. likely to run off than to flow into the soil (Fig- ure 3).A well-aggregated soil allows for increasedwater entry, increased air flow, and increasedwater-holding capacity (13). Plant roots occupya larger volume of well-aggregated soil, high in air waterorganic matter, as compared to a finely pulver-ized and dispersed soil, low in organic matter.Roots, earthworms, and soil arthropods canpass more easily through a well-aggregated soil(14). Aggregated soils also prevent crusting ofthe soil surface. Finally, well-aggregated soilsare more erosion resistant, because aggregatesare much heavier than their particle compo-nents. For a good example of the effect of or-ganic matter additions on aggregation, asshown by subsequent increase in water entry Crustedinto the soil, see Table 5. air waterTable 5. Water entry into the soil after 1hourManure Rate (tons/acre) Inches of water 0 1.2 8 1.9 16 2.7Boyle et al. (13). Well-AggregatedThe opposite of aggregation is dispersion. In adispersed soil, each individual soil particle is free Figure 3. Effects of aggregation on water and airto blow away with the wind or wash away entry into the soil.with overland flow of water. Derived from Land Stewardship Project Monitoring Toolbox (15).Clay soils with poor aggregation tend to besticky when wet, and cloddy when dry. If the Since raindrops start crusting, any managementclay particles in these soils can be aggregated practices that protect the soil from their impacttogether, better aeration and water infiltration will decrease crusting and increase water flowwill result. Sandy soils can benefit from aggre- into the soil. Mulches and cover crops serve thisgation by having a small amount of dispersed purpose well, as do no-till practices, which al-clay that tends to stick between the sand par- low the accumulation of surface residue. Also,ticles and slow the downward movement of a well-aggregated soil will resist crusting be-water. cause the water-stable aggregates are less likely to break apart when a raindrop hits them.Crusting is a common problem on soils that arepoorly aggregated. Crusting results chiefly from Long-term grass production produces the best-the impact of falling raindrops. Rainfall causes aggregated soils (16). A grass sod extends aclay particles on the soil surface to disperse and mass of fine roots throughout the topsoil, con- //SUSTAINABLE SOIL MANAGEMENT PAGE 9
  10. 10. tributing to the physical processes that help form • allowing the build-up of excess sodium fromaggregates. Roots continually remove water irrigation or sodium-containing fertilizersfrom soil microsites, providing local wetting anddrying effects that promote aggregation. Fineroot hairs also bind soil aggregates together. Tillage, Organic Matter, and Organic Matter, Plant ProductivityRoots also produce food for soilmicroorganisms and earth-worms, which in turn generate The best-aggregated soils are Several factors affect the levelcompounds that bind soil par- those that have been in long- of organic matter that can beticles into water-stable aggre- term grass production. maintained in a soil. Amonggates. In addition, perennial these are organic matter addi-grass sods provide protection tions, moisture, temperature,from raindrops and erosion. Thus, a perennial tillage, nitrogen levels, cropping, and fertiliza-cover creates a combination of conditions opti- tion. The level of organic matter present in themal for the creation and maintenance of well- soil is a direct function of how much organicaggregated soil. material is being produced or added to the soil versus the rate of decomposition. Achieving thisConversely, cropping sequences that involve balance entails slowing the speed of organic mat-annual plants and extensive cultivation provide ter decomposition, while increasing the supplyless vegetative cover and organic matter, and of organic materials produced on site and/orusually result in a rapid decline in soil aggrega- added from off site.tion. For more information on aggregation, seethe soil quality information sheet entitled Ag- Moisture and temperature also profoundly af-gregate Stability at the Soil Quality Institute’s fect soil organic matter levels. High rainfall andhome page, < temperature promote rapid plant growth, butsq_eig_1.pdf>. From there, click on Soil Qual- these conditions are also favorable to rapid or-ity Information Sheets, then click on Aggregate ganic matter decomposition and loss. Low rain-Stability. fall or low temperatures slow both plant growth and organic matter decomposition. The nativeFarming practices can be geared to conserve and Midwest prairie soils originally had a highpromote soil aggregation. Because the binding amount of organic matter from the continuoussubstances are themselves susceptible to micro- growth and decomposition of perennial grasses,bial degradation, organic matter needs to be combined with a moderate temperature that didreplenished to maintain microbial populations not allow for rapid decomposition of organicand overall aggregated soil status. Practices matter. Moist and hot tropical areas may ap-should conserve aggregates once they are pear lush because of rapid plant growth, butformed, by minimizing factors that degrade and soils in these areas are low in nutrients. Rapiddestroy aggregation. Some factors that destroy decomposition of organic matter returns nutri-or degrade soil aggregates are: ents back to the soil, where they are almost im- mediately taken up by rapidly growing plants.• bare soil surface exposed to the impact of raindrops Tillage can be beneficial or harmful to a biologi-• removal of organic matter through crop pro- cally active soil, depending on what type of till- duction and harvest without return of or- age is used and when it is done. Tillage affects ganic matter to the soil both erosion rates and soil organic matter de-• excessive tillage composition rates. Tillage can reduce the or-• working the soil when it is too wet or too ganic matter level in croplands below 1%, ren- dry dering them biologically dead. Clean tillage in-• use of anhydrous ammonia, which speeds volving moldboard plowing and disking breaks up decomposition of organic matter down soil aggregates and leaves the soil prone• excess nitrogen fertilization to erosion from wind and water. The mold- board plow can bury crop residue and topsoil to a depth of 14 inches. At this depth, the oxy-PAGE 10 //SUSTAINABLE SOIL MANAGEMENT
  11. 11. gen level in the soil is so low that decomposi- In cold climates with a long dormant season,tion cannot proceed adequately. Surface-dwell- light tillage of a heavy residue may be benefi-ing decomposer organisms suddenly find them- cial; in warmer climates it is hard enough toselves suffocated and soon die. Crop residues maintain organic matter levels without any till-that were originally on the surface but now have age.been turned under will putrefy in the oxygen-deprived zone. This rotting activity may give a As indicated in Figure 4, moldboard plowingputrid smell to the soil. Furthermore, the top causes the fastest decline of organic matter, no-few inches of the field are now often covered till the least. The plow lays the soil up on itswith subsoil having very little organic matter side, increasing the surface area exposed to oxy-content and, therefore, limited ability to support gen. The other three types of tillage are inter-productive crop growth. mediate in their ability to foster organic matter decomposition. Oxygen is the key factor here.The topsoil is where the biological activity hap- The moldboard plow increases the soil surfacepens—it’s where the oxygen is. That’s why a area, allowing more air into the soil and speed-fence post rots off at the surface. In terms of ing the decomposition rate. The horizontal lineorganic matter, tillage is similar to opening the on Figure 4 represents the replenishment of or-air vents on a wood-burning stove; adding or- ganic matter provided by wheat stubble. Withganic matter is like adding wood to the stove. the moldboard plow, more than the entire or-Ideally, organic matter decomposition should ganic matter contribution from the wheat strawproceed as an efficient burn of the “wood” to is gone within only 19 days following tillage.release nutrients and carbohydrates to the soil Finally, the passage of heavy equipment in-organisms and create stable humus. Shallow creases compaction in the wheel tracks, andtillage incorporates residue and speeds the de- some tillage implements themselves compact thecomposition of organic matter by adding oxy- soil further, removing oxygen and increasing thegen that microbes need to become more active. chance that deeply buried residues will putrefy. Organic Matter loss 19 days after Tillage 4000 Pounds/ac OM loss 3500 3000 Residue from wheat crop 2500 2000 1500 1000 500 0 Mb. plow Mb.+ 2 Disc Chisel Pl. No-till disc Tillage type Reicosky & Lindstrom, 1995 Figure 4. Organic matter losses after various tillage practices (17). //SUSTAINABLE SOIL MANAGEMENT PAGE 11
  12. 12. Tillage also reduces the rate of water entry into acres of vegetables, alfalfa, and grain crops onthe soil by removal of ground cover and destruc- his Cedar Meadow Farm. Learn more abouttion of aggregates, resulting in compaction and his operation in the Farmer Profiles section ofcrusting. Table 6 shows three different tillage this publication, by visiting his Web site, or bymethods and how they affect water entry into ordering his video (see Additional Resourcesthe soil. Notice the direct relationship between section).tillage type, ground cover, and water infiltra-tion. No-till has more than three times the wa- Other conservation tillage systems include ridgeter infiltration of the moldboard-plowed soil. tillage, minimum tillage, zone tillage, and re-Additionally, no-till fields will have higher ag- duced tillage, each possessing some of the ad-gregation from the organic matter decomposi- vantages of both conventional till and no-till.tion on site. The surface mulch typical of no-till These systems represent intermediate tillage sys-fields acts as a protective skin for the soil. This tems, allowing more flexibility than either a no-soil skin reduces the impact of raindrops and till or conventional till system might. They arebuffers the soil from temperature extremes as more beneficial to soil organisms than a con-well as reducing water evaporation. ventional clean-tillage system of moldboard plowing and disking. Table 6. Tillage effects on water infiltration and Adding manure and compost is a recognized ground cover. means for improving soil organic matter and Water Infiltration Ground Cover humus levels. In their absence, perennial grass mm/minute Percent is the only crop that can regenerate and increase No-till 2.7 48 soil humus (18). Cool-season grasses build soil Chisel Plow 1.3 27 organic matter faster than warm-season grasses Moldboard Plow 0.8 12 because they are growing much longer during a given year (18). When the soil is warmFrom Boyle et al., 1989 (13). enough for soil organisms to decompose organic matter, cool-season grass is growing. WhileBoth no-till and reduced-tillage systems provide growing, it is producing organic matter andbenefits to the soil. The advantages of a no-till cycling minerals from the decomposing organicsystem include superior soil conservation, mois- matter in the soil. In other words, there is a netture conservation, reduced water runoff, long- gain of organic matter because the cool-seasonterm buildup of organic matter, and increased grass is producing organic matter faster than itwater infiltration. A soil managed without till- is being used up. With warm-season grasses,age relies on soil organisms to take over the job organic matter production during the growingof plant residue incorporation formerly done by season can be slowed during the long dormanttillage. On the down side, no-till can foster a season from fall through early spring. Duringreliance on herbicides to control weeds and can the beginning and end of this dormant period,lead to soil compaction from the traffic of heavy the soil is still biologically active, yet no grassequipment. growth is proceeding (18). Some net accumu- lation of organic matter can occur under warm-Pioneering development work on chemical-free season grasses, however. In a Texas study,no-till farming is proceeding at several research switchgrass (a warm-season grass) grown forstations and farms in the eastern U.S. Pennsyl- four years increased soil carbon content fromvania farmer Steve Groff has been farming no- 1.1% to 1.5% in the top 12 inches of soil (19). Intill with minimal or no herbicides for several hot and moist regions, a cropping rotation thatyears. Groff grows cover crops extensively in includes several years of pasture will be mosthis fields, rolling them down in the spring us- a 10-foot rolling stalk chopper. This rollingchopper kills the rye or vetch cover crop and Effect of Nitrogen on Organic Mattercreates a nice no-till mulch into which he plantsa variety of vegetable and grain crops. After Excessive nitrogen applications stimulate in-several years of no-till production, his soils are creased microbial activity, which in turn speedsmellow and easy to plant into. Groff farms 175 organic matter decomposition. The extra nitro-PAGE 12 //SUSTAINABLE SOIL MANAGEMENT
  13. 13. gen narrows the ratio of carbon to nitrogen inthe soil. Native or uncultivated soils have ap- Fertilizer Amendments andproximately 12 parts of carbon to each part of Biologically Active Soilsnitrogen, or a C:N ratio of 12:1. At this ratio,populations of decay bacteria are kept at a stable What are the soil mineral conditions that fosterlevel (20), since additional growth in their popu- biologically active soils? Drawing from thelation is limited by a lack of nitrogen. When work of Dr. William Albrecht (1888 to 1974),large amounts of inorganic nitrogen are added, agronomist at the University of Missouri, wethe C:N ratio is reduced, which allows the popu- learn that balance is the key. Albrecht advocatedlations of decay organisms to explode as they bringing soil nutrients into a balance so that nonedecompose more organic matter with the now were in excess or deficient. Albrecht’s theoryabundant nitrogen. While soil bacteria can ef- (also called base-saturation theory) is used toficiently use moderate applications of inorganic guide lime and fertilizer application by measur-nitrogen accompanied by organic amendments ing and evaluating the ratios of positively(carbon), excess nitrogen results in decomposi- charged nutrients (bases) held in the soil. Posi-tion of existing organic matter at a rapid rate. tively charged bases include calcium, magne-Eventually, soil carbon content may be reduced sium, potassium, sodium, ammonium nitrogen,to a level where the bacterial populations are and several trace minerals. When optimum ra-on a starvation diet. With little carbon avail- tios of bases exist, the soil is believed to supportable, bacterial populations shrink, and less of high biological activity, have optimal physicalthe free soil nitrogen is absorbed. Thereafter, properties (water intake and aggregation), andapplied nitrogen, rather than being cycled become resistant to leaching. Plants growingthrough microbial organisms and re-released to on such a soil are also balanced in mineral lev-plants slowly over time, becomes subject to els and are considered to be nutritious to hu-leaching. This can greatly reduce the efficiency mans and animals alike. Base saturation per-of fertilization and lead to environmental prob- centages that Albrecht’s research showed to belems. optimal for the growth of most crops are: Calcium 60—70% Excessive nitrogen stimulates Magnesium 10—20% increased microbial activity, Potassium 2—5% which in turn speeds organic Sodium 0.5—3% matter decomposition. Other bases 5% According to Albrecht, fertilizer and lime ap-To minimize the fast decomposition of soil or- plications should be made at rates that will bringganic matter, carbon should be added with ni- soil mineral percentages into this ideal range.trogen. Typical carbon sources—such as green This approach will shift the soil pH automati-manures, animal manure, and compost—serve cally into a desirable range without creatingthis purpose well. nutrient imbalances. The base saturation theory also takes into account the effect one nutrientAmendments containing too high a carbon to may have on another and avoids undesirablenitrogen ratio (25:1 or more) can tip the balance interactions. For example, phosphorus is knownthe other way, resulting in nitrogen being tied to tie up zinc.up in an unavailable form. Soil organisms con-sume all the nitrogen in an effort to decompose The Albrecht system of soil evaluation contraststhe abundant carbon; tied up in the soil organ- with the approach used by many state labora-isms, nitrogen remains unavailable for plant tories, often called the “sufficiency method.”uptake. As soon as a soil microorganism dies Sufficiency theory places little to no value onand decomposes, its nitrogen is consumed by nutrient ratios, and lime recommendations areanother soil organism, until the balance be- typically based on pH measurements alone.tween carbon and nitrogen is achieved again. While in many circumstances base saturation and sufficiency methods will produce identical //SUSTAINABLE SOIL MANAGEMENT PAGE 13
  14. 14. soil recommendations and similar results, sig- Laboratories and Sources of Organic Fertilizers andnificant differences can occur on a number of Amendments. Both of these are also availablesoils. For example, suppose we tested a corn- on the ATTRA Web site located at <http://field and found a soil pH of 5.5 and base satu->.ration for magnesium at 20% and calcium at40%. Base saturation theory would call for lim-ing with a high-calcium lime to raise the per- Conventional Fertilizerscent base saturation of calcium; the pH wouldrise accordingly. Sufficiency theory would not Commercial fertilizer can be a valuable resourcespecify high-calcium lime and the grower might to farmers in transition to a more sustainablechoose instead a high-magnesium dolomite lime system and can help meet nutrient needs dur-that would raise the pH but worsen the balance ing times of high crop nutrient demand or whenof nutrients in the soil. Another way to look at weather conditions result in slow nutrient re-these two theories is that the base saturation lease from organic resources. Commercial fer-theory does not concern itself with pH to any tilizers have the advantage of supplying plantsgreat extent, but rather with the proportional with immediately available forms of nutrients.amounts of bases. The pH will be correct when They are often less expensive and less bulky tothe levels of bases are correct. apply than many natural fertilizers.Albrecht’s ideas have found their way onto Not all conventional fertilizers are alike. Manylarge numbers of American farms and into the appear harmless to soil livestock, but some areprograms of several agricultural consulting com- not. Anhydrous ammonia contains approxi-panies. Neal Kinsey, a soil fertility consultant mately 82% nitrogen and is applied subsurfacein Charleston, Missouri, is a major proponent as a gas. Anhydrous speeds the decompositionof the Albrecht approach. Kinsey was a stu- of organic matter in the soil, leaving the soildent under Albrecht and is one of the leading more compact as a result. The addition of an-authorities on the base-saturation method. He hydrous causes increased acidity in the soil, re-teaches a short course on the Albrecht system quiring 148 pounds of lime to neutralize 100and provides a soil analysis service (21). His pounds of anhydrous ammonia, or 1.8 poundsbook, Hands On Agronomy, is widely recognized of lime for every pound of nitrogen containedas a highly practical guide to the Albrecht sys- in the anhydrous (22). Anhydrous ammoniatem. ATTRA can provide more information on initially kills many soil microorganisms in theAlbrecht Fertility Management Systems. application zone. Bacteria and actinomycetes recover within one to two weeks to levels higherSeveral firms—many providing backup fertilizer than those prior to treatment (23). Soil fungi,and amendment products—offer a biological- however, may take seven weeks to recover.farming program based on the Albrecht theory. During the recovery time, bacteria are stimu-Typically these firms offer broad-based soil lated to grow more, and decompose more or-analysis and recommend balanced fertilizer ganic matter, by the high soil nitrogen content.materials considered friendly to soil organisms. As a result, their numbers increase after anhy-They avoid the use of some common fertilizers drous applications, then decline as available soiland amendments such as dolomite lime, potas- organic matter is depleted. Farmers commonlysium chloride, anhydrous ammonia, and oxide report that the long-term use of synthetic fertil-forms of trace elements because they are con- izers, especially anhydrous ammonia, leads tosidered harmful to soil life. The publication How soil compaction and poor tilth (23). When bac-to Get Started in Biological Farming presents such terial populations and soil organic matter de-a program. See the Additional Resources sec- crease, aggregation declines, because existingtion for ordering information. For names of com- glues that stick soil particles together are de-panies offering consulting and products, order graded, and no other glues are being produced.the ATTRA publications Alternative Soil TestingPAGE 14 //SUSTAINABLE SOIL MANAGEMENT
  15. 15. Potassium chloride (KCl) (0-0-60 and 0-0-50), Sodium nitrate, also known as Chilean nitratealso known as muriate of potash, contains ap- or nitrate of soda, is another high-salt fertilizer.proximately 50 to 60% potassium and 47.5% Because of the relatively low nitrogen contentchloride (24). Muriate of potash is made by re- of sodium nitrate, a high amount of sodium isfining potassium chloride ore, which is a mix- added to the soil when normal applications ofture of potassium and sodium salts and clay nitrogen are made with this material. The con-from the brines of dying lakes and seas. The cern is that excessive sodium acts as a dispers-potential harmful effects from KCl can be sur- ant of soil particles, degrading aggregation. Themised from the salt concentration of the mate- salt index for KCl and sodium nitrate can berial. Table 7 shows that, pound for pound, KCl seen in Table surpassed only by table salt onthe salt index. Additionally, some Protecting soil from erosion isplants such as tobacco, potatoes, the first step toward a sustain- Top$oil – Your Yourpeaches, and some legumes are able agriculture. Farm’$ Capitalespecially sensitive to chloride.High rates of KCl must be avoidedon such crops. Potassium sulfate, potassium ni- Topsoil is the capital reserve of every farm. Evertrate, sul-po-mag, or organic sources of potas- since mankind started agriculture, erosion ofsium may be considered as alternatives to KCl topsoil has been the single largest threat to afor fertilization. Table 7. Salt index for various fertilizers. Material Salt Index Salt index per unit of plant food Sodium chloride 153 2.9 Potassium chloride 116 1.9 Ammonium nitrate 105 3.0 Sodium nitrate 100 6.1 Urea 75 1.6 Potassium nitrate 74 1.6 Ammonium sulfate 69 3.3 Calcium nitrate 53 4.4 Anhydrous ammonia 47 .06 Sulfate-potash-magnesia 43 2.0 Di-ammonium phosphate 34 1.6 Monammonium phosphate 30 2.5 Gypsum 8 .03 Calcium carbonate 5 .01 //SUSTAINABLE SOIL MANAGEMENT PAGE 15
  16. 16. soil’s productivity—and, consequently, to farm Water erosion gets started when falling rainwa-profitability. This is still true today. In the U.S., ter collides with bare ground and detaches soilthe average acre of cropland is eroding at a rate particles from the parent soil body. Afterof 7 tons per year (2). To sustain agriculture enough water builds up on the soil surface, fol-means to sustain soil resources, because that’s lowing detachment, overland water flow trans-the source of a farmer’s livelihood. ports suspended soil down-slope (Figure 5). Suspended soil in the runoff water abrades andThe major productivity costs to the farm associ- detaches additional soil particles as the waterated with soil erosion come from the replace- travels overland. Preventing detachment is thement of lost nutrients and reduced water hold- most effective point of erosion control becauseing ability, accounting for 50 to 75% of produc- it keeps the soil in place. Other erosion controltivity loss (2). Soil that is removed by erosion practices seek to slow soil particle transport andtypically contains about three times more nu- cause soil to be deposited before it reachestrients than the soil left behind and is 1.5 to 5 streams. These methods are less effective at pro-times richer in organic matter (2). This organic tecting the quality of soil within the field.matter loss not only results in reduced waterholding capacity and degraded soil aggregation, Commonly implemented practices to slow soilbut also loss of plant nutrients, which must then transport include terraces and diversions. Ter-be replaced with nutrient amendments. races, diversions, and many other erosion “con- trol” practices are largely unnecessary if theFive tons of topsoil (the so-called tolerance level) ground stays covered year-round. For erosioncan easily contain 100 pounds of nitrogen, 60 prevention, a high percentage of ground coverpounds of phosphate, 45 pounds of potash, 2 is a good indicator of success, while bare groundpounds of calcium, 10 pounds of magnesium, is an “early warning” indicator for a high riskand 8 pounds of sulfur. Table 8 shows the ef- of erosion (27). Muddy runoff water and gul-fect of slight, moderate, and severe erosion on lies are “too-late” indicators. The soil has al-organic matter, soil phosphorus level, and plant- ready eroded by the time it shows up as muddyavailable water on a silt loam soil in Indiana water, and it’s too late to save soil already sus-(25). pended in the water. Table 8. Effect of erosion on organic matter phosphorus and plant-available water. Erosion level Organic matter Phosphorus Plant-available water % Lbs./ac % Slight 3.0 62 7.4 Moderate 2.5 61 6.2 Severe 1.9 40 3.6 From Schertz et al., 1984. (24)When erosion by water and wind occurs at a Protecting the soil from erosion is the first steprate of 7.6 tons/acre/year it costs $40 per acre toward a sustainable agriculture. Since watereach year to replace the lost nutrients as fertil- erosion is initiated by raindrop impact on bareizer and around $17/acre/year to pump well soil, any management practice that protects theirrigation water to replace the soil water hold- soil from raindrop impact will decrease erosioning capacity of that lost soil (26). The total cost and increase water entry into the soil. Mulches,of soil and water lost annually from U.S. crop- cover crops, and crop residues serve this pur-land amounts to an on-site productivity loss of pose well.approximately $27 billion each year (2).PAGE 16 //SUSTAINABLE SOIL MANAGEMENT
  17. 17. Figure 5. Raindrops falling on bare ground initiate erosion. Drawing from cropland monitoring guide (27).Additionally, well-aggregated soils resist crust- The researchers commented that subsoil hading because water-stable aggregates are less been mixed with topsoil in the continuous cornlikely to break apart when the raindrop hits plots from plowing, making the real topsoilthem. Adequate organic matter with high soil depth less than was apparent. In reality, all thebiological activity leads to high soil aggregation. topsoil was lost from the continuous corn plots in only 100 years. The rotation lost about halfMany studies have shown that cropping sys- the topsoil over 100 years. How can we feedtems that maintain a soil-protecting plant future generations with this type of farmingcanopy or residue cover have the least soil ero- practice?sion. This is universally true. Long-term crop-ping studies begun in 1888 at the University of In a study of many different soil types in eachMissouri provide dramatic evidence of this. of the major climatic zones of the U.S., research-Gantzer and colleagues (28) examined the ef- ers showed dramatic differences in soil erosionfects of a century of cropping on soil erosion. when comparing row crops to perennial sods.They compared depth of topsoil remaining af- Row crops consisted of cotton or corn, and sodter 100 years of cropping (Table 9). As the table crops were bluegrass or bermuda grass. Onshows, the cropping system that maintained the average, the row crops eroded more than 50highest amount of permanent ground cover times more soil than did the perennial sod crops.(timothy grass) had the greatest amount of top- The two primary influencing factors are groundsoil left. cover and tillage. The results are shown in Table 10. Table 9. Topsoil depth remaining after 100 So, how long do fields have before the topsoil is years of different cropping practices. gone? This depends on where in the country Crop Sequence Inches of topsoil the field is located. Some soils naturally have remaining very thick topsoil, while other soils have thin topsoil over rock or gravel. Roughly 8 tons/ Continuous Corn 7.7 acre/year of soil-erosion loss amounts to the 6-year rotation* 12.2 thickness of a dime spread over an acre. Twenty Continuous timothy grass 17.4 dimes stack up to 1-inch high. So a landscape*Corn, oats, wheat, clover, timothy with an 8-ton erosion rate would lose an inchFrom: Gantzer et al. (28). of topsoil about every 20 years. On a soil with a thick topsoil, this amount is barely detectable within a person’s lifetime and may not be no- //SUSTAINABLE SOIL MANAGEMENT PAGE 17
  18. 18. Table 10. Effect of cropping on soil erosion rates Soil type Location Slope Row crop soil loss Sod soil loss State % Tons/ac Tons/ac Silt loam Iowa 9 38 .02 Loam Missouri 8 51 .16 Silt loam Ohio 12 99 .02 Fine sandy Oklahoma 7.7 19 .02 loam Clay loam N. Carolina 10 31 .31 Fine sandy Texas 8.7 24 .08 loam Clay Texas 4 21 .02 Silt loam Wisconsin 16 111 .10 Average Average 9.4 49 .09 Adapted from Shiflet and Darby, 1985 (29).ticed. Soils with naturally thin topsoils or top- systems, such as no-till and cover crops, are oursoils that have been previously eroded can be best alternative until perennial systems are de-transformed from productive to degraded land veloped.within a generation.Forward-thinking researcher Wes Jackson, of Summar y of Part I Summarythe Land Institute, waxes eloquent about howtillage has become engrained in human culture Soil management involves stewardship of thesince we first began farming. Beating our soil livestock herd. The primary factors affect-swords into plowshares surely embodies the tri- ing organic matter content, build-up, and de-umph of good over evil. Someone who creates composition rate in soils are oxygen content, ni-something new is said to have “plowed new trogen content, moisture content, temperature,ground.” “Yet the plowshare may well have and the addition and removal of organic mate-destroyed more options for future generations rials. All these factors work together all the time.than the sword” (30). Any one can limit the others. These are the fac- tors that affect the health and reproductive rateTillage for the production of annual crops is the of organic matter decomposer organisms. Man-major problem in agriculture, causing soil ero- agers need to be aware of these factors whension and the loss of soil quality. Any agricul- making decisions about their soils. Let’s taketural practice that creates and maintains bare them one at a time.ground is inherently less sustainable than prac-tices that keep the ground covered throughout Increasing oxygen speeds decomposition of or-the year. Wes Jackson has spent much of his ganic matter. Tillage is the primary way extracareer developing perennial grain crops and oxygen enters the soil. Texture also plays a role,cropping systems that mimic the natural prai- with sandy soils having more aeration thanrie. Perennial grain crops do not require tillage heavy clay soils. Nitrogen content is influencedto establish year after year, and the ground is by fertilizer additions. Excess nitrogen, with-left covered. Ultimately, this is the future of grain out the addition of carbon, speeds the decom-production and truly represents a new vision position of organic matter. Moisture content af-for how we produce food. The greatest research fects decomposition rates. Soil microbial popu-need in agriculture today is breeding work to lations are most active over cycles of wettingdevelop perennial crops that will replace annual and drying. Their populations increase follow-crops requiring tillage. Farming practices us- ing wetting, as the soil dries out. After the soiling annual crops in ways that mimic perennial becomes dry, their activity diminishes. Just likePAGE 18 //SUSTAINABLE SOIL MANAGEMENT
  19. 19. humans, soil organisms are profoundly affected Commercial fertilizers have their place in sus-by temperature. Their activity is highest within tainable agriculture. Some appear harmless toa band of optimum temperature, above and soil livestock and provide nutrients at times ofbelow which their activity is diminished. high nutrient demand from crops. Anhydrous ammonia and potassium chloride cause prob-Adding organic matter provides more food for lems, however. As noted above, anhydrous killsmicrobes. To achieve an increase of soil organic soil organisms in the injection zone. Bacteriamatter, additions must be higher than remov- and actinomycetes recover within a few weeks,als. Over a given year, under average condi- but fungi take longer. The increase in bacteria,tions, 60 to 70 percent of the carbon contained fed by highly available nitrogen from the anhy-in organic residues added to soil is lost as car- drous, speeds the decomposition of organicbon dioxide (20). Five to ten percent is assimi- matter. Potassium chloride has a high salt in-lated into the organisms that decomposed the dex, and some plants and soil organisms areorganic residues, and the rest becomes ‘new’ sensitive to chloride.humus. It takes decades for new humus to de-velop into stable humus, which imparts the Topsoil is the farmer’s capital. Sustaining agri-nutrient-holding characteristics humus is culture means sustaining the soil. Maintainingknown for (20). The end result of adding a ton ground cover in the form of cover crops, mulch,of residue would be 400 to 700 pounds of new or crop residue for as much of the annual sea-humus. One percent organic matter weighs son as possible achieves the goal of sustaining20,000 pounds per acre. A 7-inch depth of top- the soil resource. Any time the soil is tilled andsoil over an acre weighs 2 million pounds. left bare it is susceptible to erosion. Even smallBuilding organic matter is a slow process. amounts of soil erosion are harmful over time. It is not easy to see the effects of erosion over aIt is more feasible to stabilize and maintain the human lifetime; therefore, erosion may go un-humus present, before it is lost, than to try to noticed. Tillage for production of annual cropsrebuild it. The value of humus is not fully real- has created most of the erosion associated withized until it is severely depleted (20). If your agriculture. Perennial grain crops not requir-soils are high in humus now, work hard to pre- ing tillage provide a promising alternative forserve what you have. The formation of new drastically improving the sustainability of futurehumus is essential to maintaining old humus, grain production.and the decomposition of raw organic matterhas many benefits of its own. Increased aera-tion caused by tillage coupled with the absence Summar y of Sustainable Soil Summaryof organic carbon in fertilizer materials has Management Principlescaused more than a 50% decline in native hu-mus levels on many U.S. farms (20). • Soil livestock cycle nutrients andAppropriate mineral nutrition needs to be provide many other benefits.present for soil organisms and plants to pros-per. Adequate levels of calcium, magnesium, • Organic matter is the food for the soil live-potassium, phosphorus, sodium, and the trace stock herd.elements should be present, but not in excess.The base saturation theory of soil management • The soil should be covered to protect it fromhelps guide decision-making toward achieving erosion and temperature extremes.optimum levels of these nutrients in the soil.Several books have been written on balancing • Tillage speeds the decomposition of organicsoil mineral levels, and several consulting firms matter.provide soil analysis and fertility recommenda-tion services based on this theory. • Excess nitrogen speeds the decomposition of organic matter; insufficient nitrogen slows down organic matter decomposition and starves plants. //SUSTAINABLE SOIL MANAGEMENT PAGE 19
  20. 20. • Moldboard plowing speeds the decomposi- tion of organic matter, destroys earthworm habitat, and increases erosion.• To build soil organic matter, the produc- tion or addition of organic matter must ex- ceed the decomposition of organic matter.• Soil fertility levels need to be within accept- able ranges before a soil-building program is begun. Photo by USDA NRCS PART II. MANAGEMENT STEPS TO IMPROVE SOIL QUALITY1. Assess Soil Health and Biological is not as readily available, such as hypodermic Activity on Your Farm needles, latex tubing, a soil thermometer, an electrical conductivity meter, filter paper, andA basic soil audit is the first and sometimes the an EC calibration standard. The Soil Qualityonly monitoring tool used to assess changes in Test Kit Guide can be ordered from the USDAthe soil. Unfortunately, the standard soil test through the Soil Quality Institute’s Web page,done to determine nutrient levels (P, K, Ca, Mg, < provides no information on soil biology and KitGuideComplete.pdf>. The 88-page on-linephysical properties. Yet most of the farmer-rec- version of the guide is available in Adobe Acro-ognized criteria for healthy soils (see p. 2) in- bat Reader format through the above Web pageclude, or are created by, soil organisms and soil and may be printed out. A summary of the testsphysical properties. A better appreciation of is also available from the Web page. To order athese biological and physical soil properties, and print version, see the Soil Quality Institute ref-how they affect soil management and produc- erence under Additional Resources.tivity, has resulted in the adoption of severalnew soil health assessment techniques, which A greatly simplified and quick soil quality as-are discussed below. sessment is available at the Soil Quality Institute’s Web page as well, by clicking on “Getting toThe USDA Soil Quality Test Kit Know your Soil,” near the bottom of the homepage. This simplified method involves dig-The USDA Soil Quality Institute provides a Soil ging a hole and making some observations.Quality Test Kit Guide developed by Dr. John Here are a few of the procedures shown at thisDoran and associates at the Agricultural Re- Web site: Dig a hole 4 to 6 inches below the lastsearch Service’s office in Lincoln, Nebraska. tillage depth and observe how hard the diggingDesigned for field use, the kit allows the mea- is. Inspect plant roots to see whether there is asurement of water infiltration, water holding lot of branching and fine root hairs or whethercapacity, bulk density, pH, soil nitrate, salt con- the roots are balled-up. A lack of fine root hairscentration, aggregate stability, earthworm num- indicates oxygen deprivation, while sidewaysbers, and soil respiration. Components neces- growth indicates a hardpan. The process goessary to build a kit include many items commonly on to assess earthworms, soil smell, and aggre-available—such as pop bottles, flat-bladed gation. Another useful, hands-on procedure forknives, a garden trowel, and plastic wrap. Also assessing pasture soils is discussed in the ATTRAnecessary to do the tests is some equipment that publication Assessing the Pasture Soil Resource.PAGE 20 //SUSTAINABLE SOIL MANAGEMENT
  21. 21. Early Warning Monitoring for Croplands and other observations and provide record keep- ing sheets to record your observations.A cropland monitoring guide has been pub-lished by the Center for Holistic Management A Simple Erosion Demonstration(27). The guide contains a set of soil health in-dicators that are measurable in the field. No This simple procedure demonstrates the valuefancy equipment is needed to make the assess- of ground cover. Tape a white piece of paperments described in this monitoring guide. In near the end of a three-foot-long stick. Holdfact, all the equipment is cheap and locally avail- the stick in one hand so as to have the paperable for almost any farm. Simple measurements end within one inch of a bare soil surface (seecan help determine the health of croplands in Figure 6). Now pour a pint of water onto theterms of the effectiveness of the nutrient cycle bare soil within two to three inches of the whiteand water cycle, and the diversity of some soil paper and observe the soil accumulation on theorganisms. Assessments of living organisms, white paper. Tape another piece of white pa-aggregation, water infiltration, ground cover, per to the stick and repeat the operation, thisand earthworms can be made using this guide. time over soil with 100% ground cover, andThe monitoring guide is easy to read and un- observe the accumulation of soil on the paper.derstand and comes with a field sheet to record Compare the two pieces of paper. This simpleobservations. It is available for $12 from the test shows how effective ground cover can beSavory Center for Holistic Management (see at preventing soil particles from detaching fromAdditional Resources). the soil surface.Direct Assessment of Soil HealthSome quick ways to identify a healthy soil in-clude feeling it and smelling it. Grab a handfuland take a whiff. Does it have an earthy smell?Is it a loose, crumbly soil with some earthwormspresent? Dr. Ray Weil, soil scientist at the Uni-versity of Maryland, describes how he wouldmake a quick evaluation of a soil’s health in justfive minutes (31). Look at the surface and see if it is crusted, which tells something about tillage practices used, or- ganic matter, and structure. Push a soil probe- down to 12 inches, lift out some soil and feel its texture. If a plow pan were present it would have been felt with the probe. Turn over a shovelful of soil to look for earthworms and smell for actino- mycetes, which are microorganisms that help com- post and stabilize decaying organic matter. Their activity leaves a fresh earthy smell in the soil.Two other easy observations are to count thenumber of soil organisms in a square foot ofsurface crop residue and to pour a pint of wa-ter on the soil and record the time it takes to Figure 6. Simple erosion test.sink in. Comparisons can be made using these Drawing from Cropland monitoring guide (27).simple observations, along with Ray Weil’sevaluation above, to determine how farm prac- 2. Use Tools and Techniques to Build Soiltices affect soil quality. Some of the soil qualityassessment systems discussed above use these Can a cover crop be worked into your rotation? How about a high-residue crop or perennial //SUSTAINABLE SOIL MANAGEMENT PAGE 21
  22. 22. sod? Are there economical sources of organic Since an established fescue pasture needs twicematerials or manure in your area? Are there as much nitrogen as it does phosphorus, a com-ways to reduce tillage and nitrogen fertilizer? mon fertilizer application would be about 50Where feasible, bulky organic amendments may pounds of nitrogen and 30 pounds of phospho-be added to supply both organic matter and rus per acre. If a ton of poultry litter were ap-plant nutrients. It is particularly useful to ac- plied to supply the nitrogen needs of the fescue,count for nutrients when organic fertilizers and an over-application of phosphorus would result,amendments are used. Start with a soil test and because the litter has about the same levels ofa nutrient analysis of the material you are ap- nitrogen and phosphorus. Several years of lit-plying. Knowing the levels of nutrients needed ter application to meet nitrogen needs can buildby the crop guides the amount of amendments up soil phosphorus to excessive levels. One easyapplied and can lead to significant reductions answer to this dilemma is to adjust the manurein fertilizer cost. The nutrient composition of rate to meet the phosphorus needs of the croporganic materials can vary, which is all the more and to supply the additional nitrogen with fer-reason to determine the amount you have with tilizer or a legume cover crop. On some farmsappropriate testing. In addition to containing this may mean that more manure is being pro-the major plant nutrients, organic fertilizers can duced than can be safely used on the farm. Insupply many essential micronutrients. Proper this case, farmers may need to find a way tocalibration of the spreading equipment is im- process and sell (or barter) this excess manureportant to ensure accurate application rates. to get it off the farm.Animal Manure CompostManure is an excellent soil amendment, provid- Composting farm manure and other organicing both organic matter and nutrients. The materials is an excellent way to stabilize theiramount of organic matter and nitrogen in ani- nutrient content. Composted manure is alsomal manure depends on the feed the animals easier to handle, less bulky, and better smellingconsumed, type of bedding used (if any), and than raw manure. A significant portion of raw-whether the manure is applied as a solid or liq- manure nutrients are in unstable, soluble forms.uid. Typical rates for dairy manure would be Such unstable forms are more likely to run off if10 to 30 tons per acre or 4,000 to 11,000 gallons surface-applied, or to leach if tilled into the soil.of liquid for corn. At these rates the crop would Compost is not as good a source of readily avail-get between 50 and 150 pounds of available ni- able plant nutrients as raw manure. But com-trogen per acre. Additionally, lots of carbon post releases its nutrients slowly, thereby mini-would be added to the soil, resulting in no loss mizing losses. Quality compost contains moreof soil organic matter. Residues from crops humus than its raw components because pri-grown with this manure application and left on mary decomposition has occurred during thethe soil would also contribute or- composting process. How-ganic matter. ever, it does not contribute as A common problem with us- much of the sticky gums andHowever, a common problem ing manure as a nutrient waxes that aggregate soil par-with using manure as a nutrient source is that application ticles together as does rawsource is that application rates are rates are usually based on the manure, because these sub-usually based on the nitrogen nitrogen needs of the crop. stances are also released dur-needs of the crop. Because some ing the primary decomposi-manures have about as much phosphorus as tion phase. Unlike manure, compost can bethey do nitrogen, this often leads to a buildup used at almost any rate without burning plants.of soil phosphorus. A classic example is chicken In fact, some greenhouse potting mixes containlitter applied to crops that require high nitro- 20 to 30% compost. Compost (like manure)gen levels, such as pasture grasses and corn. should be analyzed by a laboratory to determineBroiler litter, for example, contains approxi- the nutrient value of a particular batch and tomately 50 pounds of nitrogen and phosphorus ensure that it is being used effectively to pro-and about 40 pounds of potassium per ton. duce healthy crops and soil, and not excessively so that it contributes to water pollution.PAGE 22 //SUSTAINABLE SOIL MANAGEMENT