Soil Quality/Health

The educational materials listed on this page are about Soil Quality/Health.

Farmers and ranchers use the term soil health to describe the condition of the soil. Scientists usually use the term soil quality, but both refer to the same idea — how good is the soil in its role of supporting the growth of high-yielding, high-quality, and healthy crops? Healthy soil generates higher crop yields, it absorbs and holds rainfall, and erosion is therefore reduced.  The information here will show you how to improve soil fertility and build healthy soil. Two comprehensive books to consult are Building Soils for Better Crops and Managing Cover Crops Profitably.

Crop rotation, the use of diverse soil management practices, composting, and cover crops all contribute to healthy soil by conserving and building soil organic matter, absorbing rainfall, and retaining crop residues on the soil surface. Major conservation practices include conservation tillagecontour farming, strip cropping, terraces, diversions, and grassed waterways.

Soil consists of four parts: mineral solids, water, air, and soil organic matter. All four are important characteristics of fertile soil.

Soil organic matter consists of three parts: living organisms, fresh residues, and well-decomposed residues. The living part of soil organic matter includes a wide variety of microorganisms, such as bacteria, viruses, fungi, protozoa and algae. It includes plant roots as well as insects, earthworms, and larger animals in the soil. The fresh residues consist of recently deceased microorganisms, insects, earthworms, old plant roots, crop residues and recently added manures. This part of soil organic matter is the active, or easily decomposed, fraction. As soil organic matter is decomposed, many plant nutrients are released. The well-decomposed organic material in soil is called humus.The already well-decomposed humus is not a food for organisms, but its very small size and chemical properties make it an important part of a healthy soil. Humus holds on to some essential plant nutrients, storing them for slow release to plants. Good amounts of soil humus can both lessen drainage and compaction problems that occur in clay soils and improve water retention in sandy soils by enhancing aggregation, which reduces soil density, and by holding on to and releasing water.

The soil water, also called the soil solution, contains dissolved plant nutrients and is the main source of water for plants. Soil nutrients are made available to the roots of plants through the soil solution. The air in the soil provides roots with oxygen and helps remove excess carbon dioxide from respiring root cells. When mineral and organic particles clump together, soil aggregates are formed, resulting in a healthy soil with good soil structure and more spaces, or pores, for storing water.

How Soils Behave When We Grow Cover Crops

BELLE GLADE, Florida – Florida vegetable farmers who grow cover crops as a green manure between their cash crops anecdotally tout the health benefits, but a two-year study by University of Florida has provided the research to back it up. In a Southern Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SSARE) On-Farm Research Grant, University of Florida […]

Cover Crops Improve Soil Quality in Plaintain Production Systems

GURABO, Puerto Rico — In humid, tropical environments where soil organic matter decomposes at a rapid rate, efforts are being made to maintain and improve soil health using cover crops, specifically in high intensive cropping systems like plantain production. In a Producer Grant project, farmer Duamed Colon-Carrion studied the potential benefits of cover crops on […]

University of Florida Researchers Expanding the Cover Crop Toolbox for Farmers

HAWTHORNE, Florida – Several new cover crop varieties that have the potential to overcome the limitations of their commercial counterparts are being targeted for use in Florida to provide farmers with a more diverse selection of plants that excel in soil health, weed suppression and pest management. A small group of farmers, Extension agents and […]

It Doesn’t Take Long for Soils to Reap the Benefits of Cover Crops

HORSE SHOE, North Carolina – Whitaker Farms, a family vegetable operation nestled on the edge of the Pisgah National Forest, has been managed conventionally for generations. But last year, owner Phillip Whitaker decided to take part in a study to test the benefits of no-till and cover crops on soil health. Despite the short period […]

No-Till Cropping Systems in Oklahoma

This publication is designed to assist individuals interested in a no-till cropping system in making decisions that affect the production of their operation.