The Background on Soil Health

Soil quality can be broadly defined as the capacity of a soil to function.  In traditional food production systems, the primary function of a soil has been to produce adequate quantities and quality of food to support a growing population.  More recently, environmental and ecological awareness has resulted in long term consideration of soil and not simply as a medium for root biological growth and livestock production.  It is necessary to assess and improve a soil’s health, or the capacity of a soil to function within ecosystem boundaries in order to sustain biological productivity, maintain environmental health, and promote plant and animal health through the generations.  Feeding an estimated nine billion world population by 2025 will require adoption of ecologically based systems which will influence the soil throughout the nation.

Soil Health was identified as an agency “national initiative” by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) in November, 2012. In order to meet the expected growing world population and subsequent food production demands producers are encouraged to reevaluate traditional management systems in order to maintain profitability as well as ecological and societal sustainability.  These changes will require a different, more holistic perspective of agriculture, leading to substantial changes in agricultural crop management systems.

The new focus will be to demonstrate the logic and efficacy of using innovative new soil tillage and crop management practices, such as cover crops, specifically designed to more closely imitate natural ecosystems, resulting in reduced need for herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers, thus reducing farming costs while improving environmental quality.

Source: Todd Lorenz, Agronomy Specialist


While these changes may not happen over-night, must reevaluate the way we look at our system.  Soil improvements from these new practices will allow increased precipitation infiltration, resulting in reduced soil erosion, more plant-available soil water (increasing yields), and because water will travel through the soil rather than over it, eroding as it flows, cleaner water will be delivered to surface and subsurface aquifers.   Offsite benefits will include increased wildlife habitat, rebuilding of soil attributes known to allow environmentally sound, sustainable plant growth, reduced sediment loads in lakes, reservoirs and rivers, increased rates of groundwater recharge and significantly increased soil carbon sequestration.   The work will be done with consideration of, and planning for, increased variability in local weather, with particular emphasis on increasing frequency and intensity of severe thunderstorms and increasing likelihood of late summer plant water deficits.


Finally, increasing soil health has important implications for meeting the management challenges imposed by increased weather variability.  Research has confirmed that biologically diverse systems are much more resilient in the face of environmental stresses.  Reliance upon current production system during times of increased weather variability, especially increased frequency and duration of drought, is a potential recipe for economic and environmental disaster.