What is Soil Health?

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In agriculture, we heart a the term "soil health", which has been used for about five years, now. Yet what does it mean. the USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) defines soil health as "the continued capacity of soil to function as a vital living ecosystem that sustains plants, animals and humans." this is a great definition, but it really does not tell me much about how a farmer or landowner can put in place practices that will encourage or sustain soil health on their land.

In a recent article by Christina Curell of Michigan State University, she points out that the key concept behind soil health is the protecting and nurturing of soil biota. Further, according to the NRCS, there are four key principles to maintaining and enhancing the organisms within our soils.

The four principles are:

  1. Keep the soil covered as much as possible;
  2. Disturb (till) the soil as little as possible;
  3. Keep growing plants on the soil as long as possible to feed the soil organisms; and
  4. A diversified crop rotation the includes cover crops.

These are new ideas about soil management for many in agriculture, but new soil science research continues to shed light on the importance of these four principles to ensuring healthy soil, which leads to increased soil nutrient cycling, improved water infiltration and improved soil structure.