Contributing Author, Leticia Sonon, PhD, Sr Field Biologist, Miller Chemical 

Healthier soil means healthier crops and ultimately healthier communities. Soil health is a crucial component of agriculture and requires careful management and conservation to ensure the soils continued functionality and resilience. Fertile soil is often the result of good soil health. Without fertile soil, it would be challenging for farmers to produce the needed crop yields, breeding, and other food plantation needs. 

What is Considered Healthy Soil?

Soil Health refers to overall condition and quality of the soil, including its physical, chemical, and biological properties. It is the continued capacity of soil to function as a vital living ecosystem that sustains plants, animals, and humans. Farming soils must hold enough water, contain sufficient levels of nutrients, has good tilth that allows plant roots to easily penetrate large volumes of soil and has diverse populations of beneficial organisms. Healthy soil contributes to food security, reduce the hazards of soil erosion, and minimize the effects of climate change.

We asked Miller’s Sr. Field Biologist, Leticia Sonon, PhD to answer some frequently asked questions on soil health.  

Q&A: Why is the Health of Soils Important?

There has been more focus on soil health in the recent past, but to increase the effort to improve soil health in all cropping systems what are some strategies?

  • Minimize soil disturbance to preserve soil aggregates, reduce erosion, minimize soil compaction, and promote biological activity in soil. Compacted soil restricts root growth, reduces soil aeration, reduces water infiltration, and is destructive to the biological components of soil. Disturbance in the field from heavy farm machinery and animals is unavoidable, but minimizing disturbance events across field operations builds a healthier soil. Reduced disturbance includes less tillage, optimized timing of agricultural input application, rotating livestock, controlled traffic, and avoiding tillage when wet.
  • Maximize soil cover to protect soil from erosion, improve organic matter content, moderate temperature fluctuations, fix atmospheric nitrogen using legumes, and enhance biodiversity in soils. This can be done by panting cover crops like legumes, grasses, or other vegetation between main crop cycles. Mulching and retaining crop residues helps to protect soils.
  • Maximize biodiversity across farm operations to break disease cycles, stimulate plant growth, and provide habitat for pollinators and organisms living in the soil.  This can be achieved by planting diverse cover crops, practice crop rotation, and integrating livestock.
  • Regularly Testing and Monitoring Soil for things like pH or nutrients levels and other properties to make informed decisions about soil management practices.

What is the industry response to improving the health of soil? 

Recognizing the critical role of soil health in sustainable and more resilient agriculture, the industry has responded to the growing emphasis on soil health in various ways. The industry has expressed its commitment to sustainable practices by investing in innovation that results in the following:

  • Developing Soil and Microbe-Friendly Products to promote soil health such as carbon-containing additives as food source for the microbes, soil conditioners, biostimulants, and microbial stimulants that enhance microbial activity and organic matter content in soil.
  • Developing cost-effective agrochemicals with improved use efficiency allows farmers to use the products judiciously and increase farm profitability as well as environmental benefits.
  • Precision Agriculture Technologies including Robotics – the industry is investing in precision agriculture technologies that allow farmers to apply fertilizers and pesticides more precisely. This reduces overuse of products and minimizes negative impacts on the soil health and the environment.
  • Balanced Nutrient Management. The industry provides guidance on optimal rates of products and methods to ensure that they are applied in amounts that match crop requirements, thus, minimizing product runoff and soil degradation.
  • Integrated Pest management (IPM). Many companies are advocating for the adoption of IPM practices, which emphasize proper use of pesticides as part of holistic pest management approach. There is also an increasing trend towards the use of biopesticides and other biological control measures.
  • Research and Education. Agrochemical companies are investing in research to better understand the relationships between their products, soil health, and crop productivity.
  • Supporting Sustainable Practices and Education/Outreach. Companies are increasingly aware and supportive of agricultural practices such as cover cropping, reduced tillage, and others that contribute to soil health.

What new technology is available to farmers for monitoring soil health? 

Over the years, laboratories have tested for the chemical, physical and biological properties of soils and correlate relationships among parameters to describe the health of a particular soil. These are considered indicators of how well the soil can function. The biological tests include microbial biomass, particulate organic matter, soil enzymes, soil respiration, and total organic carbon. Chemical tests include electrical conductivity, reactive carbon, soil pH, soil nitrate, soil nutrients. Tests for soil physical properties include bulk density, soil structure, soil aeration, aggregate stability, water holding capacity.

Advancements in technology have led to innovative methods for monitoring soil health more accurately and efficiently.

  • Sensor Networks. Wireless sensor networks equipped with various sensors, monitor multiple soil parameters such as moisture, temperature, electrical conductivity, total soil carbon and provide farmers with accurate, real-time, continuous data to improve soil health and productivity.
  • Spectral Analysis. Remote sensing techniques, such as hyperspectral and multispectral imaging allow researchers and farmers to analyze spectral reflectance of soils. This can provide  information about soil composition, moisture content, and nutrient levels.
  • DNA Sequencing. Next generation DNA sequencing techniques enable the analysis of soil microbial communities, This helps researchers understand the diversity and activity of microorganisms in soil, which is crucial for soil health assessment.
  • Soil DNA/RNA Testing Kits. Commercial testing kits that farmers and gardeners can us to extract and analyze DNA or RNA from their soil sample to get insights into microbial diversity and activity.
  • App-Based Solutions. Mobile apps and software platforms offer users to collect, manage, and analysis soil health data.

What’s the impact on food and the ecosystem if you don’t have good soil health? 

If soil is not healthy, it can have wide-ranging negative impacts on ecosystems, agriculture, the environment, and human beings. To mention a few:

  • Without a productive and healthy soil, the prospect of producing enough food to feed an ever-increasing human population is impossible. Unhealthy soil lacks essential nutrients, proper structure, and microbial diversity needed for optimal growth.
  • Unhealthy soil is prone to erosion by wind and water leading to environmental degradation and negative effects on human health. For example, when dust storms develop, suspended sediments have been proven to be hazardous for road safety and constitute serious health issues for those with respiratory problems. Poorly managed soils can also lead to the contamination of surface water and groundwater due to agrichemicals attached to the dust and soil.
  • Unhealthy soils have less ability to store carbon, instead can result in carbon loss through decomposition, releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and contribute to climate change.

Why is Soil Health Something to be Prioritized?

According to the United Nations report in 2017, the global trends show that 20% of cropland, 16% of forest land, 19% of grassland, and 27% of rangeland are in persistent decline in productivity due to soil degradation. This can have significant effects on global food security if not addressed. Managing for soil health allows producers to work with the land – not against – to reduce erosion, maximize water infiltration, improve nutrient cycling, save money on inputs, and ultimately improve the resiliency of their working land.

Soil health is a critical yet complex topic encompassing a large variety of factors. Prioritizing soil health has numerous benefits ranging from improving soil productivity, creating economic opportunities, minimizing soil erosion, and promoting biodiversity. To ensure soil health, it is essential that farmers adhere to the basic principles such as minimizing soil disturbance, maximizing soil cover, practicing crop rotations, and encouraging biodiversity. The trends in soil health are promising, evidenced by the rise of regenerative agriculture, no-till farming, and cover cropping. Nevertheless, both big and small-scale farmers play an important role in promoting soil health.  

In order to be able to meet the challenges in agriculture today and in the future, we must continue to be even more effective stewards of our soil.  

Leticia Sonon is the Sr. Field Biologist of Miller Chemical and Fertilizer, a Huber company headquartered in Atlanta, GA. She coordinates the company’s research field trials in the U.S. and abroad. 

Leticia earned her Ph.D. in Soil Chemistry from Kansas State University, M.S. in Soil Chemistry/Fertility from Cornell University, and B.S. Soil Science from Visayas State University in the Philippines. Her post-doctoral research in Soil Chemistry was at Iowa State University.

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