Soil Health

What is soil health?

According to the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service “Soil health, also referred to as soil quality, is defined as the continued capacity of soil to function as a vital living ecosystem that sustains plants, animals, and humans.” The soil health concept recognizes that soil is a living system with properties and processes that perform essential ecosystem services.   Soil health is measured through multi-factor assessments that include biological, chemical, and physical characteristics that help with understanding vital soil functions.

Soils have both inherent and dynamic properties.  Inherent properties include characteristics such as depth, mineral type, texture, and gravel content.  Dynamic properties can be changed by management, although the scope of change is limited by inherent soil properties.  Examples of dynamic soil properties are soil structure, organic matter content, water infiltration rate, water holding capacity, and nutrient holding capacity.

Key principles to improving soil health include keeping soil covered, minimizing soil disturbance, using plant diversity to improve below-ground diversity, and keeping living roots in the soil as long as possible throughout the year.

Managing for soil health provides important ecosystem services such as improved water storage and water quality (from erosion prevention and nutrient retention), and sequestering carbon from the atmosphere.  On the production side, soil health and crop health are closely linked.  For North Coast farms, the goal is to achieve optimal soil health, while maintaining or increasing production and quality.

Principles of Soil Health

• Keep soil covered as much as possible.

• Keep soil covered as much as possible.

• Use plant diversity to increase diversity in the soil.

• Keep living roots in the soil as long as possible.• Disturb the soil as little as possible.

 

Benefits of Increased Soil Health

  • Increased nutrient and water holding capacity
  • Reduced run-off of sediment and nutrients
  • Increased carbon sequestration and reduction of greenhouse gases in atmosphere
  • Increased root penetration and aeration
  • Increased water infiltration
  • Erosion control
  • Resilient to drought and high intensity rainfall events
  • Increased nutrient cycling
  • Less fertilizer inputs
  • Increased biodiversity
  • Reduced risk of disease