How can you manage land in a way that improves soil productivity, water quality, and other soil benefits? Start with these six components of soil quality management. If you want to assess the effect of your existing land management practices, begin by asking which of your practices fall into each of these categories. Choosing specific practices within each category depends on your situation because different kinds of soil respond differently to the same practice.
Organic matter management: Whether your soil is naturally high or low in organic matter, adding new organic matter every year is perhaps the most important way to improve and maintain soil quality. Regular additions of organic matter improve soil structure, enhance water and nutrient holding capacity, protect soil from erosion and compaction, and support a healthy community of soil organisms. Practices that increase organic matter include: leaving crop residues in the field, choosing crop rotations that include high residue plants, using optimal nutrient and water management practices to grow healthy plants with large amounts of roots and residue, growing cover crops, applying manure or compost, using low or no tillage systems, using sod-based rotations, growing perennial forage crops, and mulching. (Link to organic matter management practices.)
Tillage management: Reducing tillage minimizes the loss of organic matter and protects the soil surface with plant residue. Tillage is used to loosen surface soil, prepare the seedbed, and control weeds and pests. But tillage can also break up soil structure, speed the decomposition and loss of organic matter, increase the threat of erosion, destroy the habitat of helpful organisms, and cause compaction. New equipment allows crop production with minimal disturbance of the soil. (Link to cultivation practices.)
Chemical management: An important function of soil is to buffer and detoxify chemicals, but soil's capacity for detoxification is limited. Pesticides and chemical fertilizers have valuable benefits, but they also can harm non-target organisms and pollute water and air if they are mismanaged. Nutrients from organic sources also can pollute when misapplied or over-applied. Efficient pest and nutrient management means testing and monitoring soil and pests; applying only the necessary chemicals, at the right time and place to get the job done; and taking advantage of non-chemical approaches to pest and nutrient management such as crop rotations, cover crops, and manure management. (Link to fertility management and pest management practices.)
Compaction management: Compaction reduces the amount of air, water, and space available to roots and soil organisms. Compaction is caused by repeated traffic, heavy traffic, or traveling on wet soil. Deep compaction by heavy equipment is difficult or impossible to remedy, so prevention is essential. Subsoil tillage is only effective on soils with a clearly defined root-restricting plow pan. In the absence of a plow pan, subsoil tillage to eliminate compaction can reduce yield. Prevention, not tillage, is the way to manage compaction. (Link to cultivation, compaction controlled traffic practices.)
Residue management: Bare soil is susceptible to wind and water erosion, and to drying and crusting. Ground cover protects soil, provides habitats for larger soil organisms, such as insects and earthworms, and can improve water availability. Ground can be covered by leaving crop residue on the surface or by planting cover crops. In addition to ground cover, living cover crops provide additional organic matter, and continuous cover and food for soil organisms. Ground cover must be managed to prevent problems with delayed soil warming in spring, diseases, and excessive build-up of phosphorus at the surface. (Link to residue and cover crop practices.)
Diversity management: Diversity is beneficial for several reasons. Each plant contributes a unique root structure and type of residue to the soil. A diversity of soil organisms can help control pest populations, and a diversity of cultural practices can reduce weed and disease pressures. Diversity across the landscape can be increased by using buffer strips, small fields, or contour strip cropping. Diversity over time can be increased by using long crop rotations. Changing vegetation across the landscape or over time not only increases plant diversity, but also the types of insects, microorganisms, and wildlife that live on your farm. (Link to cropping systems and integrated pest management practices.)