How Soil Health and Agronomy Go Hand in Hand

There are many different facets to agronomy, but soil health is one of the most overlooked. At the Kansas State University (K-State) Research and Extension Meeting, speakers discussed just how important soil health is to yield and the various ways to ensure the health of the soil.

Soil Health’s Impact on Crop Production

Per Gretchen Sassenrath, an agronomy specialist at K-State, both farmers and livestock ranchers alike should pay very close attention to soil health. After all, the health of the soil is a key indicator of the productivity of the ground. By changing the ways in which farmers manage their land, and by implementing techniques that improve overall soil health, both farmers and ranchers will see measurable changes in their productivity and profitability. The Research and Extension Meeting focused on different ways to measure and improve soil health.

The Importance of Organic Matter

The soil is a mix of organic and inorganic matter. Most soil is a mixture of things like decaying organic matter (humus), minerals, living things, broken rocks, sand, clay, and other components. The higher the ratio of organic matter to inorganic matter, the more productive the soil. What’s more, when a more organic matter is present in the soil, it can absorb more water, which in turn increased the amount of water available to the plants. Sassenrath said that conservative estimates show a 1% increase in the organic matter could increase available water in the soil by as much as 25,000 gallons per acre.

Putting the Idea to the Test

In Kansas and other parts of the Midwest, corn is by far the most popular crop. Corn is also a crop that has a very rapid growth phase, which requires ample water available in the soil. During that incredibly fast growth phase, corn will require about a quarter of an inch of water every single day. This means that farmers must ensure that their crops are getting an extra inch of soil water every four days, and one of the absolute best ways to do this is to increase the amount of organic matter in the fields themselves. This extra organic matter increases the water the soil can hold, and in turn, the amount of water available to the plants each day.

Ways to Increase Organic Matter

According to researchers and speakers at K-State, there are two main methods for farmers who want to increase the organic matter in their soil and boost microbial activity. The first involves the use of cover crops, which improves the overall structure of the soil and boosts organic matter in the most natural way possible. It also helps with controlling erosion, which can lead to the loss of organic matter already present in the soil. However, the best way to increase organic matter is to reduce tillage. When the soil is tilled, organic matter and the very structure of the soil breaks down.

Though adding organic matter like compost to the soil certainly can help, it is important to note that too much of any one nutrient is just as detrimental to crops as too little of that nutrient. Taking the time to understand soil health and the best way to improve it for specific crops can help farmers across the country improve their production and yield.