Improved soil organic matter management is at the heart of building better soils—creating a habitat below the ground that is suited to optimal root development and health. This means adding adequate annual quantities, tons per acre, of a variety of organic materials— crop residue, manure, composts, leaves, etc.—while not overloading the soil with nutrients from off the farm. It also means reducing the losses of soil organic matter as the result of excess tillage or erosion. But we’re not just interested in the amount of organic matter in soil. Even if the organic matter content of the soil doesn’t increase greatly—and it takes a while to find out whether it’s increasing—better management will provide more active (particulate or “dead”) organic matter that fuels the complex soil web of life, helps in formation of soil aggregates, and provides plant growth–stimulating chemicals, as well as reducing plant pest pressures. For a variety of reasons, it is easier to build and maintain higher levels of organic matter in animal-based systems than in those growing only crops. However, there are ways to improve organic matter management in any cropping system.
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