Building Soils for Better Crops, Third Edition

Summary and Sources



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.


Barber, S.A. 1998. Chemistry of soil-nutrient interactions and future agricultural sustainability. In Future Prospects for SoilChemistry, ed. P.M. Huang, D.L. Sparks, and S.A. Boyd. SSSA Special Publication No. 55. Madison, WI: Soil Science Society of America.

Brady, N.C., and R.R. Weil. 2008. The Nature and Properties of Soils, 14th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Cavigelli, M.A., S.R. Deming, L.K. Probyn, and R.R. Harwood, eds. 1998. Michigan Field Crop Ecology: Managing Biological Processes for Productivity and Environmental Quality. Extension Bulletin E-2646. East Lansing: Michigan State University.

Cooperband, L. 2002. Building Soil Organic Matter with OrganicAmendments. Madison: University of Wisconsin, Center for Integrated Systems.

Hills, J.L., C.H. Jones, and C. Cutler. 1908. Soil deterioration and soil humus. Vermont Agricultural Experiment Station Bulletin135: 142–177. Burlington: University of Vermont, College of Agriculture.

Jenny, H. 1980. Alcohol or humus? Science 209: 444.

Johnson, J. M-F., R.R. Allmaras, and D.C. Reicosky. 2006. Estimating source carbon from crop residues, roots and rhizo deposits using the National Grain-Yield Database. AgronomyJournal 98: 622–636.

Mitchell, J., T. Hartz, S. Pettygrove, D. Munk, D. May, F. Menezes, Diener, and T. O’Neill. 1999. Organic matter recycling varies with crops grown. California Agriculture 53(4): 37–40.

Moebius, B.N., H.M. van Es, J.O. Idowu, R.R. Schindelbeck, D.J. Clune, D.W. Wolfe, G.S. Abawi, J.E. Thies, B.K. Gugino, and R. Lucey. 2008. Long-term removal of maize residue for bioenergy: Will it affect soil quality? Soil Science Society of America Journal 72: 960–969.

Nielsen, D.C., M.F. Vigil, R.L. Anderson, R.A. Bowman, J.G. Benjamin, and A.D. Halvorson. 2002. Cropping system influence on planting water content and yield of winter wheat. Agronomy Journal 94: 962–967.

Oshins, C., and L. Drinkwater. 1999. An Introduction to SoilHealth. A slide set previously available from the Northeast Region SARE.

Topp, G.C., K.C. Wires, D.A. Angers, M.R. Carter, J.L.B. Culley, D.A. Holmstrom, B.D. Kay, G.P. Lafond, D.R. Langille, R.A. McBride, G.T. Patterson, E. Perfect, V. Rasiah, A.V. Rodd, and K.T. Webb. 1995. Changes in soil structure. In The Health of Our Soils: Toward Sustainable Agriculture in Canada, ed. D.F. Acton and L.J. Gregorich. Center for Land and Biological Resources Research, Research Branch, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. Publication 1906/E.

Vigil, M.F., and D.E. Kissel. 1991. Equations for estimating the amount of nitrogen mineralized from crop residues. Soil Science Society of America Journal 55: 757–761.

Wilhelm, W.W., J.M.F. Johnson, D.L. Karlen, and D.T. Lightle. 2007. Corn stover to sustain soil organic carbon further constrains biomass supply. Agronomy Journal 99: 1665–1667.

Table of Contents