The educational materials listed on this page are about Soil Quality/Health.
Farmers and ranchers use the term soil health to describe the condition of the soil. Scientists usually use the term soil quality, but both refer to the same idea — how good is the soil in its role of supporting the growth of high-yielding, high-quality, and healthy crops? Healthy soil generates higher crop yields, it absorbs and holds rainfall, and erosion is therefore reduced. The information here will show you how to improve soil fertility and build healthy soil. Two comprehensive books to consult are Building Soils for Better Crops and Managing Cover Crops Profitably.
Crop rotation, the use of diverse soil management practices, composting, and cover crops all contribute to healthy soil by conserving and building soil organic matter, absorbing rainfall, and retaining crop residues on the soil surface. Major conservation practices include conservation tillage, contour farming, strip cropping, terraces, diversions, and grassed waterways.
Soil consists of four parts: mineral solids, water, air, and soil organic matter. All four are important characteristics of fertile soil.
Soil organic matter consists of three parts: living organisms, fresh residues, and well-decomposed residues. The living part of soil organic matter includes a wide variety of microorganisms, such as bacteria, viruses, fungi, protozoa and algae. It includes plant roots as well as insects, earthworms, and larger animals in the soil. The fresh residues consist of recently deceased microorganisms, insects, earthworms, old plant roots, crop residues and recently added manures. This part of soil organic matter is the active, or easily decomposed, fraction. As soil organic matter is decomposed, many plant nutrients are released. The well-decomposed organic material in soil is called humus.The already well-decomposed humus is not a food for organisms, but its very small size and chemical properties make it an important part of a healthy soil. Humus holds on to some essential plant nutrients, storing them for slow release to plants. Good amounts of soil humus can both lessen drainage and compaction problems that occur in clay soils and improve water retention in sandy soils by enhancing aggregation, which reduces soil density, and by holding on to and releasing water.
The soil water, also called the soil solution, contains dissolved plant nutrients and is the main source of water for plants. Soil nutrients are made available to the roots of plants through the soil solution. The air in the soil provides roots with oxygen and helps remove excess carbon dioxide from respiring root cells. When mineral and organic particles clump together, soil aggregates are formed, resulting in a healthy soil with good soil structure and more spaces, or pores, for storing water.
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Soil Health Principles and Practices Videos
Experienced farmers and Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) provide information on managing and improving soil health. Farmers discuss practices such as cover cropping, and using mulch and compost to improve soil health.
Updated Building Soils for Better Crops Focuses on Soil Health Fundamentals
SARE’s newest book, the fourth edition of Building Soils for Better Crops, provides rich detail on ecologically sound practices for developing and maintaining healthy soils. It is a must-read for farmers, educators and students alike.
Building Soils for Better Crops
The fourth edition of Building Soils for Better Crops—enhanced and expanded—explains how to use ecological principles to build soil health and boost fertility, yields and overall sustainability.
New "Conservation Tillage and Soil Health" Video from SARE
The newest episode of SARE’s “What is Sustainable Agriculture?” animation series illustrates how many producers are retiring conventional tillage equipment and turning to conservation tillage to improve soil health and productivity. “Conservation Tillage and Soil Health” provides a short, animated outline of the basic principles of conservation tillage that can be used to introduce or […]
New “Cover Crops and Soil Health” Video from SARE
The newest episode of SARE’s "What is Sustainable Agriculture" animation series illustrates how producers can use cover crops to improve productivity and sustainability. In just a few short minutes, “Cover Crops and Soil Health” outlines how cover crops can build soil structure, protect water quality, suppress pests and improve a farm's bottom line. Combining cover […]
Smart Water Use on Your Farm or Ranch
As producers throughout the nation grow increasingly concerned about water scarcity, farmers, ranchers and agricultural educators are beginning to explore new, conservation-oriented approaches to water use.
A Whole Farm Approach to Managing Pests
This 16-page bulletin helps producers—and the educators who work with them—use ecological principles across the entire farm to control pests.
National Farmer Survey Documents a Wide Range of Cover Crop Benefits as Acreage Continues to Expand
Despite the crippling rainfall that significantly delayed planting across much of the country in 2019, more than 90% of farmers participating in a national cover crop survey reported that cover crops allowed them to plant earlier or at the same time as non-cover-cropped fields. Among those who had "planted green," seeding cash crops into growing […]
Conservation Tillage Systems in the Southeast
This production manual provides comprehensive guidance on conservation tillage systems for farms in the southeastern United States. It covers the core components of conservation tillage systems and includes both regional considerations and producer experiences.
Free Fact Sheets Identify Broad Benefits of Cover Crops
Along with cutting costs and increasing crop productivity, cover crops provide various ecosystem services that benefit the environment both on and off the farm. For instance, adding cover crops to a rotation can significantly increase the portion of the year when living roots are present for soil organisms to feed on, which can have a […]
What is Soil Health?
Soil health plays an essential role in raising healthy, productive crops and livestock. With this interactive infographic, learn how practices such as cover crops, no-till, crop rotation and the integration of livestock work in concert to improve soil health.
Cover Crop Economics
Cover crops can build soil health, control weeds, conserve moisture, provide grazing opportunities and more. But when do they start to pay for themselves? This analysis looks at the economics behind different management scenarios to determine if cover crops are likely to improve profitability in one, three or five years of use in corn and soybean rotations.
Cultivating Climate Resilience on Farms and Ranches
This bulletin outlines the new challenges that changing weather patterns pose in agriculture throughout the United States, and what you can do to make your farm more resilient.
10 Ways Cover Crops Enhance Soil HealthSoil health is a hot topic these days, one that is justifiably receiving considerable attention from farmers and their farm advisors. This short fact sheet highlights some of the key ways that cover crops improve soil health by influencing the biological and physical characteristics of the soil.
Improving Soil Health Through Cover Crops
Farmers around the country are discovering the power of cover crops to curb erosion and improve soil health. This video is from Pennsylvania, where a Penn State researcher and a grain farmer are partnering to spread the word.
Special Topics with Cover Crops and Soil Health
- Organic and Specialty Crops
- Grazing Cover Crops
- Soil Health Policy Issues
2017 National Conference on Cover Crops and Soil Health
Session recordings are available from the second National Conference on Cover Crops and Soil Health. The event served as an opportunity to learn recent developments in how cover crops are being used by innovative farmers across the country and gain important insights on improving soil health from producers, conservation leaders and scientists. It was held December 7-8, 2017 in Indianapolis.
Recordings of General Sessions
- Opening remarks by Jane Hardisty (USDA-NRCS Indiana) with video message Bill Northey (Iowa Secretary of Agriculture)
- Keynote: Growing a Revolution - Bringing Our Soil Back to Life, by David Montgomery (University of Washington)
- Farmer panel: Experiences with Cover Crops and Soil Health, with Dan DeSutter (Ind.), Trey Hill (Md.) and Jimmy Emmons (Okla.)
- Top 10 Ways Cover Crops Build Soil Health, by Rob Myers (North Central SARE)
- Plenary session: Carbonomics, by Keith Berns (Neb. farmer and Green Cover Seed)
Basics of Cover Cropping
- Introduction to Cover Crops
- Selecting and Establishing Cover Crops
- Terminating Cover Crops Plus Strategies for Planting a Cash Crop Following Cover Crops
Advanced Cover Cropping Insights from Farmer Experts
- Great Plains Perspective
- Central Corn Belt Perspective
- Eastern Perspective