Soil Quality/Health

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 tillagecontour 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.

Showing 1-20 of 84 results

Que es sostenible cover

¿Qué es la Agricultura Sostenible?

This content is also available in English. Una forma sencilla de pensar en la agricultura sostenible es que implica producir suficientes alimentos y fibra para satisfacer las necesidades actuales sin comprometer la capacidad de las generaciones futuras para hacer lo mismo. Los agricultores y ganaderos que valoran la sostenibilidad adoptan tres objetivos comunes mientras llevando […]

Urban Ag Best Practices Bulletin Cover

Best Practices for the Sustainable Urban Farm

For decades, urban farms and community gardens have helped meet the demand for fresh, local produce. Urban farms are diverse and adaptable, ranging from small farms on repurposed vacant lots to multilevel vertical farms and rooftop gardens. Often, they combine ecological farming practices with some form of infrastructure. Urban growers make clever use of their […]

What is Sustainable Agriculture report cover

What is Sustainable Agriculture?

This award-winning report provides a sampler of best practices in sustainable agriculture—from marketing and community vitality to cover crops and grazing—as well as eight profiles of producers, educators and researchers who have successfully implemented them.

rfdtv logo with windmill and red letters

America's Heartland "Leaders in Sustainable Agriculture" Now Available on YouTube

SARE recently partnered with PBS KVIE to produce an episode of RFD-TV's America's Heartland featuring four farmers describing their commitment to sustainability, how they plan to overcome modern farming challenges, and how SARE has impacted their farming and ranching practices.  The full 24-minute episode titled Leaders in Sustainable Agriculture is now available at https://www.sare.org/resources/leaders-in-sustainable-agriculture/. Watch: Videos featuring each […]

America's Heartland logo over glowing corn field

Leaders in Sustainable Agriculture Featured on America's Heartland

SARE partnered with PBS KVIE to produce an episode of RFD-TV's America's Heartland that features four farmers describing their commitment to sustainability, how they plan to meet farming challenges of today and tomorrow, and how SARE has impacted their farming and ranching practices.  The full 24-minute video is available, as is each segment featuring the […]

rfdtv logo with windmill and red letters

RFD-TV Episode to Highlight Sustainable Innovations

Tune in to RFD-TV on March 29 at 5:30pm EDT for the premiere of a new “America’s Heartland” episode showcasing farmers and ranchers from across the country who are leaders in sustainability.  SARE partnered with PBS KVIE to produce this episode, which features farmers describing their commitment to sustainability, how they plan to meet farming […]

Cover of Farming with Soil Life book featuring boots on the ground, showing soil and a few insect images.

Farming with Soil Life

This handbook, created by The Xerces Society, dives into soil biology. It provides a connection between healthy soils and healthy invertebrates found in temperate agricultural soils. Farming with Soil Life starts with a review of soil basics, including the functions, classifications and properties (physical, biological and chemical) of soil. It provides detailed methods on how […]

transitioning to organic production guide

Transitioning to Organic Production

Transitioning to Organic Production lays out many promising conversion strategies, covering typical organic farming production practices, innovative marketing ideas and federal standards for certified organic crop production.

image for video series on soil health principals and practices

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.

Building Soils for Better Crops Cover

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.

What is Sustainable Agriculture Animation Episode 3

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 […]

What is Sustainable Agriculture Animation Episode 2

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 […]

Cover page of Smart Water Use bulletin

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.

cover image of book

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.

Cover Crop Facts Cover Image

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 […]

cover image of Cover Crop Economics publication

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.