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Managing soil has many benefits

By Gary Sliworsky

Do you know the benefits or payback from managing your soil well? It is often difficult to compare the benefits of your good soil management of a field to a neighbouring property with poorer soil management. There can be a lot of variables between the two fields and yield comparisons may not always be reliable.
The goal of good soil management is to develop a healthy soil. Good soil quality will help “even out” the seasons. This means that adverse weather or other crop stresses will not have as great an impact on yield as on soils with poor soil quality.
A big part of what makes a soil healthy is the amount of organic matter. Organic matter plays a role in soil structure, nutrient cycling and water holding capacity. Research has found that as soil organic matter level increases from one to four percent, there is a significant increase in biological activity in the soil, and an even greater improvement in soil structure. That additional organic matter will also cut the soil erosion potential by about one-third. It is hard to put an actual dollar figure on these, but they do contribute to increased yields.
Research shows that on a degraded sandy loam soil, a 0.5% increase in the soil organic matter will result in a 15% increase in nutrient holding ability. Increases in organic matter will also increase the availability of many essential micronutrients. As the cost of fertilizer continues to climb, holding on to nutrients can reduce the amount of fertilizer applied, saving input costs. Higher soil organic matter levels can also increase the amount of available nitrogen. A good example of this is the reduction of nitrogen rates for corn on well managed soils. Some growers are able to reduce their nitrogen rate to 100 lbs/ac or less. With a crop removal of 240 lbs/ac for a 150 bu/ac crop, the soil (largely from the organic matter) is providing 140 lbs N/ac or more for the crop. With increasing nitrogen prices, that can be a significant payback.
Research also shows that on a sandy loam soil, a 0.5% increase in organic matter will provide a 12% increase in the water holding capacity of the soil. This means that a crop would go a week longer before it would suffer moisture stress.
A good quality healthy soil will have improved water infiltration and more pores for air exchange. This is the result of good soil structure and a wealth of soil life, including the activity of the large earthworms. Good pore space can lead to improved root growth. Improved infiltration can make the soil fit to plant earlier in the spring. An abundance of soil life can assist in root and plant health by keeping diseases and pests in check.
The final good news story is that good soil management can pay off directly in increased yield. Studies have shown that soils that have adequate organic matter and fertility levels will yield 10% more than soils with low organic matter and adequate fertility. The yield benefit was even higher if the low organic matter levels made the soils more prone to moisture stress or reduced emergence due to crusting.
The payback from good soil management due to increased yields, earlier planting, potential improvements in nutrient use and better drainage can be significant.

Dates to Remember
April 24 – RR Cattlemens’ Spring Sale, Stratton