Crop production has successfully relied on inorganic agronomy (NPK) for decades, but more and more people are talking about the health of the soil, beyond the chemical analysis. So at this time of year, when everyone is considering health and fitness, what is soil health and how do you get healthy? In order to answer those questions, we need to break it down.

First, what is health?

The World Health Organisation finds it difficult to define human health, so how on earth are we supposed to define soil health.

Soil, like humans, are complex things, with lots of interconnected parts. Each part of the soil affects another. And, in the same way, improving soil, helps other things such as crop yield and the environment.

Google dictionary describes ‘health’ as:

The state of being free from illness or injury. E.g. “he was restored to health”

What texture does healthy soil have? Think sponge cake

So how would we describe injury-free soil?

Simplistically, this would be a soil that is full of happy organisms such as bacteria and worms, with a light and crumbly structure. I often describe soil like cake (which one shouldn’t eat too much if being healthy), but to continue the analogy, we are aiming for a Mary Berry sponge cake rather than flat and dense Mississippi mud pie.

Healthy soil is one that sustains and encourages life.

Next, What does all that mean and how does it help me?

A commonly stated fact about soil is that a single teaspoon of productive soil generally contains between 100 million and 1 billion bacteria. That is as much mass as two cows per acre. But what do these bacteria do? Why should we care about keeping them happy and ‘healthy’?

It’s all about the nutrients and crop production again. The bacteria in the soil help digest and cycle nutrients for plant use.

Bacteria and all the rest of the organisms in soil are just like us, they need a few key things to survive.

  • Food,
  • Oxygen,
  • Water,
  • Warmth,
  • A place to live.

All these things are improved when the soil is ‘healthier’. Or, the soil is ‘healthier’ when these things are improved.

Bacteria perform important services to water dynamics, nutrient cycling and disease suppression.

Worms and soil invertebrates help increase the amount of air and water getting into the soil. Break down organic matter and produce fertiliser as well as sometimes interesting calcite granules.

Looking after your soil biology and making the soil a more hospitable place, will help in nutrient availability, water absorption and filtration, carbon sequestration, and ultimately the use and workability of the land. So why wouldn’t you want healthy soil?

Finally, how can we improve the soil’s health?

There have been many studies on how to improve the organic matter in soils, and how that is the initial starting point for improving soil health. The FAO as well as much of the soil science community, widely accept that more organic matter helps. This can be done by adding more organic manures, reducing tillage frequency and preventing the soil from being left bare by incorporating cover crops/green manures into the rotation.

But as stated at the beginning, soils are like humans, pretty complex things. So not every farm, every field, every country, will react the same to the same treatments. Like improving our own health, it becomes a life long experiment of doing a bit more of this one year and a bit less of that the next.

One thing you can do is to work out your baseline so you know where needs improvement… just like that first trip to the gym in January. Why not make your 2020 new years resolution to look after your soil and get healthy!

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