Here at Water Grows, we often talk about soil health and what farmers are doing to conserve and preserve it – and for good reason!
Soil plays a critical role in supporting life on earth. Healthy soil serves as the base of an ecosystem full of living organisms that helps sustain plants, animals, and even us. Soil provides us a bountiful food supply, beautiful landscapes, and even the support on which we build homes. But did you know soil and water share a special relationship?
John Sackett, soil scientist for the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) in Texas, said one of the major roles of soil is in the hydrologic cycle.
“The water cycle and soil are linked and can’t be separated. They just go together like peanut butter and jelly really,” Sackett said.
As precipitation or irrigation water falls onto the Earth’s surface, one of the functions of soil is to help regulate where and how water flows over the land into nearby bodies of water. Sackett said soil also acts as a sponge, absorbing water through the ground where it ultimately makes its way into groundwater stores.
Another important piece of the soil and water relationship, Sackett said, is that soil acts like a filter, removing contaminants from water. Soil helps improve the quality of water before reaching our streams, rivers and lakes and groundwater stores.
Why it Matters
In order for soil to properly regulate water flow and filter contaminants, Sackett explained that soil must be healthy.
Healthy soil is teeming with living organisms and organic matter that create a biologic glue called glomalin that helps hold soil together. This soil structure helps prevent erosion during heavy rainfall and allows more water to infiltrate the soil. Healthy soil also holds more water. More water in the soil means more water available for plants, which is especially important in the growth of our food.
On the contrary, soil that is in poor condition lacks organic matter and living organisms above and below the surface. It is often compacted and cannot allow water to infiltrate, causing water to run off.
Every square inch of land in the U.S. is part of some watershed – an area of land that drains into nearby bodies of water. We all live in a watershed and the activities we perform on the surface can impact the quality of soil and water. Some threats to soil health include urbanization, improper disposal of household chemicals, over application of fertilizer and some conventional farming practices like continuous tillage.
Farmers Improving Soil Health
Since healthy soil and abundant water are the foundation of a successful farm, farmers work diligently to improve the condition of soil on their farms. By utilizing soil health principles, farmers can conserve natural resources while continuing to operate in a profitable manner year after year.
“Soil health principles improve the quality of soil to function as nature intended,” Sackett said.
One common principle that improves soil health Sackett explained is keeping it covered. After harvest, farmers leave stalks, stubble and other plant material in the field instead of tilling it. He said this plant residue acts like a “soil armor,” which protects against erosion.
“Residue and growing plants help dissipate the energy of a raindrop and allow it to more slowly infiltrate into the soil,” Sackett said. “When a water droplet hits bare soil on the other hand, it can destroy that soil structure, cause it to crust, and reduce the infiltration rate.”
Another important soil health principle is maximizing biodiversity. Sackett said farmers achieve this through crop rotations and cover crops. Crop rotation is a practice whereby farmers plant a sequence of different crops in a field using a planned timeline. Cover crops are crops farmers plant but do not harvest for the benefit of soil. Since plants make their own food through photosynthesis, he said having this diversity of plant roots growing in the ground feeds the microbes.
“As the plants feed those underground microbes, it works to increase the organic matter in those soils – that’s how they improve soil structure,” Sackett explained.
Todd Westerfeld, Texas farmer from Moody, said crop rotation is the most crucial thing his family does to improve soil health on their dryland farm where their soil has a unique profile.
“Crop rotation is big for us,” Westerfeld said. “We’ve got approximately 60 percent of our acres that we’re able to rotate between corn and cotton. Not only does that improve our production, but it really keeps our weed pressures in check.”
Westerfeld said he protects the soil through land management techniques, such as terraces and grassed waterways. Farmers utilize terraces, which are earthen structures that help reduce erosion, trap sediment and manage runoff. Grassed waterways are areas of a field that are restructured and planted with grass to help reduce erosion.
“If you don’t take care of it, if you don’t practice tillage in the right way, if you don’t keep your terraces or keep your waterways maintained in the right way, you will ruin farmland – and in turn you will ruin your operation. Not only that, you’ll ruin it for the next generation,” Westerfeld said.
We Can All Make a Difference
While we don’t all live in a rural area or farm for a living, we depend on the soil every day for our livelihood and can take steps to conserve it.
One practical way homeowners can protect soil health is through proper fertilizer application in their lawn and gardens.
Sackett explained that just like farmers take soil tests prior to applying fertilizer to see what the soil needs, he encourages homeowners to take a soil test to determine what their lawns need.
“It’ll help them save money because they’ll likely need less fertilizer, and it’ll help the environment by not overapplying,” Sackett said.
Understanding the threats to soil and how to improve its condition is critical to sustaining life on earth long term. Taking steps to improve soil health doesn’t just affect water quality and quantity, it also improves the natural resources in our environment – plants, animals and air. Let’s make it last!
*From homeowners to large-scale farms, discover how you can improve your soil by contacting your local NRCS office.