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What Growers Can Do To Improve Soil Quality

Steve Groff

Soil quality has been a keen interest of mine, especially the past several years that we have been researching the soils here at Cedar Meadow Farm. Penn State University, University of Maryland, and the NRCS have all been testing various soil parameters on our farm.

The following are ways that farmers can help improve the soil, which they manage:

  • Minimize erosion. Erosion takes away your very best soil! It's your surface soil that has the highest fertility that goes "down the drain", during a rainstorm. If you farm land that is susceptible to erosion, controlling it should be your top priority. Soil erosion is the most detrimental aspect of agriculture. We can't turn our backs on soil erosion and call ourselves sustainable!
  • Use cover crops. Cover crops help control erosion as well as improve soil tilth, increases organic matter levels, enhances water infiltration and lessens pest problems. SOIL WAS MEANT TO BE COVERED!
  • Practice crop rotation. Grow crops that have different rooting action and residue production. This helps in providing a habitat for diverse soil organisms.
  • Proper fertilizer use. Use fertilizers that enhance the soil. A good approach is to feed the soil, rather than feed the plant. A good soil will grow healthy crops. Don't over do it with fertility amendments as that is a waste and can be a pollutant.
  • Minimize number and weight of field operations. We all know that working soil too wet is detrimental. It should be avoided at all costs. However, soil with good structure and an extensive network of roots will be resilient to compaction.
  • Minimize tillage. Tillage operations that pulverize soil aggregates are the most damaging. Secondary tillage is often harder on the soil than primary tillage. Tillage systems that maximize surface residues are preferred. Use tillage prescriptively to solve specific soil problems.
  • Minimize use of pesticides. Some pesticides are slightly toxic to non- target soil organisms. Dyfonate, Counter, and Thimet can affect earthworms. Triazines also have a negative affect on the worms.

Soil quality at Cedar Meadow Farm has improved over the last several years. Soil erosion has been cut from 14 tons per acre per year to almost nothing. With the ground covered by plant residues and not loosened by vigorous tillage, the soil stays rather than getting washed away during heavy rainfall. The combination of cover crops and no tilling does more than cut erosion -- it improves soil tilth, increases organic matter levels, enhances water infiltration and lessens pest problems. Organic Matter has gone from 2.7% to 4%. Soil aggregate stability in fields tilled recently (less than 10 years) is 16% and fields that have not been tilled for over 10 years is 67%. Soil microbial biomass has tripled. Yields have increased 10% . I would challenge you to think of at least one idea you can implement on your farm to increase your soil quality.

Steve & Cheri Groff Cedar Meadow Farm
679 Hilldale Road Holtwood, PA 17532
Phone: (717) 284-5152 Fax: (717) 284-5967 Email: