Life below ground: Yes! There is life down there! It is so complex, even soil scientists have yet to plumb the depth and breadth of all species and interactions that make the soil work like an organism. For gardeners, it’s important to know that a lively soil feeds your plants. So feeding the life in […]
By Kaine Korzekwa, Crop Science Society of America
Soil is strong yet fragile, reliable yet unstable, and resilient yet susceptible to change.
These are all especially true when humans and their need for food enter the mix. Large amounts of evidence show soils are declining worldwide because of poor land use practices and soil management.
To study the issue of soil degradation in the Czech Republic, Borivoj Sarapatka and his team at Palacký University developed a way to model soil vulnerability by combining several indicators of soil degradation.Their work was recently published online in the Journal of Environmental Quality.
Various organizations have performed long-term research throughout the Czech Republic on the individual factors that can damage soil. But no one has synthesized these findings into a model to illustrate the current state of Czech soil. Sarapatka and his team set out to combine different databases into a robust, comprehensive, and first-of-its-kind model.
To do this, the researchers identified two categories of degradation factors: physical and chemical. The physical factors consist of water and wind erosion and soil compaction. The chemical factors include heavy metal contamination, soil acidification, and loss of organic matter.
Now that we’re finally receiving moisture in some parts of the state, it’s time to assess condition of our soil and determine if our current land management practices improve soil health or cause it to deteriorate. Soil health is directly related to ranch productivity and has a tremendous influence on the future life style of our children and grandchildren.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, world population is projected to increase from 7 billion in 2013 to more than 9 billion in 2050.
Fourteen million acres of prime farmland in the United States was lost to development from 1982 through 2007. Improving soil health is a key requirement for long-term, sustainable agricultural production and soil conservation is not just the farmer’s job. We all are responsibile for maintaining soil in good condition, regardless of how we use the land.
Soil Health Key Points, a fact sheet published by NRCS lists “four ways to begin your path to healthy soils” lists:
Keep it covered
A covered soil holds more water by binding it to organic matter and loses less water to runoff and evaporation. The amount of organic matter increases in soil when it is covered by vegetation and dead plant material residue. Organic matter holds 18 to 20 times its weight in water and recycles nutrients for plants to use. One percent organic matter in the top six inches of soil holds approximately 27,000 gallons of water per acre.
With harvests winding down, the farm’s focus might turn away from the fields. According to specialists at the University of Missouri, now is just as good as ever to find out what your ground needs.
One way to start planning for next year’s growing season is to get a soil test, and MU’s Soil Fertility Labs are there to help.
A soil test is like taking an inventory of nutrients available to plants—which area is too high, too low or just right. While plant growth and prior yields may offer clues to nutrient availability, a producer won’t precisely know until they test their soil.
“We can tell you what is going on below your feet,” said David Dunn, MU Extension soil testing lab associate. “We are all about giving recommendations for farmers to achieve the yields they want.”
Dunn helps manage the Soil Fertility Lab at the Fisher Delta Research Center, one of the many Agricultural Research Centers operated by the MU College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources. A second lab is located on the MU Campus in Columbia.
Each year the lab in Portageville analyzes around 10,000 soil samples. With each test, producers get a detailed report on pH levels; available phosphorus, potassium, calcium and magnesium; organic matter; acidity and cation exchange. These basic tests provide the necessary data to develop nitrogen, phosphate, potash and agriculture lime recommendations for intended crops.
Waterloo Region Record
At last, a major organization is taking notice, proposing action against abuse that takes place daily. Back on Dec. 5, now World Soil Day, the 68th UN General Assembly declared 2015 the International Year of Soils. Since the UN is concerned with the whole world, their choice of that date for the announcement most suited its agenda, but it couldn’t be a worse time for Canada when early December is the least likely time anyone in the country is thinking about soil. We’re thinking about snow, freezing rain, winter tires or Christmas shopping, while there’s little chance of soil even providing a visible reminder of its existence.
Regardless, this is important, so well done UN for launching this initiative. It’s time to remind the world of the importance of soil as it is in crisis. We now live in a world where most of the ever-increasing population lives in cities, have never seen soil, and think food originates somewhere in backrooms at the grocery store. Not only is soil essential for food supplies, it also produces animal feed, fibre for clothing and crops for fuel.
Soil is ignored and abused, and there really isn’t that much of the good stuff. Where it is present on the Earth’s surface, it can only be measured in centimetres (and it can be up to 1,000 years to produce just one centimetre). It’s not an exaggeration to say it’s only skin deep; however, it’s estimated that a third of all soils are facing degradation and depletion from erosion, loss of organic matter, pollution and poor management.
Throughout history, soil has been regarded as an inert substance, yet it is teeming with essential life — as much as a quarter of the Earth’s biodiversity. Only in recent years has the importance of the millions of species of insects, microbes and fungi that live in the soil become apparent. This is why the UN is proposing to restore awareness and respect for soil on a global scale.
Until recently, we’ve been led to believe that dousing lawns and gardens with chemicals was necessary if plants were to grow well and be productive, but there’s a growing realization that it’s not a healthy approach — not healthy for us, and definitely not healthy for the organisms in the soil.
This area was settled by people who recognized that it held some of the best soil in the world. They saw it on the floor of the forests, produced through eons of undisturbed growth and decomposition of vegetation. It was rich, dark and friable, unlike what now lies beneath most suburban lawns. In earlier times, soil was well cared for. Fields were allowed to lie fallow, crops were rotated, and organic matter incorporated into the soil. This was and still is the basis of good gardening practice.
And so, as we begin 2015, the International Year of Soils, I encourage gardeners and non-gardeners alike to respect the soil. It’s as simple as avoiding the overuse of chemical fertilizer, feeding the soil with organic matter, and making use of mulches to conserve moisture and reduce weeds. You may even hear the microbes cheering.
To support this UN initiative, more than 120 soil-related projects have been implemented around the world. A digital soil map of the world has been produced, and there is a beautiful, 104-minute documentary feature film that explores the complexity and mystery of soil. It’s called “Symphony of the Soil” — ” … an intriguing presentation that highlights possibilities of healthy soil creating healthy plants creating healthy humans living on a healthy planet.” It’s a film that deserves to be shown in every school in the hope it will help restore the connection between soil and humanity. Information and details for rental or purchase at www.symphonyofthesoil.com.
David Hobson gardens in Waterloo and is happy to answer garden questions, preferably by email:firstname.lastname@example.org . Reach him by mail c/o Etcetera, The Record, 160 King St. E. Kitchener, Ont. N2G 4E5