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Nurture Your Soil | Fall 2015 Out Here Magazine

Planting a clover cover crop naturally adds nitrogen to soil, which reduces nitrogen fertilizer applications and, therefore, costs.

Help your ground thrive by protecting living organisms and increasing organic matter

By John Rowehl



Soil organic matter is a dynamic soil property and continuous work is required to maintain or increase its value. The ultimate source of almost all organic matter in soil is plant material.

Plants create energy through photosynthesis. The energy can then be used by the life forms in the soil.

Historically, more attention is given to the soil organisms that harm our crops and the purpose was to control them. Now, we have come to realize that the majority of life in soil performs an important role that helps soil maintain or improve its productivity.

The question becomes how to feed the various forms of soil life. Following are some principles and practices that can help sustain soil life and increase organic matter content.

Plant Cover Crops

Cover crops provide continuous living vegetation in the field. Plant roots have their own particular effects on soil quality. Fibrous, fine root systems stimulate soil aggregation. Sturdier taproots help successive crops’ roots reach into the subsoil, stimulate water infiltration, and aerate the subsoil.

Living plants in the soil at all times protect leachable nutrients against loss to the groundwater. In addition, many soil microbes live in the “twilight zone” between root and soil — the rhizosphere — where they “graze” on the root surface. They eat root secretions and decomposing root cells.

There is now research to suggest that the root systems of plants contribute twice as much organic material to the soil during the growing season as what remains in the root system at the end of the growing season. All this organic matter feeds life in the soil.

Reduce Tillage

It is now firmly established that no-till can work on most soils. Tillage is like stoking a fire; it burns up organic matter that has built up in the soil. Reducing, or even eliminating tillage is important in areas where you want to increase organic matter content.

One year of tillage can erase soil improvement achieved through many years of no-tillage. Therefore, if you choose no-till, then it’s important to practice it continuously.

In long-term no-till soils, microbial activity is higher than in tilled soils. Fungi are also more prevalent in no-till soils than in tilled soils; their hyphae — hairlike structures — are an important component of the improved soil condition found in no-till soils.

Maintaining crop residues at the surface of no-till soil fields is essential for biological activity, including earthworm habitat and feedstock.

Add Organic Matter

The primary sources of organic residues in crop production are manure and compost. Bedded manure contains more organic material and will lead to greater gains in organic matter content than liquid manure.

All liquid manure is not equal, either. Swine manure, for example, contains fewer solids than dairy manure, and can contribute to small gains in organic matter.


John Rowehl specializes in agriculture and agronomy for the Penn State Extension Service.

Fall 2015 Out Here Magazine Home Page