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What is soil quality?

We have always talked about the importance of soil quality. Improving soil quality is the number one thing you can do to improve yields on your farm.

What is it that we are talking about when we say "Soil Quality"?

At soilquality.org they have a couple of definitions.

"Fitness for use" (Larson and Pierce, 1991) and "the capacity of a soil to function” (Karlen et al., 1997). Taken together, these two definitions means that soil quality is the ability of the soil to perform the functions necessary for its intended use.

and

Probably the most comprehensive definition of soil quality to date was published by the Soil Science Society of America's Ad Hoc Committee on Soil Quality (S-581) as "the capacity of a specific kind of soil to function, within natural or managed ecosystem boundaries, to sustain plant and animal productivity, maintain or enhance water and air quality, and support human health and habitation" (Karlen et al., 1997).

 

In our own words - Soil quality is the ability of a soil to function properly.

 

The soil needs to perform 5 essential functions properly to be considered a quality soil.

Nutrient Cycling - Soil stores, moderates the release of, and cycles nutrients and other elements. During these biogeochemical processes, analogous to the water cycle, nutrients can be transformed into plant available forms, held in the soil, or even lost to air or water.

Water Relations - Soil can regulate the drainage, flow and storage of water and solutes, which includes nitrogen, phosphorus, pesticides, and other nutrients and compounds dissolved in the water. With proper functioning, soil partitions water for groundwater recharge and for use by plants and soil animals.

Biodiversity and Habitat - Soil supports the growth of a variety of plants, animals, and soil microorganisms, usually by providing a diverse physical, chemical, and biological habitat.

Filtering and Buffering - Soil acts as a filter to protect the quality of water, air, and other resources. Toxic compounds or excess nutrients can be degraded or otherwise made unavailable to plants and animals.

Physical Stability and Support - Soil has the ability to maintain its porous structure to allow passage of air and water, withstand erosive forces, and provide a medium for plant roots. Soils also provide anchoring support for human structures and protect archeological treasures.

We will walk you through these functions in future articles!

You can learn more at www.soilquality.org.  The website is a collaboration between the NRCS East National Technology Support Center, NRCS National Soil Survey Center, ARS National Laboratory for Agriculture and the Environment, NCERA-59 Scientists, and Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

 

 

The Blogronomist is maintained by Craig Dick, head blogronomist and VP of Sales and Marketing. Here you will find a wide array of blog articles from Craig and expert guests on topics related to soil and crop health, farming, and so much more. If it’s not here, ask us!

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Better Roots for Better Soil

Could better corn roots be the key to better quality soil and water? According to the article “How Corn Roots Got Better by Accident, traditional plant breeding has also made roots better at taking up nitrogen, though more research is need to understand the mechanisms.

Here are some key points from the article:

MaizeRootStudy SimRoot

Image: Courtesy of Larry York

Using a Penn State-developed computer program called SimRoot, researchers modeled the average root architecture of modern corn hybrids (shown) to help compare it to that of older varieties.

“About half of the yield gains in commercial corn hybrids in the last 100 years have come from improved plant genetics, explains Larry York, recent PhD graduate in ecology, now a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Nottingham. The other half came largely from agronomic practices, such as fertilizer use and higher planting densities.”

“A lot of research has focused on the shoots of maize plants, such as the direction of the leaves and how they capture light, or how the plants divide matter into ears and kernels,” York says. “We all know roots are responsible for the uptake of water and nutrients. However, relatively little is known about how roots do that.

“If we understand how roots have evolved and which specific root traits increase the plant’s efficiency, then we can take the next step in breeding that can help decrease pollution, save farmers money and make more yield.”

“Not only can crop varieties with improved root systems increase yields and reduce hunger in impoverished regions of the world with nutrient-poor soils, they also can decrease excess nitrogen where water quality is a critical issue, such as in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.”

"The researchers hypothesized that during a century of corn breeding aimed at increasing yields, root systems were indirectly selected for architecture and anatomy that are more efficient for nitrogen acquisition."

"The researchers found that the newest commercial varieties performed better in every agronomic environment. These varieties also had root characteristics known from previous Penn State research to make plants more efficient at acquiring nitrogen from the soil, including fewer nodal roots, longer lateral roots, and larger cortical cells. They published their results online in the Journal of Experimental Botany."

Source: Penn State via Futurity.org 

 

 

The Blogronomist is maintained by Craig Dick, head blogronomist and VP of Sales and Marketing. Here you will find a wide array of blog articles from Craig and expert guests on topics related to soil and crop health, farming, and so much more. If it’s not here, ask us!

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Improving Water Infiltration

In the last blog, a pictorial of high quality soil, we showed some pictures showing the difference in poor soil quality and good soil quality and its effect on water infiltration.

After 1 day of sun the ponding decreased, however an additional 0.5” resulted in ponding again, the garden did not pond.

field_garden_drying_small_800x464.jpg

 

Poor infiltration leads to in-season water stress. Water stress limits the development of young plants and reduces grain fill and development fruiting plants. Water stress also raises leaf temperature, which increases the likelihood of severe spider mite infestations.

Slow water intake reduces irrigation efficiency since a greater portion of the water applied is lost to evaporation. Finally, slow water intake increases the potential for compaction since planting and harvesting are often performed before the soil is sufficiently dry.

Slow water intake can result in prolonged standing water, which reduces the needed oxygen required for proper soil health. Standing water can cause N loss by waterlogging soil bacteria. The bacteria starving for oxygen, will scavenge oxygen from soil nitrate. As a side effect, these scavenging bacteria break down the nitrate molecules, causing de-nitrification.

The Common causes of poor infiltration are:
1. Compaction of surface soil from traffic.
2. High sodium content (Na) causes soil particles to be forced apart chemically (called deflocculation). This can result in surface sealing by reducing pore size.
3. Inadequate salt content of the surface soil is just as big a factor in slow infiltration as high content. Irrigating with low salt water (less than 250ppm) or excessive rainfall, which is very low in salt content eventually, leaches enough salts from the surface soil to reduce its structure. This creates smaller pore spaces, which have higher surface tension, and less permeability.
4. Subsurface soils with distinctly different texture are often overlooked as a water related problem. It does not cause slow infiltration at the soil surface; rather it limits downward movement of water into the lower root zone. Soils of different texture vary greatly in the number and size of air spaces through which water travels. When downward moving water encounters a zone of different soil texture, it must overcome the surface tension created by the different pore size. Saturated soil conditions occur above the layer until sufficient pressure (head) builds up to overcome this.

 

The Blogronomist is maintained by Craig Dick, head blogronomist and VP of Sales and Marketing. Here you will find a wide array of blog articles from Craig and expert guests on topics related to soil and crop health, farming, and so much more. If it’s not here, ask us!

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A Pictorial of High Quality Soil

We talk a lot about having good soil quality. What does that mean exactly for the farmer. When it rains excessively for a couple of days, you'll be in your field a day or two before your neighbors. Roots will penetrate deeper with less energy required, which means more energy goes to grain development. Deeper roots mean more access to moisture and better standablity.


The following are some pictures showing the difference between a quality soil and a poor soil.

infiltration_difference_in_soil_quality.JPG 

This a picture of my garden and a neighboring field. This has been a garden for two years. The field is a corn soybean rotation. It was field cultivated this spring, then planted to seed corn.

 

end_row_shovel.JPG

This is a shovel in the end rows. I stepped on the shovel with one foot, placing all my weight (260#) on it. It only penetrated 3-4"". This is pretty compacted, with poor water infiltration. Note corn roots generally cannot penetrate more than 300 psi. My estimate is that the shovel had over 350 psi on it.

 

end_row_t_line.JPG

This picture shows the hole I dug in the end rows. It became impossible to dig after 14"". I had to use the shovel as a pick to chip away the soil. It shows the tillage line about 4"" down. You can see the soil is saturated to that point, after that it is moist, but not wet.

 

shovel_in_field.JPG

Just for comparison I stepped on the shovel 150 yards out into the field. It did not go in much farther than on the end rows. Also you can see excessive ponding of water signifying poor structure, poor infiltration, and compaction.

 

garden_shovel.JPG

This picture shows the shovel in the garden. It slid in all the way very easily with about half my weight applied.

 

garden_hole.JPG

This is the hole dug into the garden. It dug easily to a depth of 21". Note - no saturation of soil.
In the field the shovel only penetrated 4", in the garden the shovel easily penetrated 12". If the shovel cannot penetrate the ground roots will not be able to either. 

 

garden_structure.JPG

This picture shows that high quality soil stays aggregated even during heavy rain events.

 

 

The Blogronomist is maintained by Craig Dick, head blogronomist and VP of Sales and Marketing. Here you will find a wide array of blog articles from Craig and expert guests on topics related to soil and crop health, farming, and so much more. If it’s not here, ask us!   

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Managing Salts in Soil & Irrigation Water

On a recent trip to Arizona, I had an opportunity to meet with multiple superintendents that are currently using the SuperCal brands to manage high salts in the soil. Golf courses, particularly in the Southwest have started to use reclaimed water out of necessity to irrigate the turf. The global demand for fresh potable water is doubling every 20 years and due to this demand golf course superintendents must take an integrated approach to growing healthy turf.

One of the recurring issues we kept hearing about in Arizona was dealing with bicarbonates in the irrigation water. I have linked an excellent article regarding the management of salts in the soil and irrigation water. This article was written by Sowmya (Shoumo) Mitra, PhD. from the Golf Course Management magazine in January of 2001.  

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Drought Updates

drought monitor

With the seemingly endless supply of moisture falling in Iowa over the last three weeks, it’s hard to believe the drought of 2012 could still be in effect. Rivers are fuller than they’ve been in at least two years and waterlogged soil is everywhere. So, why hasn’t this recent rash of rain brought the drought discussion to an end?

While the problem isn’t solved completely, the rains have eased the situation substantially. Our state climatologist, Harry Hillaker, noted the heaviest days of rain resulted in the wettest week of weather in terms of average statewide precipitation since June 2010.

When the extremely wet weather started in late March/early April, frozen soils in the northern part of the state were not able to take in all of the moisture—although soils have thawed and were able to start taking in rain last week—and as a result, most ran off into the rivers, causing flash flooding in some locations. Further south, where the soil had thawed, more moisture was taken in; however, with such large amounts coming at once, the soil could only hold so much before runoff occurred, much like a saturated sponge.

Regardless, a wide-ranging ‘one category’ improvement was implemented for most of our state, and the northeast part of the state received a ‘two category’ improvement. As a reminder, the drought categories range from D0 (abnormally dry) to D4 (drought – exceptional). The eastern third of Iowa is no longer in any drought category. Most of the middle third of the state is now classified as D0 or D1, with most of the western third as D1 or D2, with a very small area in the northwest part of the state at D3.

While the situation has improved since last fall and winter, we still need more rain before we are completely out of the woods. Hopefully it will come as less frequent, less total rainfall events that will allow the soil to properly absorb and maintain a moisture status that will benefit all of Iowa’s growers.

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