The importance of soil health

Though it is the foundation of life, soil constitutes only a thin layer of material on the surface of our planet. It provides the necessary weathered minerals, organic materials, air, and water, which are the most precious resources for all living creatures. Plants find life in soil, as it provides a rooting medium and nutrient source for plants to grow. Through healthy plants, animals and humans find food to thrive on Earth.

A vital and healthy soil is the base for good crop production and a sustainable future for farming. Therefore, there is a growing awareness of the benefits a healthy soil can deliver and the role of good soil management in delivering them.

What is soil health?

Soil health refers to the ability of the soil to sustainably support plant growth, maintain or enhance water, air quality, and promote biodiversity. Moreover, a healthy soil is a stable living environment which enables all essential biological processes, maintaining a diverse community of soil organisms that help to control plant disease, insect and weed pests form beneficial symbiotic associations with plant roots. It contains a variety of living organisms, so that they can co-exist in a balanced ratio and help to decompose organic matter, recycle essential nutrients, and improve soil structure with a positive impact for soil water and nutrient holding capacity.

Why does soil health matter?

During the entire growing and reproductive period of a crop, soil health has a direct influence on the overall quality of it for several reasons:

1. Nutrient availability: Healthy soils are rich in essential nutrients, such as nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, which are essential for plant growth and development. For more information about the role of these nutrients, please check the article section on our website: NPK: What is it and why is it so important? | AgroCares, Why are Calcium and Magnesium important for soil and plant growth? | AgroCares, Why measure Iron and Aluminium in soil? | AgroCares, and more. However, the presence of sufficient total quantities of essential nutrients in a soil does not guarantee the availability of these nutrients to growing plants, because there are other factors such as soil-moisture content, soil temperature, microorganisms, pH, etc., that can limit this access. This article Why measure potential mineralizable N? | AgroCares shows an example of factors that influence N availability for plant uptake. Hence, adequate levels of nutrients alone do not guarantee soil productivity. Productive soil is one that has optimal total environmental conditions for plant growth.

2. Biodiversity: Healthy soils can host a vast diversity of organisms. They all play vital roles in nutrient cycling, decomposition, and soil formation. Furthermore, a diverse soil microbial community can help suppress diseases as beneficial microbes can out-compete pathogenic microbes for resources (or even prey them) giving the soil the inherent capacity to control and suppress pests and diseases. For instance, by symbiotic relationships with the plant. The plant produces food for the microbes, and in return, they protect the plant from stress and feed it by converting and holding nutrients in the soil. Bacteria for instance, break down nutrients and release them to the root zone for the plant. Fungi (e.g., Mycorrhizae) facilitates water and nutrient uptake by the roots and plants to provide sugars, amino acids, and other nutrients. Nematodes (microscopic worms) are predators while others are beneficial, eating pathogenic nematodes and secreting nutrients to the plant. There are many diverse types of soil microbes that help boost the plant's health.

3. Soil structure: Healthy soils present a good arrangement of solids (aggregates) and pore spaces. A “well-structured soil” embodies a vast amount of interconnecting pore spaces that allows the drainage of water, free movement of air and unrestricted growth of roots. This provides the perfect environment for plants to grow in, by anchoring roots and storing nutrients. Soil texture (that refers to the size of mineral particles/solids) is divided into three parts; sand, silt, and clay. This property helps determine the nutrient-supplying ability and the supply of water and air. Moreover, adequate levels of soil organic fraction also benefits soil in many ways, including; improved physical condition, increased water infiltration, improved soil tilth, decreased erosion losses, enhanced nutrient availability, and retention for plants.

4. Water retention: When soils have poor structure, they cannot hold water within the pore spaces, the water hits the compacted layers, and it cannot infiltrate. This leads to more runoff, and therefore, more erosion, flooding, more pollution, and less water held in the soil. However, healthy soils with good levels of organic matter, soil structure and greater porosity, route water more efficiently during floods and retain more for plants. This ability of healthy soils to sustain water for longer periods it is also known as “water holding capacity.”

5. Carbon sequestration: Healthy soils play a vital role in capturing and storing CO2. Soils with higher organic carbon content can support a richer population of microorganisms and contain more nutrients favoring the development of high-quality crops. C/N ratios are also important, as it has a direct impact on residues decomposition and in nutrient cycling in soils. A good C/N ratio is 24:1 is the proper amount of C and N the microorganisms need to sustain their health. Moreover, hummus, a type of organic matter created after the total decomposition of plants and animals, contains many nutrients that improve the health and fertility of soils. Carbon is critical for healthy soil conditions, and humus is roughly 60 percent carbon. Thus, increasing the potential of hummus to act as a sink of carbon. Improving the soil’s ability to capture and retain carbon not only contributes to mitigating and adapting to climate change but makes land more suitable to sustain biodiversity and preserve food security.

A non-renewable resource

Soil plays the utmost role in the lives of all living creatures, yet it is not a renewable resource. Soil regeneration takes more time and effort than soil pollution.

Good soil health benefits productivity, sustainability, and profitability. From monitoring soil and increasing organic matter to planting trees and restoring peatland, there are many things food producers can do to improve soil health. Moreover, since soil is a continuum, it is a matrix in constant change. Different practices (for instance tillage, cover crops, fertilization) affect soil differently, therefore regular monitoring is ideal to know the status and needs of the soil. With AgroCares solution you can start performing soil tests on a regular basis and manage crops and soil more efficiently.

Contact our team to discuss different practices to protect soil and learn more about our SoilCares solution.