David Lamm, National Soil Health and Sustainability Team Leader, stopped in Alabama in early August to initiate the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s (NRCS) Soil Health Initiative.

Lamm spoke during the Alabama Farmers Federation’s Annual Commodity Conference on the necessity of taking care of the soil.

“There is life underneath your feet,” said Lamm. “Soil is a vital living ecosystem that sustains plants, animals, and humans. Too often we focus on what’s happening on top of the ground rather than what’s happening below.”

Soil has a biological, a physical and a chemical component. It functions by cycling nutrients, regulating water, filtering pollutants, and providing a habitat for biodiversity and microorganisms.

“Soil is a habitat you need to manage so it will thrive and flourish.” added Lamm.

Lamm used the slake test to illustrate how highly disturbed soil particles separate in water versus soil that has not been tilled. Tillage can destroy organic matter and structure along with the habitat that soil organisms need.

The soil that was not tilled had organic matter attached and did not separate when placed in water. “We want water to infiltrate and not run-off,” Lamm said

Understanding soil functions helps restore soil health. If you see earthworms in your field, you know you have organic matter. Earthworms contribute nutrients, improve tilth, porosity, and root development.

Low or absent earthworm populations indicate little or no organic residue, high soil temperature and low moisture that are stressful to crop production.

To improve soil health, disturb it less, plant cover crops, use plant diversity, and grow living roots during the year. Keep it covered as much as possible to control erosion, suppress weeds, and conserve moisture.

Focusing on soil health will reduce the risks associated with crop production through improvements in drought mitigation, nutrient cycling, and soil retention.

Eight Alabama farmers have become Soil Health Champions and are helping spread the word about the benefits they have experienced. Visit www.al.nrcs.usda.gov and click on “soil health” to learn more.

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