Focus on improving soil health

As of Jan. 11 it’s easy, our area is in moderate drought. The Southwest portion of Kansas is in extreme drought. The six to ten-day outlook (Jan. 18 to 22) indicates we are predicted to have a 33 to 40% chance of above normal temperatures and a leaning towards below normal precipitation. The eight to 14-day outlook (Jan. 20 to 26) indicates a 40% to 50% chance of below normal temperatures and a 33% to 40% chance of below normal precipitation. 

Unfortunately, the recent snows, while welcome and serving to protect the wheat crop from cold, added little in the way of moisture. Not the forecast we need for the winter wheat crop. Today, while in the doldrums in winter, before producers start to top dress and apply herbicides to wheat and get ready for spring planting, let’s discuss what producers can do to improve soil health. This week focuses on the why and defines soil health.  

Some may wonder why focus on soil health now?  

• It may seem obvious to some but soil health is the key for production agriculture and being able to feed the world. Soil health also plays a role in mitigating climate change, not only in storing carbon but allowing us to increase food production per acre and keep marginal land and tropical forests as forests. Improving soil health will also improve human health, especially those with respiratory problems. As the condition of the soil improves, so does the quality of both surface and groundwater’s. And we could list more.

• From a producer perspective, improving soil health optimizes yields while minimizing input costs. More bushels or pounds per acre while optimizing inputs results in a better bottom line.  

• Improving the condition of the soil means keeping it where it is (eliminating or at least minimizing erosion), increasing its ability to hold water and nutrients, improves movement of water to the water table, and mitigates flooding.  

Finally, for today, what is soil health?

• The NRCS (Natural Resources Conservation Service) defines it in terms of key factors, for example: aggregate stability (good structure), infiltration rate and water holding capacity, nutrient holding capacity, resilience (the ability of the soil to “bounce back” after being disturbed, biomass (primarily living microorganisms in the soil), tilth (the quality of the soil as it relates to crop growth), and so on.

• Their overarching definition is: “the continued capacity of soil to function as a vital living ecosystem that sustains plants, animals, and humans.”

Next week, how can we improve soil health?

Dr. Victor L. Martin is the agriculture instructor/coordinator for Barton Community College. He can be reached at 620-792-9207, ext. 207, or

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