Bad soil can put a grind on your growing season. How can you tell whether your soil is bad? Learning about how to prevent current and future problems, the warning signs and how to fix those problems is key.

Whether you’re a farmer who is just starting out or a seasoned farmer with years of experience, a refresher about soil fertility can help tremendously.

iStock/temmuz can arsiray

iStock/temmuz can arsiray

Step One: Soil Texture

Healthy soils don’t have harmful chemicals, low amounts of diseases and parasites and low amounts of weeds. Unhealthy soils, on the other hand, don’t support plant growth as well and have low crop yields. The soil can be hard and runoff can be easily spotted.

Testing the soil is the first step to understanding how your soil and why it is the way it is. There is no way to tell what the soil has or needs just by looking at it.

With agricultural extension offices scattered across the country, it’s easy to find a trusted advisor to help.

According to a Penn State Extension Soil Quality white paper, when you understand your soil’s texture, you know more about the possible restrictions on your particular piece of land as well as any advantages.

When you touch your soil, how does it feel? Sandy soil will fall apart when you rub it in your hand and silt soil will crack. If it rolls out and is long, then it’s a clay soil.

Read more: The Key to Soil Health

Step Two

Soil nutrients are important, so testing for them is another step to take when figuring out the health of your soil.

There are three primary soil nutrients: N-P-K. (Nitrogen-Phosphorus-Potassium). Soil tests typically do not test for nitrogen, because the levels are too volatile, although you can order an optional soil test for nitrate levels, according to Bonnie Bucqueroux from sustainablefarmer.com.

According to a Penn State Agronomy Guide, there are 10 guidelines for taking soil samples:

  1. The best time to sample is in the summer of fall, so do not wait until the last minute.
  2. Take cores from at least 15 to 20 spots randomly over the field to obtain a representative sample. One sample should not represent more than 10 to 20 acres.
  3. Sample between rows. Avoid old fence rows, dead furrows, and other spots that are not representative of the whole field.
  4. Take separate samples from problem areas if they can be treated separately.
  5. Sample to plow depth in cultivated fields.
  6. Take two samples from no-till fields: one to a 6-inch depth for lime and fertilizer recommendations, and one to a 2-inch depth to monitor surface acidity.
  7. Sample permanent pastures to a 3- to 4-inch depth.
  8. Collect the samples in a clean container.
  9. Mix the core samplings, allow to air-dry, and remove roots and stones.
  10. Fill the soil test mailing container.

Reference: Table: 1.2-2, The Agronomy Guide

Read more: After the Soil Test: What Comes Next?

Step Three: Check Water Capacity

Finally, checking and improving water capacity in the soil can elevate the quality.

According to the Penn State Soil Quality: Introduction to Soils document, soils with a high available water-holding capacity have a larger reservoir and can supply water over time when plants need it.

To improve water capacity, add organic materials like compost or cover crops. The amount of water the soil can hold also depends on what type of soil it is. For example, sandy soils can’t store as much water for crops between rain and clay soil can hold more, according to the Penn State Soil Quality document.

Understanding and taking care of the soil beneath your feet will prepare your crops for a bright future and keep profits coming in.


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