Why soil matters to all of us
Ideally, there is an entire world living beneath our feet. Healthy soil holds a wealth of organic matter made up of worms, good bacteria, fungi & other microorganisms that work together to help plants and crops thrive.
When soil life is disturbed or unprotected, it becomes difficult for these natural soil builders to be productive and for farmers to grow their crops. Building rich, diverse and healthy soil ecosystems is a critical life-giving farming practice. Luckily, caring for the soil is one of the most effective time-tested ways farmers can increase crop yields while protecting our health and our natural resources.
LIVING SOIL vs. DEAD SOIL
EARTHWORMS - create vital water channels as they burrow through the soil. These channels allow rain to soak into the soil, where it can help crops grow. Eartworms also add important nutrients to the soil/
RESIDUE - or stubble from previous crops acts like a garden mulch. It helps soil retain moisture, supresses weeds and prevents erosion and contaminated runoff and reduces flooding.
MICROORGANISMS - such as bacteria and fungi help to filter contaminants and stabilise the soil to prevent erosion. They help form the glue that keeps soil intact.
COVER CROPS - are grown for the purpose of improving soil health. Cover crops deliver natural fertiliser to the soil, prevent erosion and increase biodiversity. The roots also create pores in the soil for better water infiltration.
BARE SOIL - without any residue or cover is unprotected from the elements. As a result it cracks and turns hard and dusty, more like concrete than soil. Water cannot reach the crop’s roots to grow effectively. Instead, the chalky dirt becomes runoff that flows right off the field.
EROSION - is more likely to occur from unhealthy and unprotected soils. When soil from fields runs off into nearby streams, it can cause health problems and harm fish and other wildlife.
INCREASED CHEMICALS - like dangerous fertilisers and pesticides are notorious inputs that crops from unhealthy soils now rely on to grow. These chemicals can cause serious health and environmental problems if they contaminate the water.
PESTS - such as insects or weeds are more likely to invade fields when the soil ecosystem is too weak to defend itself.
What causes dead soil?
South Africa only has 14% of its land suitable for arable cropping and is not well endowed with resources for dryland (rainfed) farming. Monoculture cereal production, chemical fertilizers, intensive tillage and limited crop rotation has led to soil degradation.
Conservation agriculture (CA) systems, soybean and sunflower crop rotation has produced a limited amount of crop residues – with the associated problems. These crops are mostly grown on sandy soils and erosion is a common phenomenon, especially when crop residues leave insufficient soil cover during winter. Without sufficient cover, these sandy soils often develop crusts after heavy rains.
The impermeability of these crusts leads to runoff, soil erosion and eutrophication of water resources. When these conditions prevail during and after a winter fallow period, arable soil is vulnerable to degradation, water loss and weed infestation.
Soil enhancing techniques
Innovative, soil-enhancing techniques can hold about three times as much water as a conventional farm. This makes a farm more able to withstand hot, dry weather or soak up heavy rainfall ao that less water is wasted.
A growing number of farmers are using biochar to build their soil's natural capacity to retain moisture, discourage weeds and pests, and nurture crops. When they first started using biochar, the soil was gray, dull and lifeless, and over time it has become rich, nearly black, and it teems with earthworms, beneficial insects and microorganisms. Additional key farming practices, such as cover cropping and no-till farming, also improve soil health.
1. Cover cropping
Additionally, cover cropping helps to build healthier soil. Cover crops aren't grown for market. They're chosen for their ability to protect and enhance soil health. Planting a mix of cover crops in the cool season, such as small grains (grasses), brassicas and legumes increases soil nutrients and water retention, and prepares the soil for the next planting rather than depleting it.
Surveys have found that farmers who used cover crops averaged higher yields than farmers who did not. The benefit was most pronounced in areas hardest hit by drought, demonstrating what a powerful drought-proofing tool cover-cropping can be.
2. No-till farming
No-till farming means that instead of plowing the rich soil ecosystem every planting season, farmers plant directly onto the stubble of last year's crops. The stubble acts like mulch and helps the soil retain moisture.
It needs to be noted that severely eroded and degraded soils that have been mismanaged will not respond to no-till before the physical, nutritional and soil biological properties are restored. The soil’s acidity and microbiology can be restored by using biochar.
The technique of using carbon to improve the fertility of soils originated in the Amazon basin at least 2 500 years ago when native Indians made charcoal and worked it into the land, which remains highly fertile until today – even with little or no application of fertilizers.
Biochar in the ground makes it carbon negative and acts as a haven for beneficial soil microbes. This can be used to enhance soil quality even in the poorest of soils, without using dangerous and expensive chemical fertilizers.
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Long term benefits
Developing soil-protective, climate-proofing farming techniques such as these can help make agriculture healthier and more sustainable over the long term. It will make farms more resilient and our farmers more secure, while protecting our environment.
Start enriching your soil with ReStore now!
Build your soil's natural capacity to retain moisture, discourage weeds and pests; and nurture plants & crops with ReStore Regenerative Fertiliser.
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