Soil School: What makes a healthy soil?


Whether or not you’re farming healthy soils depends on many things, says Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food, and Rural Affairs soil specialist Anne Verhallen.

When asked what makes a healthy soil, Verhallen says that growers need to think first about the qualities of their soil, including properties such as soil texture — are you farming a sand, silt, or clay soil? Your location — southwestern Ontario versus the north — and soil drainage are also important considerations.

With this information foundation, growers can then consider soil health and whether their management is helping the soil reach its full potential.

On this episode of RealAgriculture’s Soil School, Verhallen looks at the chemical, biological, and physical makeup of soil — what are typically referred to as the three pillars of soil health. The chemical aspect includes fertility and pH; biological attributes can often be difficult to quantify but generally include everything from microbes to earthworms and ground beetles. When it comes to the physical properties Verhallen refers to soil structure — how the soil particles or aggregates are held together creating good soil tilth and a strong structure in which to grow crops. (Story continues after the video.)

What binds it all together is organic matter, says Verhallen. Organic matter (a part of that being soil organic carbon) helps hold the fertility, feeds and drives the biology, and plays a huge role in building an open, porous soil that allows seeds to germinate, establishing root systems that can scavenge throughout the whole soil profile. “That’s what we’re looking for from a well-structured, healthy soil.”

In the video, Verhallen discusses the challenges a wet 2021 growing season has posed for soils in Ontario and how soil health has helped make many fields more resilient and productive in these challenging conditions. She also compares neighbouring fields — featuring the same soil but managed much differently. She illustrates how management strategies that promote higher organic matter, microbial feeding, greater porosity, and better structure contribute to heathy, productive soil.

Click here for more Soil School episodes.

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