You cannot till, nor can you no-till your way out of a soil quality problem.

Additional organic inputs such as crop residue, manure and cover crops are needed to increase organic matter and water holding capacity, improve aggregate stability and water infiltration and build soil quality in many other ways.

Cropping systems that reduce tillage intensity, incorporate cover crops when practical and make efficient use of manure or other organic inputs in the crop rotation can build soil quality and productivity and protect the environment in many ways.

Low-disturbance tillage and soil conservation practices that stabilize soil will keep nutrients in the root zone and protect surface waters from runoff and sedimentation. Cover crops trap and recycle crop nutrients and filter contaminants in runoff. They also increase water infiltration compared to soil without cover crops.

What is soil quality?

Soil quality brings together the physical, chemical and biological characteristics that enhance the soil’s ability to produce quality crops and protect the environment.

Some of the physical characteristics of good quality soil are an optimal structure for stand establishment and crop/root growth, stable aggregate structure and the ability to provide for water infiltration, drainage and aeration.

Some of the biological factors are the ability to mobilize nutrients when needed for crop growth yet minimize leaching loss, and the ability to maintain a balance of pests and pathogens.

Finally, some of thechemical factors indicating good soil quality are the ability to supply the nutrients needed for crop growth and the ability to retain nutrients in the upper soil layer.

If cropping systems are managed to create conditions that build and protect soil quality, the soil will be more resilient and productive. If the soil is overwhelmed by excessive tillage, traffic or erosion from wind and water, loss of nutrients and organic matter, or crop rotations that upset the biological balance of pests, pathogens and soil microbes, efficient and profitable crop production will be a challenge.

Create a comfortable seed environment

A goal in efficient crop production is to create an optimal seed environment. An optimal environment provides the right soil temperature and moisture and allows seed-to-soil contact for rapid germination and emergence, maintains good soil tilth for root growth and drainage, and conserves moisture for plant use.

Managing the farming system for soil quality can be a challenge, yet many producers are changing their farming systems with soil quality in mind.

It is important to understand there is no single tillage tool, crop or management practice that will solve a soil quality problem. Building soil quality means managing the entire farming system — tillage and planting practices, cropping systems and rotations, harvest and traffic patterns.