Improving Soil Health…and Water Quality

Joe Christner, Water Quality Technician

November 28, 2018

There is no question that soil health and water quality are hot topics based on the number of meetings and articles in the past few years. The algae blooms in Grand Lake-St Marys, the Western Lake Erie Basin (WLEB), and the Ohio River are indicators of a water quality issue. The recent executive order by the Governor to declare eight waterways in distress a put this issue on the front burner.

In the search for efficient crop production, an increasing number of farmers are realizing the benefits of improving soil health. Because managing for soil health is one of the most effective ways to increase crop productivity and profitability, an increasing number of farmers are implementing soil health management practices. Applying a soil health management system can lead to increased organic matter, reduced soil compaction, and improved nutrient storage and cycling. As an added bonus--and the one I am most excited about--is fully functioning and healthy soils absorb and retain more water, making them less susceptible to runoff and erosion. If there is reduced runoff and erosion, more nutrients and topsoil stay on the fields and are available to the crop. If nutrients and soil stay on the field, they don’t get into streams and rivers. The results are improved water quality. I say that is a win-win, and the focus on soil health to improve water quality is well placed.

Soil is a living system. Healthy soils should look, smell, and feel alive. It is darker in color, crumbly, and porous. It is home to worms and other organisms. It provides the right amount of air, water and organic matter microorganisms to function and plants to grow. An unhealthy soil feels dry, crusty, and cloddy and does not crumble readily.

 Which one describes the soils in your fields or gardens? How do you know if the soils in your fields are healthy? Why don’t you grab a shovel and dig in? Just like looking in a mirror can tell me something about my health, looking at your soil gives you a good idea of soil health. The body I see in the mirror is very likely the result of what I usually do with it and what I feed it. If I get up every day and sit at my desk or ride around in the truck all day and then come home to lay on the couch and watch TV and eat potato chips, it’ll show that I’m getting the results my “body management system” is expected to produce. However, if I do my pushups and run 4 miles every morning-while eating my green vegetables and drinking milk, I am likely to get a much different outcome. The health of your soil will also be the result of your soil health management system.

There are 4 basic principles of a soil health management system to improve your soil.*

1.       Keep the soil covered as much as possible.

2.       Disturb the soil as little as possible.

3.       Keep plants growing throughout the year to feed the soil.

4.       Diversify as much as possible using crop rotation and cover crops.

If I want to change the body I see in the mirror-- (I do), then I need to change my “body management system” to get the results I want. If you want to improve soil health, then you need to change your soil management system by following the four principles listed above.


Managing for soil health is one of the most effective ways for farmers to increase crop productivity and profitability while improving water quality. So, we need to keep the articles and meetings coming as part of the effort to improve crop profitability and improve water quality. It really is a win-win.

If you are interested in developing a soil health management system for your operation and doing your part to improve water quality please contact Joe Christner, Water Quality Technician at Holmes SWCD Phone 330-600-3102.

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Joe Christner, Water Quality Technician

Joe Christner came to Holmes SWCD in 2001 with experience and knowledge drawn from 20-plus years of dairy farming. He grew up on a small farm near New Bedford, Ohio. His background interest and involvement in agriculture from the time he was a young man give him an empathy and understanding of the needs and concerns of today’s farmers. Joe can assist you with conservation plans for your farming operation, including nutrient management planning and record keeping. Water quality, soil health, and conserving the resources needed for the next generation and beyond is very important to Joe.
Contact Joe at 330-674-2811 or