Manage Organic Matter for Long-term Soil Performance

Managing Soil Organic Matter

   If you were looking for productive farmland, you would want a soil in which;

  •      Crops would thrive, even through dry spells.
  •      Roots would grow easily
  •      The soil would resist erosion and compaction.

   In other words, you would look for soil with high organic matter levels. It is hard to over emphasize the importance and benefits of organic matter in healthy, functioning soils. Building soil organic matter may be the most important thing you can do to enhance long-term soil performance. I want to emphasize long-term. Building soil organic matter takes time and patience but can result in high crop yields and reduced input costs.

   Organic matter is made up of different components that can be grouped into three major types;

  1. Plant residues and living microbial biomass.
  2. Active soil organic matter.
  3. Stable soil organic matter, often referred to as humus.

   The living microbial biomass includes the microorganisms responsible for the breakdown of plant residues and the active soil organic matter. Humus is the stable fraction of the organic matter formed from decomposed plant and animal tissue.

   The first two types of organic matter contribute to soil fertility because the breakdown of these fractions results in the release of plant nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium.

   The humus fraction has less influence on soil fertility because it is the final product of decomposition (hence the term “stable organic matter”). It is still important because it contributes to soil structure, soil tilth, and cation exchange capacity (CEC). This is also the fraction that darkens the soils color.

   There are many benefits of having a high stable organic matter content level in your farms soils. They can be grouped in three categories; physical, chemical, and biological.

 Soil test pit shows demarcation between soil types. Dark topsoil has been aggressively managed to raise organic matter content.

Soil test pit shows demarcation between soil types. Dark topsoil has been aggressively managed to raise organic matter content.

 

   Some of the physical benefits are:

  • Improved soil structure resulting in increased water infiltration and aeration reducing runoff.
  • Improves water holding capacity.
  • Reduces surface crusting.

   Chemical benefits include:

  • Increased ability to hold and supply essential nutrients. (cation exchange capacity or CEC)
  • Improves the ability a soil to resist pH change; also known as buffering capacity.
  • Makes nutrients in the soils minerals plant available.

    Biological benefits are;

  • Provides food for living organisms in the soil.
  • Enhances microbial diversity and activity which can help in the suppression of diseases and pests.
  • Improves pore space through the actions of soil microorganisms. This helps to reduce runoff.

   Over time the management and application of organic materials can result in stable organic matter increase. Some of the farm practices that help to maintain or increase organic matter levels are conservation tillage, crop rotation, cover crops, and avoiding soil compaction. Other factors are soil temperature, soil type and drainage class, existing microbial community, and soil fertility and pH status.

   It is important to monitor soil organic matter and try to increase it. This will give you an idea of the effect of your farm management practices. Consistency in sampling time is important to build accurate field records. Because soil labs use different organic matter tests make sure you know what test is being used or use the same lab service to get consistent results over time.

   Desirable soil organic matter levels are 3.5 to 5.5. With careful management, the preservation and accumulation of soil organic matter can help to improve soil productivity resulting in greater farm profitability.

From Cornell University Agronomy Fact Sheet Series

nmsp.css.cornell.edu/publications/factsheets.asp

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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 jchristner@co.holmes.oh.us

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 jchristner@co.holmes.oh.us