5 tips for good management of agricultural soils
What are ecosystem services?
Without soil, the work of farmers would not be possible.
The soil, in addition to forming the basis of our food chain, provides many other ecosystem services which are essential for life and agricultural activities. It is therefore essential to manage this resource with care, making long-term decisions based on data.
This article will discuss the importance of preserving soil health and some tips and best practices for a good management of agricultural soils.
According to the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, the term “ecosystem services” indicates a series benefits that mankind obtains from the various ecosystems of the planet. Some good examples of these services are the timber provided by forests and the pollination of fruiting plants’ flowers by insects.
The ecosystem services offered by the soil
The soil we step on every day offers ecosystem services without which life on earth as we know it would simply be impossible.
In addition to supporting agricultural activities and, for example, construction, the soil is responsible for the recycling of nutrients and the filtering of water; it harbors immense biodiversity, and is responsible for the storage of a good amount of carbon.
Agriculture is based on the use of the soil in to produce food, feed, fiber, and fuel. In order for the production cycle to be repeated from season to season, from year to year, it is important to preserve its good health. The soil is, in fact, a finite resource, which forms the basis of our food chain and which is threatened by impermeabilization, as evidenced by the latest report released by the Italian Sistema Nazionale per la Protezione dell’Ambiente (National System for Environmental Protection).
For this reason, it is important to raise awareness on the importance of maintaining good soil health. In 1972, the Council of Europe drew up the European Soil Charter. In 2014, FAO established World Soil Day, which is celebrated on December 5, while 2015 was declared the International Year of Soils.
How soil is made
But where does the soil originate from? If for years the dominant thought has been that plants, during their vegetative cycle, suck up nutrients from the soil, depleting it, the reality is much more complex than that.
In fact, through the complex root-soil interface, plants establish an extremely intimate relationship with mycorrhizae (a particular type of fungus) and underground bacteria, with which they interact and continuously exchange messages in the form of chemical compounds. It is a full-fledged symbiotic relationship, which leads to the formation of organic matter and relatively stable soil aggregates. These aggregates contribute to the formation of the classic porous structure, recognized by all as evidence of a healthy and functional soil. In fact, healthy soil is not “full”: the “empty space”, which can be filled with air or water, is extremely important, for example, for rainwater drainage or for plant roots elongation.
5 tips for a good management of agricultural soils
Use cover crops
Keep the soil populated by plants as long as possible, to protect it from atmospheric events such as rain and hail, and to create a buffer that can absorb the mechanical stresses caused by the passage of heavy machinery such as the ones used in agriculture. Plants’ roots keep the soil in place, preventing it from being eroded by wind or washed away by water. For this purpose, special “cover crops” can be used: cover crops differ from cash crops in that they are not the crops from which the main farmer’s income derives, but also contribute to agricultural production by maintaining fertility and preserving the soil structure.
Less is more
Carry out as little tillage as possible to avoid distorting the soil structure. One strategy may be to gradually move towards a so-called “zero tillage” or “no tillage” soil management, where tillage is reduced to a minimum or even completely eliminated.
Use assisted driving systems
Precision agriculture, assisted or autonomous driving systems make it possible to optimize interventions in the field and to make the paths of agricultural machinery more efficient, minimizing compaction.
Even managing the pressure exerted by agricultural vehicles wisely, for example through the use of track-laying tractors or by preferring lighter vehicles, is always a good idea.
Plan rotations also according to the interaction with the subsoil
Inserting in crop rotations – also with regard to cover crops – crops that differ in the type of interaction they establish with the subsoil allows to adequately nourish the complex network that is established between roots, microorganisms and soil aggregates.
Carry out monitoring through sensors
Monitoring the soil through sensors can make a difference, especially when it comes to identifying the right time to enter the field after rainfall events or to irrigate. For this purpose, there are different types of sensors that allow you to keep temperature, humidity and soil conductivity under control.
The xFarm IoT team has selected xNode devices to allow you to visualize the data collected directly on the xFarm platform and to consult the Decision Support Systems (SSD), which suggest the agronomic operations to be carried out in terms of interventions defense and irrigation of crops.
To find out more, visit the section dedicated to sensors within our website.