Getting started with soil improvement: An overview for beginners – Part 1

New farmers can benefit from careful assessment of their farm’s soils and planning for crop rotations and use of cover crops.

Beginning farmers often start out with soils in need of improvement. Development of a practical plan for increasing soil fertility and productivity is key to long-term success. This applies to all types and sizes of farms. Affordable, systematic steps to improve farm soils should be developed and implemented. The following components of a soil improvement plan are offered for your consideration.

Understand the characteristics and capabilities of the soils you farm or are interested in farming

Use existing USDA soils map information. This can be found in a print copy of your county soils map or online at the USDA’s Web Soil Survey. The soils map will provide important information on your soils, such as slope, drainage, farmland classification and typical profile.

Soil test. A good soil test from a reputable lab, such as the Michigan State University Soil and Plant Nutrient Laboratory, provides essential information on soil pH and available plant nutrients in your soil. More in-depth soil testing, including microbial respiration, aggregate stability and other soil health parameters, can also be interesting and useful. These services are currently becoming available to farmers. One good resource is the Cornell Soil Health Assessment offered by Cornell University.

Adjusting soil pH

Based on a recent soil test, apply lime to adjust pH to the level most beneficial to your crop. Find out about the quality of the lime you’ll use. You may need to adjust the application rate if the lime is coarse-ground or if a product more potent than typical ag lime is used. Depth of thoroughness of incorporation is directly related to the effectiveness of your lime application.

Be sure to indicate how deep lime will be mixed into soil when you send in your soil sample to the lab. Some alternative liming products may be available locally, such as good quality industrial hardwood ash or sugarbeet lime. If soil pH needs to be lowered, or made more acidic, then elemental sulfur or a sulfur compound are generally needed.

Crop rotation

A good crop rotation has many benefits, including:

  • Breaking plant disease and insect cycles.
  • Adding organic matter to soil.
  • Adding nutrients to soil.
  • Increasing biodiversity of soil microbial community.
  • Preparing soil for the most important crop in the rotation.

Rotation is important in all cropping systems, including large scale agronomic and vegetable crops, hay and forage, truck gardens and hoophouses. Rotation can be accomplished in mixed vegetable production by carefully alternating areas between crop families such as legumes/pod crops, alliums (onions, garlic, etc.), brassicas (cole crops, turnips, rutabagas, etc.), and solanaceous/root/tuberous crops (potatoes, tomatoes, celery, beets, carrots, etc. Sweet corn is a good rotation crop because it has unique insect and disease problems. Even long-term hay and pasture fields benefit from a year or two of rotation when the time comes to renovate.

Inclusion of grazing livestock in crop rotation can benefit the system by reducing feed costs and adding manure. In cash crop rotations, adding a cover crop or soil-building green manure crop is possible. Including more crops in rotation has the potential to increase the diversity and volume of the soil microbial community, with several beneficial outcomes.

Cover and green manure crops

Cover crops, such as buckwheat, fall rye, red or crimson clover, oil-seed radish, sorghum sudangrass, multi-species mixtures or others, can improve soil in a variety of ways, including:

  • Providing nitrogen for following crops.
  • Adding organic matter.
  • Improving soil structure.
  • Reducing soil erosion.
  • Providing weed control.
  • Managing nutrients.
  • Adding to soil microbial diversity.
  • Furnishing moisture-conserving mulch.

Several factors enter the decision-making process when using cover crops, including the availability of a “timing window” to establish the cover crop, seed availability and cost, and availability of equipment for planting and managing the cover crop. It should be noted that use of cover crops on your farm is not a clear, mathematical calculation. It is a long-term investment, not a short-term solution. You can dig deeper into the interesting world of cover crops by contacting your local Michigan State University Extension field crops educator or visiting the Michigan Cover Crops website.

The 2014 MSU Extension Beginning Farmer Webinar Series is an ongoing educational opportunity for people new to farming. Registration is currently open for the following webinars:

Check the MSU Extension events calendar for the additional webinars:

  • Getting started with hops
  • Getting started with organic field crops
  • Getting started with expanded vegetable production
  • Getting started with basic farm business records

Read Part 2 of this series for more information on fertilizers and soil amendments, both conventional and organic.

For more information, contact Extension educator Jim Isleib at or 906-387-2530.

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