Dirty hands come with exploring soil health

Dirty hands come with exploring soil health

Soil health demonstrations will be part of ISU exhibit at upcoming 2016 Farm Progress Show.

When organic matter, earthworms and plants growing in test tubes aren’t enough to get farmers interested in soil health, Iowa State University’s Mahdi Al-Kaisi brings Kool-Aid and underpants to his demonstrations. Al-Kaisi is a professor of soil management/environment and an ISU Extension soil and water specialist. He believes in getting the attention of those involved in production agriculture so they begin to understand. He wants to engage farmers in conversations about conservation agricultural systems that benefit soil health.

Demonstrations show you what organic matter does in soil

SOAKING IT IN: A water infiltration field demonstration using a PVC ring is one way to look at soil health. Be sure to visit the ISU soil health exhibit at the upcoming 2016 Farm Progress Show Aug. 30, 31 and Sept. 1 at Boone.

“Soil health involves soil characteristics that sustain plant and animal productivity, maintain and enhance water and air quality, and promote plant and animal health,” says Al-Kaisi. “Soil organic matter is the single most important contributor to soil health because of its effects on the physical, chemical and biological properties of soils.”

Soil health demonstrations in the ISU exhibit at the Farm Progress Show illustrate what organic matter does in the soil -- things like increasing soil fertility and providing food for soil microorganisms. Al-Kaisi and his team invite visitors to discover how organic matter improves soil water holding capacity and binds soil particles together in ways that improve soil structure, water infiltration, and soil, water and air movement.

Healthy soil, healthy crops; a new management manual

ISU agronomists point to management practices such as reducing random travel on the field, including mixed cover crops in crop rotation and keeping residue on the soil surface as those that improve soil health. “Crop residue traps soil moisture as snow and protects the soil from rain and wind erosion. It allows for the gentle infiltration of rain water to recharge the soil and decomposition contributes to nutrients and carbon to the soil,” says Al-Kaisi.

Al-Kaisi recently published several resources on Iowa soil health: a field guide, a management manual and a health assessment card. The “IOWA SOIL HEALTH – Management Manual” highlights easy-to-understand relationships between soil properties that are useful to all professionals managing soil health.

Linking soil health to actual crop management practices

The manual, field guide and assessment card were developed as sources of information for farmers, agronomists and other ag professionals managing soils and to provide documentation of how different management practices affect soil.

These three information sources and other soil health publications are available from the ISU Extension Store at store.extension.iastate.edu/. They can be ordered from the Extension Store kiosk at the Farm Progress Show Aug. 30, 31 and Sept. 1 at Boone in central Iowa. Look for the kiosk in the Iowa State tent.

Klein is an advancement specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach.

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