ICL Agronomists Simplify the Soil Health Agenda

Decoding Agriculture: Navigating complexities for high yields involves more than just maximizing output

March 4, 2024
3 mins

In the intricate, complex world of agriculture, there are many facets that growers need to consider to achieve the goal of consistent, high-quality, abundant yields. In order to improve sustainability and reduce environmental impact, it is not simply a case of doing whatever is needed for the highest yield. Other considerations beyond the crop’s immediate nutrient needs should also be taken into account.

One facet paramount to crop production is soil health, which impacts nutrient availability, nutrient losses, and, ultimately, crop yield. With the vast number of factors that can influence the health of the soil and such a wide array of indicators available to assess the different components of soil health, it is not an exaggeration to say this is a complicated subject.

Explaining the Science

Fortunately, ICL agronomists have been working on a project to simplify the complexities of soil health. It is simply not cost-effective for growers to monitor all the soil health indicators. So, the ICL agronomy team have pooled their knowledge and experience to identify a reduced list of soil health indicators that clearly indicate the soil’s health.

The work acknowledges the complex dynamics involved in agricultural systems, but it is hoped that identifying the central components of soil health makes it easier to digest while also helping growers reduce the costs involved in assessing and monitoring the health of their soils.

Local Soil Conditions

As part of any soil health evaluation, it is crucial to understand the inherent characteristics of the soil, some of which may be determined by the location. While these characteristics are often hard to change, it is still critical to understand how they may interact with crop nutrition programs. These include the mineralogy of the soil, its pH and salinity, and the soil’s CEC, or capacity to supply nutrient cations to the soil solution for plant uptake.

Management Decisions

Crop management decisions also impact the health of soils. Decisions regarding irrigation, tillage choices, utilizing cover crops and crop rotations, adopting precision farming techniques, and livestock integration can all influence soil health over time.

Crop Inputs and Soil Health

Similarly, decisions regarding the inputs used in crop production also have the potential to impact the overall soil health. We can divide crop inputs into three broad categories: crop nutrition, carbon inputs, and soil amendments.

Crop nutrition products include mineral fertilizers and biostimulants, including those for nutrient solubilization, nitrogen fixation probiotics, or prebiotic biostimulants.

Carbon inputs can include organo-mineral fertilizers, manures, hydrochars and biochars, and composts.

Soil amendments may consist of soil conditioner biostimulants, gypsum of lime, and elemental sulfur.

The borders between some of these products are not clearly defined, with some products falling into more than one category, but they may all have the potential to alter soil parameters, increase the availability and quantity of nutrients in the soil, or improve the diversity, and quantity, of soil fauna.

Monitoring Soil Health

When considering how best to improve soil health, the first step is to measure the existing health of the soil. But with no single test to determine the overall health, and with so many factors that play a role, how can growers determine the health of their soil?

Measuring the numerous parameters is challenging and makes soil analysis a discouraging and expensive task. To simplify the process, ICL agronomists have identified four key soil parameters. By focusing on evaluating these specific factors, farmers can effectively assess the health of their soil.

These include the soil organic matter content, the aggregate stability and the soil compaction, the soil water holding capacity, and the quantity and diversity of soil microbes. Monitoring these key indicators enables growers to assess the current status of the soil and monitor how crop inputs and agro techniques impact soil health over time.

Using these measurable indicators to simplify the soil health monitoring process could streamline the integration of soil health into farm management decisions. Of course, crop yield and quality will always be critical, but using the findings of the ICL Soil Health Agenda could mean the long-term sustainability of agriculture will also benefit.