Soil For Life: Framework of Soil Health Principles
Influenced by New Horizons: Ontario’s Agricultural Soil Health & Conservation Strategy
Through the application of five action-oriented principles, farmers support healthy soils. While outcomes are paired with an action-oriented principle, the relationship is not always a straightforward cause and effect. Rather, a systems approach to soil health offers interconnected economic, social, and environmental benefits. These economic benefits include both labour and costs savings for farmers. As each farm operation is unique, nuances will exist in how each farmer enacts these action-oriented principles.
The list of outcomes is not exhaustive; rather, it is presented as an overview of key high-level outcomes.
Build soil organic matter
Application of manure, compost or other organic materials, where appropriate.
- Supports water retention and water management
- Makes farming systems more resilient to the impacts of climate change (i.e., more extreme temperatures and weather events, such as drought or big rain events)
- Contributes to better soil structure and aggregate stability, mitigating the effects of compaction and creating a better rooting environment for crops
- Supports healthier microbial populations that contribute to carbon and nutrient cycling
- Feeds soil ecosystems
Keep the soil covered
Protect soil with either living plants or plant residue.
- Supports water management, helping to retain soil moisture in the summer and manage water in wet times
- Sustains biologically diverse soil life (e.g., worms, microbes, fungi)
- Moderates soil temperatures
- Protects soil from the erosive forces of water (rainfall, freeze/thaw, etc.), which, in turn, protects water quality
- Captures more snow, which provides better insulation for the soil and thus supports biodiversity, reduces erosion and supports nutrient management
- Provides grazing opportunities for livestock
- Retains soil fertility, structure and organic matter
Minimize soil disturbance
Disturb soils less by adopting thoughtful tillage practices (i.e. no till, minimum till, or strip till in annual cropping systems). Reduce chemical disturbance of soils by using integrated pest management (IPM) strategies.
- Enhances wildlife habitat, as crop stubble provides a food source for birds and mammals through the winter
- Protects terrestrial and aquatic animals
- Reduces soil movement and loss due to wind, water and tillage erosion
- Reduces the risk of structural degradation, such as compaction and aggregate instability
- Allows soil ecosystems to flourish
- Improves groundwater and surface water quality by improving water infiltration and decreasing runoff
- Saves time, fuel and equipment costs
- Encourages more diversity of insects
- Protects soil microbiology that are involved in nutrient cycling and access by crops
Keep living roots all year
Ideally have living roots and continuous cover from summer-/fall-seeded crops (e.g., winter barley, wheat, and canola), forages, cover crops and perennial crops to help sustain soil life and soil health.
- Provides a consistent food source for soil microbes
- Attracts different microbial populations through the diversity of roots
- Contributes to good soil structure; alleviates compaction
- Captures nutrients that could be lost to surface and groundwaters
- Maintains and builds soil OM and sequesters atmospheric carbon
- Protects soil from erosion
Diversify crop rotations
Support biodiversity by planting different kinds of crops over time (i.e., including perennials and small grains in the crop rotation) and/or by planting cover crops.
- Increases soil biodiversity
- Breaks disease cycles and improves the control of pests
- Contributes to the economic resiliency of farm operations
- Supports time management for field work
- Opens more windows of opportunity for manure applications and cover crops
- Offers benefits for soil fertility by diversifying nutrient demand and supply