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Improved Nutrient Cycling: Co-Benefit Series of Soil Health

Updated: Jun 20, 2022


A farmer using a crimper roller to terminate cover crops.
Photo of crimper roller terminating a cover crop by NRCS

"If you don't take care of the soil here, the soil won't take care of you," said Robert Spiers Jr., a seventh generation Virginian farmer of Spiers Farms, LLC. Virginia farmers face major fertilizer shortages this year. While soil health takes time to build, the long term impacts can lead to many benefits, including less fertilizer inputs as nutrient cycling improves and soil biology is enhanced.


Mark Spiers, Robert's son and an eighth generation farmer of Double Branch, LLC, described how managing soil health allowed him to cut costs, labor, and increase field health. He focused on planting cover crops, which implements the principles to keep the soil covered and maximize living roots. Before planting, the Spiers research their soil's needs and the area's rainfall trajectory. They began with a various mix of grasses for cover crops, but have recently focused on rye between corn crop seasons. Rotating crops and cover crops also follows the principle of energizing the soil with diversity. Different plant roots replenish and release various nutrients. These nutrients promote healthy microbes that decompose organic matter, which further helps the microbes to cycle nutrients. The need for additives decreases as nutrients increase and soil functions improve as part of a system. We can encourage the nutrients to remain in the ground and on the farm by minimizing soil disturbance. For instance, the Spiers' low-till and no-till practices encourage keeping the nutrient cycling and system intact, too. Leaving healthy soil in place also decreases pollution, dusty conditions, and helps control erosion. Mark also noted the soil's ability to absorb and intake more water and nutrients without being lost to the environment. "All fields and all farmers are not the same, but you can adapt. A farmer is an adaptable person," said Mark. As soils become healthier ecosystems, nutrient cycling processes are restored and farmers can become less dependent on external inputs and potentially unnecessary additives. Practicing the four principles of soil health management saves time and energy while lowering costs in the long-run, especially with the rising fertilizer prices. Whether in a backyard, a shared community space, or on a farm, we all gain numerous benefits when we care for the soil. Join the movement! 4 The Soil is a campaign by the Virginia Soil Health Coalition and Virginia Tech to raise awareness of soil as an agricultural and natural resource. By caring for the soil, we can build healthier communities, stronger economies, and a more resilient landscape.



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Mulch covers the soil between rows of corn crops. Photo by NRCS


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