Building The Perfect Soil

Farmers want a good soil. But after decades of farming, they are left with a soil that is anything but perfect. Intensive crop production with tillage, pesticides, nutrient removal, erosion and soil degradation have left them with a less than perfect soil. However, even seemingly perfect soils do not stay perfect if left to their own devices and nature.

So how do you remediate a soil that has been affected by production agriculture and return it to a more pristine state that is biologically active and has good tilth? My strategies include adopting no-till, doing aeration tillage, spreading gypsum, applying compost, and planting cover crops. Each of these play a role in improving soil quality. But change doesn’t happen overnight and it takes time to see change.

No-till has been around for decades and it conserves soil, reduces nutrient and soil runoff and saves production costs. The sight of a lot of cornstalk and soybean residue or wheat straw covering an undisturbed soil is very appealing. Some might even take it for granted that all the idle residue sitting on the surface, being first consumed by earthworms and then microbial organisms down through the food chain, is doing amazing things in transforming their soil from average to exceptional.

No-till is the underlying foundation technology to keep as much residue on the surface as possible. It protects the soil from erosion and it slows the decomposition of that residue so it produces more stable humic compounds instead of releasing much of the carbon as carbon dioxide back to the atmosphere. And refraining from tillage keeps the natural soil structure intact and gives it an opportunity to rebuild and improve.

However, I have come to appreciate that vertical tillage (VT), sometimes called ‘tillage for no-till’ can benefit no-till soils. VT helps to process residue by slicing, dicing and shearing the material while throwing on a little soil to help stimulate decompositions. It levels the seedbed and evenly distributes residue and remediates surface compaction and crusting. And, depending on the design of the equipment, can create divots in the soil that remediates compaction down to 8 inches while improving water infiltration and aeration.

Third is incorporation of cover crops after the cash crops are harvested. Cover crops provide a number of benefits from protecting the soil, suppressing winter annual weeds, adding back organic matter, scavenging soil nitrate and ammonium, creating a nice seedbed, etc. However what I consider the true benefit of cover crops is its root growth and natural root leakage of sugars and nutrients. This leakage stimulates soil biology in the fall and spring, at a time of the year when the soil rhizosphere is generally inactive because there are no actively growing plants. Cover crops make an excellent green bridge.

Fourth is addition of gypsum. Gypsum provides both calcium and sulfur to plants and soil fauna and flora. And the calcium helps builds soil structure by flocculating soil particles into more natural aggregates, which improves structure and tilth and provides numerous benefits (read about the benefits on our website,

Fifth is the addition of compost or animal manure. Compost and manures feeds both the crops and soil organisms, improving soil health and tilth. Feeding the microbes in the soil with the right mix of materials really stimulates the food chain into mineralizing nutrients for crop and helps build stable, organic compounds that improve the soil’s condition.

All five of these practices, wrapped together in system, have helped improve the soil but remember: a conversion like this takes time. But once you see the end result in your soil health and your crop yields, you’ll be thankful.

Author: Dr. Daniel Davidson

Dr. Daniel Davidson – EcoGEM Agronomist. Dr. Daniel Davidson is a nationally recognized agronomist. He served most recently as Director of Strategic Research for the Illinois Soybean Association. Dr. Davidson has also served in various capacities at GEOSYS, Cargill, Agri Business Group and Agri Growth, Inc. He holds a Ph.D. in Agronomy from Washington State University and an MS in Agronomy from the University of Missouri.

Dr. Davidson posts articles on soil health and management related subjects. If you have suggestions for topics or questions, feel free to contact him at or call 402-649-5919.