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How can I protect my soil’s surface?

Answer: Strategies to protect soil surface, often called soil armor, can include the use of cover crops and mulch. Both provide many benefits for the land, including the following:

  • Wind and water erosion are brought under control. Cover crops and mulch protect the soil as wind or water move across the soil surface. This holds the soil in place and allows increased water infiltration, not to mention providing organic matter and nutrients to the soil.
  • Mulch reduces evaporation from the soil surface, reserving more moisture for plant use.
  • Soil temperatures are moderated with cover crops and mulch, which act as a buffer, shielding the soil from extreme temperatures. The soil food web functions better when not subjected to extreme temperatures and humidity.
  • Soil aggregation is preserved when rainfall hits the cover crop or mulch, dissipating the raindrop’s energy. When rainfall hits bare soil, soil aggregates are destroyed, erosion by wind and water is increased, and the soil is starved of oxygen and water. Fine clay particles seal the soil surface, dramatically reducing water infiltration and oxygen exchange into the soil.
  • Weed growth is suppressed through competition with the cover crop and/or smothered with mulch.
  • Habitat is provided by cover crops for beneficial insects and pollinators. Biological mulches/plant residue provides habitat for spiders, an important predator of agricultural pests.

You can learn more about healthy soils, and the five principles for restoring and maintaining soil health, in the new ATTRA publication Managing Soils for Water. This publication discusses attaining healthy soils, soils health and the future of farming, and more.

In addition, the Soils and Compost section of the ATTRA website is chock-full of useful resources that can help you assess, improve, and maintain soils health for both croplands and pastures.