Soil Health

Improving the Soil to Protect the Land

Our planet only has so much space, and our use of that available space is changing as the population grows. As our needs change and grow, so does the need to optimize how we use the land. Healthy soil is crucial to ensure the effective use of agricultural land. Since the late 1990s, cotton has made great strides in improving soil health, which is critical to ensuring that crops can thrive over time. Growers around the world are embracing the benefits of improved soil health and have begun adopting conservation practices, such as no-till/low-till agriculture and the use of cover crops, to the benefit of soil health.

Because of the increased adoption of these practices, cotton’s land use has declined 30% over the last 30 years, according to a report by Field to Market, the Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture.1 In the U.S., cotton yields have doubled over the past three decades even as the space used for planting has declined. These impressive gains have been made possible using higher-yielding cotton varieties developed through both genetic modification and conventional breeding, as well as the adoption of innovative techniques such as precision fertilization, contour farming, conservation tillage, cover cropping and diverse crop rotations.

Today, the U.S. cotton industry is seeking to further improve soil health. U.S. cotton growers have committed improving soil carbon by 30 percent and decreasing soil loss per acre by 50 percent in the ten-year period between 2015 and 2025.

Conservation Tillage: Avoiding Disruption for More Productive Soil

Tillage, or plowing, may seem like a simple practice that levels and incorporates fertilizer into the soil, and that suppresses weeds. However, this practice can disrupt the structure of soil, which can lead to increased surface water runoff, soil erosion and diminished soil health. Destruction of the soil structure also decreases water infiltration, which decreases the value the crop can get from rainfall. So, growers around the world are reducing tillage, adopting “conservation” tillage or “no-till” practices to protect their soil and only plow when absolutely necessary.

Cover crops: Improving Soil Health by Planting Different Crops

Growers are also adopting the practice of growing cover crops. In most places, the cotton plant takes 6 months or less to mature.2 So, if no other crops are planted the soil would be left bare for a good part of the year. Research shows that planting cover crops, for example, crops such as wheat and rye, has countless benefits. Cover crops can reduce soil erosion, enhance microbial activity, improve water quality, land productivity, and increase soil organic matter and water use efficiency.3 In fact, a 2% increase in soil organic matter could under certain conditions increase the soil’s available water holding capacity by as much as 100%.4

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  1. Thompson, Allison, Grant Wick, Stewart Ramsey, and Brandon Kliethermes. “National Indicators Report 2016.” Edited by Betsy Hickman. Field to Market. Field to Market, February 20, 2020. https://fieldtomarket.org/national-indicators-report-2016/.
  2. From field to Fabric- crop production & planting. Cotton. (n.d.). https://www.cotton.org/pubs/cottoncounts/fieldtofabric/crops.cfm#:~:text=Cotton%20is%20grown%20in%2017,differ%20from%20region%20to%20region.
  3. USDA. Cover Crop Management in Cotton. https://www.ars.usda.gov/ARSUserFiles/66120900/ IntegratedFarmingSystems/CoverCropManagementinCotton.pdf.
  4. Cotton Incorporated. Edited by Christoph Koffler and Susan Murphy. LCA UPDATE OF COTTON FIBER AND FABRIC LIFE CYCLE INVENTORY. Cotton Incorporated, March 17, 2017. https://cottontoday.cottoninc.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/2016-LCA-Full-Report-Update.pdf.