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Soil Health and Cover Crops

Soil Health and Cover Crops

Soil is a foundational resource to farming, conservation and health in the 21st century. Soil health, also referred to as soil quality, is defined as the continued capacity of soil to function as a vital living ecosystem that sustains plants, animals, and humans. Key concepts of soil health and ecological soil management include protecting soil habitat; managing more by disturbing less; keeping soil covered, diversifying food and carbon sources for soil microorganisms; diversifying plant and animal communities; and growing living roots throughout the year. This topic page will focus on how to build soil health for improved soil function and better crops.

Bringing the Past Forward – Mike Phillips of Valley View Farms – A Soil, Conservation, and Place supplement

Soil, Conservation, and Place Video Series

Introduction to Soil, Conservation, and Place video series (1/5)

Soil, Conservation, and Place -- Renard Turner of Vanguard Ranch, Ltd. (2/5)

Soil, Conservation, and Place -- Amy Hicks of Amy's Garden (3/5)

Soil, Conservation, and Place -- Mike Phillips of Valley View Farms (4/5)

Soil, Conservation, and Place -- Philip Witmer of Grazeland Dairy, Inc. (5/5)

Definition: Soil health is the capacity of a soil to maintain its function and flow of ecosystem services given a specific set of physical, chemical and environmental boundaries. (USDA-NRCS 2013; Doran et al., 1994)

  • Crop productivity
  • Nutrient storage and cycling
  • Physical stability
  • Water holding capacity and flow
  • Filtering and buffering capacity
  • Degrading or detoxifying pollutants
  • Biodiversity
  • Management
  • Soil properties
  • Crops
  • Soil biology
  • Environment

Managing for Healthy Soil Processes

Soil processes include nutrient availability, pH, cation exchange capacity, aeration, drainage, water infiltration and holding capacity, microbial activity and diversity, nutrient mineralization, soil organic matter decomposition and accretion.

  • Keep soil covered year-round
  • Minimize soil disturbance (e.g., physical, chemical, and biological)
  • Maximize living roots
  • Energize the soil ecosystem (Use plant and livestock diversity to increase and energize diversity in the soil!)
  • Rapidly increasing world population,
  • Increased food supply requirements
  • Continued loss of prime farmland to development
  • Improved long-term sustainable agriculture production
  • Enhanced economic viability
  • Improved environmental resilience
  • High-performing productive soils are needed
  • Production costs can be reduced
  • Profits can be improved
  • Natural resources are critically important and need to be protected
  • Water quality is improved due to reduced nutrient and sediment loads
  • Biodiversity and wildlife habitat are enhanced

Why Minimize Soil Disturbance?

Good soil biology begins with practices that enhance and promote soil as a habitat and an ecosystem.

  • Destroys soil structure
  • Accelerates decomposition of organic matter
  • Increases erosion
  • Disrupts habitat of soil organisms
  • Can cause compaction
  • Collapses soil lattice structure which is foundational to soil pore space, which critical for air and water flow
  • Disturbs and cuts up the carbon and micronutrient trading network of the mychorrhizal fungi
  • Disrupts and can destroy the infrastructure of the soil habitat

What are the benefits of healthy soils?

The benefits of healthy soils include better soil function, consistent crop productivity, improved nutrient storage and cycling, increased resilience against drought and other stresses, enhanced water holding capacity, and greater microbial and habitat diversity.

Soil cover in the form of cover crops, living mulches, crop and forage residue provides armor for the soil to prevent and reduce wind and water erosion, evapo-transpiration, extreme surface temperatures, and crusting.

  • Adding new organic matter (crop and forage residues) every year is the most important way to improve and maintain soil health
  • Bare soil is susceptible to wind and water erosion, evapo-transpiration, extreme surface temperatures, and crusting
  • At temperatures above 110+ degrees soil microorganisms begin to shut down activity
  • Increases the decomposition of woody surface residues
  • Reduces diseases the next year
  • Suppresses weed pressure
  • Maintains biological activity longer in the season
  • Increases Nitrogen (N) and Carbon (C) mineralization
  • Enhances nutrient cycling
  • Organic matter and soil structure
  • Legumes and nitrogen (N) production
  • Nutrient enrichment
  • Soil microbial activity
  • Water conservation
  • Weed suppression
  • Pest management
  • Cool Season Grasses
  • Cool Season Broadleaves
  • Warm Season Grasses
  • Warm Season Broadleaves

What are we watching and learning about soil health?

Cover Crop Economics: Opportunities to Improve Your Bottom Line in Row Crops

Soil Health: What are we reading?

  • Ackerman-Leist, P. 2013. Rebuilding the foodshed: How to create local, sustainable and secure food systems. A community resilience guide. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green.
  • Albrect, W. 1938. Soils and Men: Yearbook of Agriculture. Washington, DC: USDA.
  • Brady, N.C. and Weil, R.R. 2008. The nature and properties of soils, 14th Edition.
  • Clark, A. (Ed.). 2012. Managing cover crop profitably, 3rd. Edition. USDA Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Handbook 9. Accessed at
  • Cornell Soil Health Assessment Training Manual. (PDF)
  • Fleming, C. and W. Thomason 2015. Virginia Cover Crops Fact Sheet Series No. 1: Beneficial Uses of Cover Crops. Accessed at
  • Fleming, C. and W. Thomason 2015. Virginia Cover Crops Fact Sheet Series No. 2: Cover Crop Performance Evaluation in Field and Controlled Studies. Accessed at
  • Gliessman, S.R. 2015. Agroecology: The ecology of sustainable foods systems. 3rd Edition. Boca Raton, FL. CRC Press.
  • Hodges, S., Schonbeck, M., Dorn, S., and D. Westfall-Rudd. Sustainable farming practices: Soil management In Virginia Whole Farm Planning: An educational program for farm startup and development. Virginia Beginning Farmer and Rancher Coalition. (In Press)
  • Howard, A. 1972. The soil and health: A study of organic agriculture. Schocken Books
  • Karlen, D.L. 2012. Soil health: The concept, its role and strategies for monitoring. In D.H. Wall et al. (eds.) Soil Ecology and Ecosystem Services. (pp. 331 – 336). Oxford University Press.
  • Killham, K. 1994. Soil ecology. Cambridge University Press.
  • Lal, R. 2014. Societal value of soil carbon. Journal of Soil and Water Conservation. Vol. 69. No. 6: 186 – 192. doi:10.2489/jswc.69.6.186A
  • Magdoff and Van Es. 2009. Building soils for better crops, 3rd Edition.
  • Marschner, H. 1997. Mineral nutrition of higher plants. 2nd Edition. New York, NY: Academic Press.
  • Soil and Water Conservation Society (SWCS). 2000. Soil Biology Primer. Rev. ed. Ankeny, Iowa: Soil and Water Conservation Society.
  • Sylvia, D.M., Fuhrman, J.J.,   Hartel, P.G., and D.A. Zuberer. 2005. Principles and applications of soil microbiology, 2nd Edition.
  • Thistlethwaite, R. 2012. Farms with a future: Creating and growing a sustainable farm business. White River Junction: Chelsea Green Publishing.
  • USDA – NRCS Soil Health Fact Sheets
  • USDA-NRCS’ Soil Quality Indicator Sheets on Biological, Chemical and Physical Properties.
  • Virginia NRCS Cover Crop Planning Manual 1.0
  • White, C., and M. Barbercheck. 2012. Managing soil health: Concepts and practices.  Agroecology In Practice Fact Sheet EE0026.  The Pennsylvania State University. (PDF)

Soil, Conservation, and Place Video Series


This educational project aims to deepen community understanding of the importance of agriculture and soils to a sense of place, community, and culture. The project highlights the distinct voices and diverse farms of Virginia’s agricultural community who are protecting and conserving soil and water resources.

The project is generously funded and supported by a community viability grant from Virginia Tech’s Department of Agricultural, Leadership, and Community Education and the Agua Fund.

The project team includes Eric Bendfeldt, Mike Parrish, Kim Niewolny, Wade Thomason, and Maureen McGonagle from Virginia Tech and Virginia Cooperative Extension. The project team especially wants to thank the participating farmers for sharing their time, experiences, and insights with us and the broader community.

Below are the first five videos of the series on Soil, Conservation, and Place. Two additional sets of videos will be added to this series in the coming months and year.

Introduction to Soil, Conservation, and Place video series 1/5

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Soil, Conservation, and Place -- Renard Turner of Vanguard Ranch, Ltd. 2/5

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Soil, Conservation, and Place -- Amy Hicks of Amy's Garden 3/5

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Soil, Conservation, and Place -- Mike Phillips of Valley View Farms 4/5

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Soil, Conservation, and Place -- Philip Witmer of Grazeland Dairy, Inc. 5/5

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Cooperating farms highlighted in these videos:

Vanguard Ranch

Vanguard Ranch is a diversified farm business owned by Renard and Chinette Turner. The ranch is located near Gordonsville, Virginia in Louisa County. Their central focus is their herd of free ranged meat goats. Their goat operation offers a unique product using organic, pasture-based methods not readily available through other local livestock farms. The goat meat is sold directly to customers as a ready-to-eat meal through their concession trailer. Their delicious goat burgers, goat kabobs, and curried goat are frequently available at live events, fairs, and festivals, breweries, and wineries in Central Virginia and beyond. Most recently, the Turners have added a squabbery to their farm business to raise and market meat pigeons to area restaurants. The Turners also host their own music festivals on property adjoining their farm, which offers additional sales opportunities for their in-season, farm fresh produce and herbs.

Amy’s Organic Garden

Amy’s Garden has been growing and selling great organic produce and cut flowers since 1995. What began as an ambitious backyard garden quickly blossomed into a full-time farming career for husband and wife team Amy Hicks & George Ferguson. Nowadays, with the help of a dedicated team of seasonal employees they grow an amazingly diverse selection of specialty vegetables, small fruits and cut flowers on their organic farm in historic Charles City county, VA.

The farm has been Certified Organic since 2000. Amy’s Garden sells their USDA Certified Organic produce and flowers at local farmers markets in Richmond and Williamsburg and offers the only Certified Organic CSA option in the area. ​Nurturing healthy soil is critically important for nutritious crops and vibrant flowers. Planting and rotating cover crops which naturally fix nitrogen, add organic matter to the soil and provide habitat areas for beneficial insects and wildlife while preventing erosion is a cornerstone of the farm. Permanent plantings of flowering plants provide a vital source of food and nectar to insects and wildlife that make the farm their home and several areas of native milkweed have been planted just for our monarch butterfly friends who migrate through each season.

Valley View Farms

Valley View Farms is a cow-calf rotational grazing farm owned by Mike and Susan Phillips in Rockingham County of the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. Mike and Susan are great educators and advocates for land stewardship, soil health, natural resource conservation, and the present and future of agriculture. Mike has been active in Future Farmers of America throughout his life and sees the importance of taking care of and improving the land and water resources he and Susan have on their farm. Rotational grazing, cover cropping, wildlife habitat, no-till, and soil health building practices are foundational to the operation and care of the animals and land. Presently, Mike and Susan are working closely with Massanutten Technical Center and area schools and universities to provide practical hands-on educational experience for students interested in farming, conservation, and agricultural careers. Mike and Susan are always looking for ways to give back and pass on the knowledge they have gained to others in the community and around the world.   

Grazeland Dairy, Inc.

Grazeland Dairy is a certified organic dairy farm owned by Phil and Terry Witmer and their family in the central Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. As grass-based dairy farm with 200 milk cows and about 100 replacement heifers, Grazeland Dairy sells their milk through Organic Valley, a cooperative of farmers across the country who share similar values and commitments to growing food and raising livestock. The Witmer family works together with their community and their dairy cooperative to create quality milk and a stronger food system.