Soil erosion and degradation are common challenges on farms across Europe. When fertile topsoil is lacking, the risk of nutrient loading to nearby water bodies increases. Healthy soil has a porous structure, rich organic matter, good water retention, high biological activity, and enables more fruitful harvests.
1. Maintain year-round plant cover – On agricultural land, the highest erosion rates occur in crop systems where the soil is left bare for extended periods. Maintaining year-round plant cover protects the soil against erosion and reduces runoff of phosphorus bound to soil particles. It also helps to maintain organic matter in the soil and improves soil structure and microbiological activity.
2. Protect soil structure – Compaction adversely affects the air capacity, permeability, and water retention of the soil. It reduces root development and biological activity and leads to decreased crop yields. Diversifying crop rotation, using lighter machinery, and working the soil in dry conditions can help prevent compaction.
3. Use catch crops or intercrops – Catch crops and intercrops are used to bind nutrients that have not been used by the main crops and are released from the soil after harvest. Sown together with the main crop or after the harvest, they are left to be buried in the soil, or to serve as plant cover over the winter. This can help maintain organic matter in the soil, and reduce nitrogen leakage by absorbing nitrogen and then releasing it for the benefit of the next crops.
4. Add organic matter to the soil – More organic matter in the soil contributes to improved soil health and production capacity. It also helps to mitigate climate change by fixing carbon in the soil. Growing catch crops or intercrops, and mechanically adding dry cattle manure or compost are ways to incorporate more organic matter in the soil.
5. Maintain buffer zones – Buffer zones of perennial vegetation along major ditches, riversides, and lakes help to reduce erosion and the transport of nutrients and plant protection products to water bodies. These are especially useful on fields prone to erosion or flooding. Maintaining grasslands and other vegetation in riparian zones also enhances biodiversity.