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Enhancing the ability of your soil to hold water

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Soil health, quality and water holding capacity is a critical factor in building a productive and resource-efficient farm. Enhancing your soil water holding capacity, increases your soil’s ability to support crops, by ensuring higher water uptake rates.

EMMANUEL O. ATAMBA eoatamba@gmail.com

Many farmers lose their crops during the dry season because their soils do not retain water well. This need not be the case. You can improve the capacity of the soil to hold water longer, by working on three things: Soil texture, organic matter content and structure.

 Soil texture

Soil with bigger particles has reduced water holding capacity. Farms with this kind of soil can fix it through addition of organic matter such as dry leaves, manure, compost, and so on. Organic matter increases the number of micropores in the soil by gluing soil particles together, thus, creating more favorable living conditions for soil organisms.

There are different methods you can use to increase soil organic matter. Also, understanding the different types and qualities of materials used to increase soil organic matter is important:

  • Cover-cropping is the planting of leguminous crops together with the main crop to incorporate plant materials in the soil after biomass formation. It adds organic matter with whigh nitrogen content, which improves the soil structure, health and nutrition;
  • Incorporation of crop biomass is a practice where crop residues are ploughed back into the soil to recycle the nutrients used in growth. The residues, however, take long to decompose and contain less nitrogen as they are incorporated after harvest, when the plant has lost most of its nitrogen;
  • Application of manure: Animal manure is a rich source of organic

matter when well-composted. Farmers practicing mixed farming need to learn how to compost manure properly. Those dealing in crop enterprises are advised to purchase and apply animal manure once in three years to boost soil fertility and structure;

  • Application of green manure: This can be applied after composting crops or as mulch. It also improves soil fertility and structure. Soil structure determines the capacity of soils to hold water and make it available for plant uptake. There are various farming practices that will help improve your soil structure: • Conservation tillage: Practices such as zero and minimal tillage and controlled traffic improve soil structure by reducing compaction of soils and surface runoff. They limit formation of hard pans, which reduce water retention capacity, while increasing soil organic matter and life;
  • Intercropping and rotation: Crop rotation with a focus on root system and root structure, is a natural way of dealing with hard pans and increasing percolation of water into your soil. Shallow- rooted crops should be followed by deep-rooted crops in the rotation cycle, to ensure a uniform soil structure;
  • Ridging can also help loosen up hard pans common in compacted soils;
  • Avoid cultivating wet soils: Timely cultivation ensures that soils are not compacted during ploughing. Uncontrolled traffic on the farm, ( heavy machinery and livestock) should be avoided when soils are wet, because they easily compact your soil.

Why is this important?

Soil health, quality and water holding capacity is a critical factor in building a productive and resource-efficient farm. Enhancing your soil water holding capacity, increases your soil’s ability to support crops, by ensuring higher water uptake rates. Improved soil water holding capacity means increased resilience to drought, as your soil will be able to store enough water for plants to use in times of low rainfall or drought. Finally, it reduces soil erosion by keeping surface water runoff to a minimum.

Emmanuel O. Atamba is the Chief Executive Officer of Apsid Consulting company.
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