New farmers guide to soil management

why it is important to learn how to maintain soil

Photo by John A. Kelley

Being a new farmer you need to know the basics about soil management. I had to do a lot of research about soil to write this post. I will link to a few sites that I found very helpful while doing my research.

The idea behind this post is to summarize the information I found, and present it to you in easy-to-understand way. Essentially, try to give you what you need to know.

As I mentioned before, knowing the basics about soil is an essential part about being a farmer.

Determine your soil type

Determining your soil type is probably one of the most important things you could do as a new farmer. What this allows you to do is decide what type of crop you can use on your farm. As we know, some crops do better than other crops. We can figure out which crops will do better, if we find out what soil type we have.

Soil types

So what are the soil types? I touched on this a bit in a definitive guide to buying farmland, however, I didn’t go into detail.

There are three basic types of soil:

  • Clay
  • Loam
  • Sand

Clay holds the most water. If you’re trying to farm, you probably don’t want a lot of Clay on your property. Some crops need a bit of Clay, but it’s not your ideal choice.

Loam is the type of soil that you want as a farmer. It provides all the necessary elements to grow the best crop possible.

In many cases, you will have a combination of loam and sand or loam and Clay.

Sand doesn’t hold any water. If you are trying to grow something in your field, you will likely be less successful than someone who has a loam field.

As I mentioned before, these are just the basic types. Many people will talk about different types, but I didn’t want to get into all that. I am trying to keep it straight forward, so it is easy to understand. I know I got bogged down when I was doing research, so I am trying to prevent that here.

Let’s continue.

Soil testing

Soil testing is essential. It is important to get your land tested because this tells you what nutrients you are lacking in your soil. If you are lacking a certain nutrient, your crop may not do as well as you would like.

You should get your soil tested by your local expert. Having a local expert test your soil, will give you the most insightful information.

So what are you testing for? Soil nutrients of course.

The soil nutrients they are looking for are:

  • Plant-available phosphorus (sodium bicarbonate extractable)
  • Potassium
  • Magnesium (ammonium acetate extractable)
  • Manganese and zinc (index of soil pH and extractable element)
  • pH
  • Lime requirement (SMP buffer pH)
  • Nitrate nitrogen (mostly for corn and requires a special test)

After finding out what your soil has or doesn’t have, you can decide what you need to put back into your soil. You need to have a balance of all these nutrients. The balance of these nutrients is what ensures that your crop grows. Some crops use more of one nutrient, so you need to know what to put back into your soil to get the best crop.

OMAFRA suggests that you get your fields tested once every two to three years, but depending on your soil type, and what you are growing, once a year is also possible.

What’s in your soil

What do you want in your soil

What you want in your soil is largely dependent upon which crop you grow. For example, if you grow canola you might want to focus on the amount of sulphur you have in your soil. Also, phosphate and potash are important for canola.

As you can see, it really depends on what crop you have planted. Different crops have different needs. So be sure to check what crop needs what. I found this great reference table from OMAFRA which shows you what each crop needs.

What you don’t want in your soil

You don’t want insects in your soil although some insects are actually good for your plants. Sometimes the best way to manage insects is by rotating your crops. What this does is prevent the insects from becoming localized in one particular field.

Cover crops and why you need them

What is a cover crop?

A cover crop is basically a crop that you plant when your primary crop is off the field. We do not harvest cover crops. They just sit there in the ground and keep nutrients.

What are the benefits of cover crops?

  • It improves the quality of the soil.
  • It helps prevent erosion.
  • It improves fertility of the field.
  • It helps to suppress weeds.
  • It helps to control insects.

Why you need a cover crop?

The reason why you want to use a cover crop is that it improves your soil. Let’s think about this. If we improve our soil, we will improve our crops. Also, if we use cover crops, you will cut the amount of herbicide and insecticide you would need to use on your field. Is that going to be 100% of the time? The chances are probably not, but it will decrease the total amount you need.

What type of cover crops are there?

There are many different types of cover crops. Each cover crop provides its own benefits. Therefore, you will need to make a choice based on what your soil needs. Again, this goes back to getting your soil tested. If you get your soil tested, you will know what cover crop to use.

Here are a few types of cover crops:

  • Clovers
  • Alfalfa
  • Soybeans
  • Rye
  • Oats

Why new farmers need about soil management

New farmers and experience farmers need to know how to maintain soil because it is essential to help prevent erosion. Furthermore, it also helps us keep the soil healthy for upcoming generations.

If we don’t keep the soil healthy, we won’t be able to provide food for the world. That is why it is so important to maintain your soil and help each other.

It is particularly important as a new farmer to understand your soil because it really helps to give you the information you need to make the choices you need to make.


How healthy is your soil?


Further reading for new farmers



  1. Very good Write Up –

    Soil type, composition, fertility, health are all important factors when deciding what type of crops will be most efficient to grow.

    Soil Type – Organic Matter Levels – pH all affect your desease control & fertility program and which will greatly effect soil health and all of this control your yields and profits.

    As well cover crops are an effective way to help decrease fertility loses, since a big part of soil health is returning the nutrients your crop removed from the soil to grow.

    • Thank you Paul for the kind words.

      There are some other factors relating to equipment that we can include as well. Things like no-till can also play a factor. However, for younger farmers no-till equipment tends to come with a high price tag, so it may be more difficult to attain.

      Despite it higher price tag, it is better for the soil in the long run. It helps to prevent things like erosion.

      Just something else to think about right.

  2. Hafeez ur Rehman says:

    Hi, Dear, I love your way of elaborating/education about The real live Farming.One can smoothlly enters in success.Most people make things most difficult to understand.Thank you.

  3. Hi. I am curious about how to choose the crop with all the properties of the soil known. I would expect that every crop has it’s own favourate pH, % clay, water availability. Do you know if there is a list of this somewhere available for every crop?

  4. what is cropping program?

  5. What is the best soil type for farming, Mr. Robson?

  6. Dear Robinson,

    Thank you for the good information shared. Was very informative, Am based in Kenya and recently did a soil test in 2 different plots, the results came out and one has Clay soil and the other Clay loam… i was looking to plant vegetables which i can do in clay loam soil… i would love my soil to be healthy is there a way i can change the clay soil to be healthier?


  7. Hi ROB,

    This is a beautifuly articulated information and easy to comprehend. Just wondering if you can provide any information about finding any peers and partners who are also intrested to start this business. As an alternate you can suggest any venues I can look at. I am based in Nova scotia.


  1. […] Soil texture, composition, organic matter and pH levels all effect how your soil uses and retains nutrients. Nutrient levels fluctuate because of factors like drainage, field work practices, cover crops, weeds and previous years yields. […]

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