It is time for farmers to begin thinking as much about soil health and farming their soil as farming their crop. Doing so will produce short- and long-term benefits to the soil that are huge. And more importantly, yields will begin to increase, crops will be more resilient during stress years and in-field variability will decline at the same time time. And along the way you will probably save money on your fertility program.
Improving soil health begins by determining the health of your soil, reducing ‘destructive’ tillage, adopting no-till and planting a cover crop. While those are important practices there is more you can do if you begin to understand the nature of soil health and use some metrics to analyze how the soil is faring. The goal of soil health is creating an environment where soil microbes thrive, learning how to keep them well-fed, and cycling carbon and nutrients back to the soil and into the crop.
I am as passionate about soil health as others and have my strategies and tips for succeeding. Below are my 10 tips for learning to farm your soil.
1. Understand that to have healthy soil means having a quality soil with the right physical and chemical conditions for the biology to thrive. Deploy a range of metrics to understand your soil, run a baseline and then monitor change and progress.
2. Attend workshops, read articles, talk to other farmers and find a mentor who can coach you. Develop your own network. While adopting no-till and cover crops can help, they aren’t the total solutions if other issues exist.
3. Determine what factors might be limiting the health of your soil and find practices that can remediate them. If compaction is a problem, pH is acid, or salinity or electroconductivity is high, correct these issues.
4. Accept that building soil health is a long-term proposition and it might take five years to recognize significant changes to the tilth of your soil.
5. Learn how to reduce tillage and adopt no-till. Keeping residue on the surface protects soil and sustains carbon so it becomes part of the soil’s carbon cycle. No-till is a challenge, but with management you can be successful.
6. Apply a ton of gypsum per acre every 3 or 4 years. That calcium will help improve soil structure and sulfur is an important plant and microbial nutrient.
7. Adjust crop rotations. Plant high residue and carbon crops like corn and wheat more frequently than soybeans. This will add more carbon back to the soil and increase organic matter levels. Getting soils to an organic matter level of 3% or higher is a good place to be. If you are south of I-70, double-crop soybeans after wheat. The wheat is both a cash and double-crop.
8. Learn about cover crops. Covers are popular now and there are plenty of opportunities to learn more about them and do some self-discovery. Cereal rye is an excellent choice to start with because it is easy to establish, overwinters, and takes up excess moisture and residual nutrients. But over time you will want to broaden that cover mix to include legumes, brassicas and root crops like turnips or radishes. Covers also take up and sequester N and other nutrients into the plant biomass, which will decay and mineralize nutrients next spring.
9. Consider adding some biologicals to the system, but understand their value proposition and make sure you are able to recognize or measure some change as a result. Be wary of an unsubstantiated sales pitch. Biologicals include humates, humic and fulvic acid, enzymes derived from fungi or bacteria that stimulate soil organisms, or fungi and bacteria themselves.
10. Make soil health testing a regular part of your soil test. You are already measuring pH, organic matter and nutrient levels on a regular basis. Ask the soil laboratory to add in Solvita® soil respiration as a routine check. Soil respiration is probably the single best indicator of soil health because all the conditions that impact soil and microbial activity end up affecting respiration.
Soil testing is important and the tighter your margins, the more important soil testing. The most current soil test results create the best opportunity for achieving your yield goals with the lowest risk, most efficacious fertility program to feed the crop. When you test your soils for nutrients, pH and organic matter it is time to add evaluating soil health as an additional metric.
Agronomist Daniel Davidson, Ph.D. posts blogs on agronomy-related topics. Feel free to contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or ring him at 402-649-5919.