The Importance of Soil Health for Increased Profitability
To say modern farming practices are complicated would be an understatement. Any farmer knows that in order to produce the maximum yield you require a large amount of capital and margins are relatively tight.
Due to the unpredictable nature of farming, many farmers are driven to tighten rotations and increase inputs. Producers are continuously monitoring their numbers to see what areas they can help reduce costs and drive up net margins.
One of the simplest ways to help drive net margins dollars is to improve the health of your soil. The term “Soil Health” refers to the ability of the soil to continue to function through different environmental conditions as a functional sustainable ecosystem which sustains plants, animals, and humans.
Although there is no defined measure of soil health, there are certainly indicators of healthy soil:
- The presence of earthworms
- Adequate water infiltration
- Proper nutrient cycling
- Good soil aggregation
- Healthy plant growth
- Productive economic yields
Improving your soil is a critical step in creating a food production system that will be economically and environmentally sustainable for years to come.
So how do we improve our soils? The bottom line is that in order to make better, healthier soils you need to increase organic matter.
This sounds simple enough, but how do you execute it?
On the land that Kevin Elmy purchased in 1999, the original owner had baled the straw then burned the stubble for fifty years. The organic matter of the soil was under 2% - creating soil with poor water infiltration, low fertility, low yielding crops, no stress tolerance, and low tilth.
In 2015, from the last test, the soil organic matter was 6.2%. By using a combination of short term forages, cattle corn grazing, winter cereals, reduced tillage, and cover crops his soil health had improved greatly - driving yields up and improving profitability.
One key step to speed up the improvement of soil health is grazing animals on the land. With livestock, the majority of the macronutrients they ingest pass through them, making them relatively inefficient at processing nutrients but very efficient at fertilizing the soil. The quick return of nutrients in a plant friendly state to the soil helps produce healthy plant growth along with a spike in microbial activity.
As a quick rule of thumb, plants that are eaten and passed through the animal will tend to stimulate bacteria over fungi. Plant materials, especially more lignified plants, will promote more fungal growth. By controlling the animals with electric fencing, the amount of residue can be managed effectively.
Land that is grazed too hard will leave very little residue, or soil armor. By not grazing hard enough you may have issues seeding the next year, or reduced palatability on the next grazing pass.
When looking at stimulating microbes in the soil, bacteria and fungi are usually scorned because they can cause disease. Like with any population, there are good guys and bad guys. Healthy soil will have checks and balances to keep these bad guys under control. Disease outbreaks tend to occur when these checks and balances are not in place, allowing the bad guys to dominate the population. A good diverse rotation replicating a more natural ecosystem will create microbial diversity, creating a healthy environment for microbial growth.
Another way in improve soil heath is Cover Cropping. This refers to a cropping system that attempts to increase diversity in cropping rotation to ensure that grass, legume, and broadleaf plants are utilized throughout the rotation. The inclusion of these functional groups will also help ensure good microbial diversity for the soil.
Cover cropping includes the following methods:
- Relay cropping
- Full season Cover Crops
- Pre-seed Cover Crops
- Post-harvest Cover Crops
When thinking about incorporating cover crops into a rotation, you need to set goals of what needs to be accomplished on your land. different crops will do different things to the soil and microbes.
Ideally, a cover crop will fill the holes in a cropping rotation to ensure diversity of the plant types. The ultimate goal is to have plants growing throughout the entire growing season. The longer plants are growing, the more sunlight is captured, allowing the plant to create sugars, which end up back into the soil and capturing carbon.
By increasing the time plants are growing you increase the number of roots, more roots in the soil creates improved soil aggregation. Improved soil aggregation allows more spots for microbes in the soil, and improved water infiltration. The more microbes in the soil and improved soil moisture retention, the more earthworms will appear. Having more earthworms creates more macro-pores in the soil and increases nutrient cycling which allow better plant growth.
Improved plant growth will increase organic matter in the soil and will improve the overall soil health. By grazing livestock on the land, time required to improve soil health decreases.
Each farm will have their own set of parameters that they need to address in order to improve their soil health - whether it is hard pan, low organic matter, low earthworm populations or low nutrient cycling rates. Once the system is developed for an operation, each field may have a slightly different cover crop blend, depending on where it is in crop rotation, soil type, nutritional status, and climate.
The idea of cover cropping is not just an organic thing or for livestock producers. It can be incorporated into any operation, the key is to add diversity to the rotation, allowing more plant types to be grown. Healthy soils will produce healthy plants which will provide healthy food at a lower cost and risk.
Jay Fuhrer (Burleigh County Soil Conservation District) said it best a few years ago, the Agricultural Industry was talking about trying to maintain our soils - Jay argued, “Why should we be maintaining a degraded resource? Let’s make it better!
Like anything, if it was easy and simple everyone would be doing it. Soil Health Management can be confusing and intimidating at first, but once you understand the basic principles of it the rest will fall into place.
Written by Kevin Elmy and edited by Mia Campbell