Improve Your Soil’s Health & Earn More

img1.jpg

Read any industry blog or farming magazine, peruse any university’s ag website or publication, and you’re sure to find a discussion about soil health. It’s a hot topic—and for good reason.

Healthy soil is rich with organic matter that serves as food for microorganisms that live in the soil and do everything from absorbing and storing water to providing nutrients for plants and controlling pests.

Fortunately, several practices aimed at improving soil can also reduce input costs. Growers can earn more by saving money while also reaping the benefits that come with planting in healthier soil.

2.png

Four Practices to Increase Soil Health and Reduce Costs

In recent years, the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) developed four principles for achieving and maintaining soil health:

- Minimize soil disturbance.
- Keep soil covered.
- Maximize plant diversity.
- Maximize the period of living root growth.

The following farming practices can help growers apply all four principles to enrich the quality of their soil and see reduced input costs.

Reduce tillage intensity

When growers till their land, it loosens and aerates the soil so roots can penetrate more deeply. It also controls weeds and pests—by interrupting their lifecycles—and integrates organic matter, fertilizer, and manure into the soil, and more.

While tillage achieves a variety of positive agronomic objects, excessive tillage has contributed to cropland degradation. When soil is disturbed through intense, repeated tillage, the microorganisms living within are exposed to the sun and wind and are killed off. In their absence, soil loses moisture and requires more fertilizer (because the organisms that provide plants with nutrients are missing). While tilled soil is more susceptible to wind and water erosion on the surface, frequent passes of equipment and implements can cause hard-pans and compaction beneath the surface. Finally, tillage operations burn substantial fuel and energy and bring significant time and labor obligations.

3.png

In general, the less frequently soil is turned, the more organic matter can grow, solving many of the problems associated with traditional tillage practices. In fact, a University of Nebraska publication finds that each tillage event can result in 0.5-0.75" of soil water loss through evaporation1. Conservation tillage systems (such as no-till/strip-till, ridge-till, mulch-till, vertical tillage) reduce the intensity of tillage and leave the previous year's crop residue (corn stalks, wheat stubble, leaves, seed pods) on fields before and after planting the next crop. No-till is the least intensive form of tillage. In a no-till system, growers plant directly into the undisturbed residue of the previous crop without tillage. Conventional tillage is the most intensive. In a conventional system, most of the crop residue is incorporated into the soil.

In a conservation tillage system, soils efficiently break down crop residue into soil organic matter (SOM). There are multiple advantages of the improved soil:

- Blanket of residue: reduces soil temperature, maintains soil moisture, protects soil from sunlight
and wind, prevents erosion, improves water infiltration.

- Improved water infiltration eases water runoff and helps crops better withstand droughts—evaporation
and runoff are cut by at least 70 percent2.

- Residue decomposition puts organic matter and nutrients back into the soil.

- Decreased compaction enables roots to grow deeper and take up more nutrients and water. It also
allows water to move throughout the soil profile.

Critical for growers’ bottom line, the fewer tillage trips that are characteristic of conservation tillage bring real economic benefits:

- Saved time and labor—tillage time per acre is reduced by as much as two-thirds3.

- Less fertilizer required because of the increased presence of organic matter.

- Less irrigation needed due to improved rain efficiency.

- Significant fuel savings due to less tilling.

According to the USDA, growers can save at least 3.5 gallons of fuel per acre by going from conventional tillage methods to no-till.

With the price of diesel averaging $3.14 thus far in 2018 (Feb-July)4, this amounts to $11 per acre in savings.

On a 1,000-acre farm, the savings add up to 3,500 gallons of diesel fuel per year valued at $11,000.

4.png

Growers may see an increase in weed growth with conservation tillage systems, which could increase herbicide costs. However, cover cropping (see the next section) is well recognized for suppressing weeds and pests and can be combined with a reduced tillage system for pest suppression.

In the past, residue management could be a challenge for low-tillage growers; however, advancements in machinery have mostly solved the problem, making the practice a viable option for almost any crop, no matter what the soil type or how robust the residue blanket. Conservation tillage improves soil health and helps the environment, but it can also save growers money and boost profits.

Cover crops are chiefly grown to protect and enrich the soil and are planted during seasons when fields usually have nothing growing. The plants’ roots nourish the soil by capturing sunlight, feeding soil organisms, storing carbon, and cycling nutrients. They can also serve as an additional source of income or another grazing source for livestock in the fall.

Cover crops enhance soil health simply by prolonging the time that live plants and roots are in the soil.

They also create soil with better water infiltration, improved moisture retention, and drought resistance. As an added boon, some cover crops—particularly tillage radish—break compaction layers to create more air and water movement. Given that, tillage radish can help as a first step in a transition to a conservation tillage system. Tillage radish also helps inhibit the growth of unwanted weeds. Other cover crops—particularly legumes—can fix nitrogen into a form usable by plants.

5.png
6.png

Cover croppers have traditionally terminated their covers a few weeks before the expected planting date of the cash crop.

Recently, growers have begun to plant cash crops (typically corn and soy) into actively growing cover crops, only terminating the cover days or weeks later. Known as “planting green,” adherents praise the new approach for providing even more benefits than traditional cover cropping. The additional perks include enhanced soil health, extended erosion protection, and better moisture management (which can enable growers to plant their cash crops sooner). They also note that it’s easier to plant through green cover than dry residue. Though planting green brings new challenges and additional considerations, advocates of the practice think it’s well worth it.

Cover cropping brings similar practical gains to growers as conservation tillage:

- Reduced need for fertilizer.

- Reduced need for herbicides and pesticides. While growers do use herbicides to terminate cover crops, many who grow oats or rye as covers are using a crimper roller with a chevron pattern instead.

- Potential for improved yields.

While the advantages are significant and long-lasting, the plants do cost additional money up-front, and it may take some time before growers benefit from improved soil quality. As the soil grows healthier, the effects and rewards accumulate; still, growers must be willing and able to sacrifice some profits until that happens.

7.png
8.jpg

That added variety creates a richer, more diverse population of microorganisms within the soil. This healthy soil can then deliver the nutrients, water cycling, and pest resistance that growers need on their farms. Like low-tillage systems and cover cropping, it’ll also help reduce input costs and increase profitability. While growers may be unwilling or unable to add a new crop to their rotation, cover cropping can be a great way to add diversity and bolster resiliency of a cropping system

Conclusion

Together the three practices discussed above (limited tillage, cover cropping, and diversification) can help growers apply the NRCS’s four principles to create healthier soil in their fields and protect the long-term sustainability of their croplands. At the same time, growers earn more by saving money on inputs—fuel, fertilizer, herbicide, labor, and time—while also benefiting from the advantages provided by high-performing and productive healthy soil.