Improving soil health

When it comes to improving and maintaining the health of soil, there’s no universal recipe that works for everyone. Whether the method is planting cover crops, reducing tillage, incorporating crop rotation or a combination of practices, a growing number of farmers are making a commitment to improve the soil that nourishes their crops.

“There’s no cookie-cutter answer to every situation. There are really a lot of good things happening,” says Jim Ristau, South Dakota Corn’s director of sustainability. “Making a commitment to soil health is now more the norm than the exception. You aren’t the outlaw out there anymore. It’s a good thing to build the health of your soil for the long term. It also makes economic sense; it helps your bottom line. When you can line all of that up, it’s a no-brainer.”

Ristau says farmers need to understand their farm’s soils, the water cycle and the environment they’re in. Transitioning to various soil health practices can be a big step. For some, maybe the best place to start is in a farmer’s worst field. Perhaps start with some cover crops.

“Set a goal of what you’re trying to accomplish,” he says. “If a field isn’t draining, there are things you can do to improve infiltration. You can’t just say it rained too much.”

 

Modern technology is a valuable tool in determining problems, finding solutions and helping with decision making. And there are resources available, including the South Dakota Soil Health Coalition, https://www.sdsoilhealthcoalition.org/. It’s a matter of understanding the principles and your farm, and then determining what you want to achieve.

Soil problems, health and productivity were among the topics discussed July 26 at the annual Ag PhD Field Day hosted by Brian and Darren Hefty. Discussing infiltration, soil compaction and nutrients, Brian Hefty drew up an unusual analogy for the attentive audience that had gathered under a large tent to hear his presentation.

“If all of us here were covered with basketballs, could we breathe? Yes, because there would be gaps. If we were covered with sand, could we breathe? No,” he said.

While nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium have been the main focus of fertilization practices, calcium, zinc and magnesium are sometimes overlooked but important, Hefty said.

Soils with excess magnesium are “tight,” restricting water infiltration, root development, microbial activity and organic-matter decay.

“Soil testing is unbelievably important,” Hefty said.

Jason Schley, an agronomist with NLAg Next Level Ag Laboratories at Alpena, agrees. He does soil and tissue testing in a large region of South Dakota and uses those test results to help farmers develop strategies. He believes many more farmers are taking steps to improve the health of their soil: better rotation practices, cover crops, split application of fertilizer and no-till farming.

“Soil health is gaining attention and attraction,” he says.

As farmers deal with a sluggish ag economy, Schley says it’s important to be efficient. Soil and tissue testing throughout the season, and variable rate mapping, are valuable tools in that regard.

“We can be more efficient and effective in what we’re applying,” he says. “Way more people over-fertilize than under-fertilize. In this environment, it’s important to be more efficient with your fertilizer dollars.”

Joe Fritzsche, a Wessington farmer, says he’s trying different things on his marginal acres, including planting cover crops and grazing cattle. He put some headland to grass.

“If I don’t feel I can get 150-bushel corn, I’m taking some out of production,” he says. “Twenty years ago, I was going to put corn and beans on every acre. Now, I’ve learned that might not work on the ground I have.”

Fritzche is also doing some side-dressing and inter-seeding. In soils with high saline content, he’s trying to improve infiltration.

“I don’t have a handle on everything. It’s a learning process,” he says. “It’s hard to balance between agronomics and economics right now. It’s hard to take your worms to your banker. There’s no line item for your worm count. You still have to be profitable on the bottom line.”

Conrad Waldner of Pearl Creek Farms says they discovered they were overfertilizing, so they reduced the amount of nutrients they apply and have saved a lot of money. They use zone management.

“We used a lot of manure, and we’ve cut back on that, too,” he says. “We spread it out more.”

They also plant cover crops. Waldner says water infiltration has improved and he’s noticed the worm population has increased. This also has caused soil health to improve.

Change isn’t easy, but Ristau has three words of advice for farmers as they try different methods of improving soil health: “Don’t give up.”

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