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Soil health just needs one first step

Soil health just needs one first step
Technology has boosted yields, masking the slow and silent draining of our resource base

I admit upfront: While you’re trying to figure out how much money you’re not going to make on corn or soybeans this year, it may seem like a bad time to talk about trying something new.

Then again, this may be the best time to make changes in your business, because there is no downside to this pitch.

Rebuilding our soil base may seem an idealistic whim during these drastic financial times. But the need to preserve our precious resources has never been more compelling.

Indiana farmer Mark Anson surveys a sea of cover crops: "I'm convinced this is the way we'll farm in the future, and we're just trying to get there," he says.

In recent years American agriculture has wrestled with how to address sustainability issues in our farm practices. We are making progress, but we could do more. We continue to plow or chisel or disk away our best resource, losing soil fertility and organic matter and replacing it with synthetic inputs. We can't do that forever. Technology has boosted yields, masking the slow and silent draining of our resource base.

In Africa, where ag output is low and infrastructure crude, sustainability is taking place out of necessity, and on small-scale levels it is working. Smallholder African farmers must use cover crops for nutrients, no-till mulch for weed suppression and soil moisture conservation. Soils there are fragile and overworked, and climate extremes are a fact of life.

Down the river

Compare this highly efficient food-growing approach to North America’s industrial agriculture, where we spend countless dollars on synthetic fertilizers and ship nutrients overseas after every harvest. We use up our natural resources for short term gain and export nitrogen down the river. We're buying phosphorous and throwing much of it away, causing water pollution and no doubt provoking unneeded regulations from the feds.

The emerging picture is one where Africa, the land of little, is learning to keep its soil resource base while North America, the land of plenty, is rapidly depleting its base. Where will this leave us in 100 years?

Repetitive, unnecessary tillage degrades soils; more specifically, it destroys the microenvironments where soil organisms thrive and build soil organic matter. Crop residues feed the soil’s critters, which build OM; this, in turn, releases nutrients to plants and reduces the need for synthetic fertilizer.

A lot of farmers ‘get this’ and have made a big effort to rebuild soil health. Others, however, continue to do ‘what dad did’ or listen to the retailers and equipment dealers who may not have your soils’ best interests at heart.

We can turn this around and start rebuilding soils with no-till, rotation and cover crops. With the equipment, technology and know-how we have today – not to mention economic incentives, knowing how these practices improve yield and lower costs – there’s no excuse not to. These practices are good for the bottom line right now, but that ROI improves over time as soils recover from the effects of tillage. And regardless of how you feel about climate change, these practices protect soil in a deluge while preserving moisture in a drought.

Consider Central Illinois, with some of the richest, deepest top soils on the planet. You wouldn't know it by looking at this black soil, but there is a problem here. One look at a soil test and the real story unfolds. These soils should rate off the charts for organic matter, but most ratings in this part of the world are coming in at 2.6 to 3.4%; Drummer Flanagan soils should be running upwards of 8% OM. 

It's a microcosm of the big picture across North America, says soil conservationist Mike Plumer.

“It’s a sure sign that as much as 50% of their productivity has been lost since we began farming these lands 150 years ago,” he says. “And the major destruction occurred in the past 40 or 50 years.”

Technology has increased yield, masking the drain in central Illinois OM. But there are farmers in other parts of the world who are seeing spectacular gains as a result of soil health rebuilding efforts. Last year Georgia farmers on red, lower OM soils broke world yield records. Last year non irrigated corn grown on Georgia soils broke 400 bu. per acre and irrigated yields came in over 500.

“We have Cisne clay pan soils in Southern Illinois, and with conscious efforts to grow organic matter and cation exchange rate over time, these soils now routinely push over 200 bu. per acre,” says Plumer. “Those OM levels, on timber soils, are running upwards of 4%.”

If you think it’s time for a change, take a building approach. Start by rethinking management. What can you utilize to improve the resource, as well as maintain the economics? To get started, look at your soils to see how much they are degraded, even if you're making 250 bu. corn and think you're on top of the world. In some cases you may be happy to make 220 bu. corn but you really could be making 300.

Time for change

Anyone who is making a living doesn't want to change, because change is risk. But farmers who have built soils up can buffer production risk because better soils with higher OM generally yield better even with poor weather. Indiana farmer Mark Anson and his brothers converted 20,000 acres from conventional tillage to 100% no-till and 63% cover crops in six years. Yields are up and the farm is more sustainable. “I’m convinced this is the way we’ll farm in the future, and we’re just trying to get there,” Anson told me. Aaron Johnson, who farms in Southern Indiana, has attracted potential new landowners because they like seeing that protective green carpet (cover crops) each fall. It’s a big fat public sign that says, ‘I’m taking care of this land.’

You can do all this and still maintain profits – even if it takes upwards of six or seven years to build those soil benefits. It just takes one, courageous first step.

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