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Far-out demonstration shows value of soil health improvementFar-out demonstration shows value of soil health improvement

Only a soil conservation believer would bury three pairs of underwear to prove a point.

Tom Bechman 1

July 20, 2016

3 Min Read

Dan Perkins calls it the "soil your undies" test. Farmers he works with want nothing to do with it. You won’t find the name of the farmer who allowed Perkins to do the test on his farm here. It was the only way he agreed to let anyone see the pictures!

Indeed, burying underwear in the soil and then digging them up and examining them just sounds wrong. But Perkins, a soil conservation professional with the Jasper County Soil and Water Conservation District, says it makes a point in such a way that you can see it visibly.


Pinning soil health down to something you can see is tough, but Perkins says this is a good attempt to do so. “The idea is simple,” he says. “If you bury a fiber and there is more biologic activity, then the fiber should break down more quickly. When you dig up the fabric later, there should be less of it left compared to the same amount of fabric buried where there is less biologic activity."

See and believe

Perkins took to the field with three pairs of clean underwear during the last week in April. He buried one pair where the farmer plowed conventionally with a moldboard plot. The plow is still in his system because he raises mint and uses the plow each spring to get the mint going again.

Perkins buried the second pair where the farmer no-tilled corn this spring, but where he didn’t use a cover crop. He buried the third pair where corn was no-tilled following a cover crop.

The three pairs of underwear were in the ground for six weeks, from late April until early June.

Here is what Perkins saw:

1. The least breakdown happened to the underwear buried after conventional moldboard plowing. There is less biologic activity where there is less food for bacteria, Perkins says. This situation shows that without active bacteria, breakdown is slower. The underwear on the right may be holey, but compared to the other two pairs, which were also buried in the soil, there is more fabric left on this pair, buried in conventionally tilled soil.

Far-out demonstration shows value of soil health improvement

2. No-till alone increases biologic activity in the soil. A moderate amount of fabric breakdown occurred in the no-till location. The pair of underwear was still recognizable.

Far-out demonstration shows value of soil health improvement

3. No-till plus cover crops boosts microbial activity. By far, the least amount of fabric was left where Perkins buried a pair of underwear in a no-till field where cover crops were grown.

Far-out demonstration shows value of soil health improvement

“This wasn’t an original idea,” Perkins admits. “I read about soil scientists doing it in the 1940s to show differences in breakdown rates, but they used fabric, not underwear.”

About the Author(s)

Tom Bechman 1

Editor, Indiana Prairie Farm

Tom Bechman is an important cog in the Farm Progress machinery. In addition to serving as editor of Indiana Prairie Farmer, Tom is nationally known for his coverage of Midwest agronomy, conservation, no-till farming, farm management, farm safety, high-tech farming and personal property tax relief. His byline appears monthly in many of the 18 state and regional farm magazines published by Farm Progress.

"I consider it my responsibility and opportunity as a farm magazine editor to supply useful information that will help today's farm families survive and thrive," the veteran editor says.

Tom graduated from Whiteland (Ind.) High School, earned his B.S. in animal science and agricultural education from Purdue University in 1975 and an M.S. in dairy nutrition two years later. He first joined the magazine as a field editor in 1981 after four years as a vocational agriculture teacher.

Tom enjoys interacting with farm families, university specialists and industry leaders, gathering and sifting through loads of information available in agriculture today. "Whenever I find a new idea or a new thought that could either improve someone's life or their income, I consider it a personal challenge to discover how to present it in the most useful form, " he says.

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