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Landowners need to be asking these soil health test questions, even if you're that landowner.

Elisa O'Halloran

February 9, 2016

3 Min Read

Soil health and how to improve it is an increasingly “hot” topic across the country. So don't be surprised if landowners you rent ground from ask the following questions.

Related: Profit Planner Q: Cash out conventional tillage tools?

Better yet, be prepared to answer them – even if you're that landowner, suggests Barry Fisher, nationally recognized soil health specialist with the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service. How will you answer these five questions?

Q: Do you build soil organic matter?
Organic matter (carbon) may be the most important indicator of a farm’s productivity, says Fisher. Soil organic matter often determines the price farmers will pay to rent or buy land.

Finding a farmer who's interested in building organic matter by using practices like diverse rotations, no-till and cover crops is like finding a bank with a better rate on a certificate of deposit, contends Fisher.

Q: Do you test soil in all fields at least once every four years?
Regular soil testing can give an indication of trends in soil fertility, pH and organic matter levels in each field. These tests will determine each field's fertilizer needs. If a field has a history of manure application and very high fertility, you can save money by planting cover crops to keep those nutrients in place rather than applying more nutrients that may not be needed.

Q: Do you use no-till?
That "nice look" of a clean-tilled field is short-lived, he argues. “A bare soil field is subject to erosion and loss of organic matter

“No-till farming utilizes the crop residue to blanket the soil surface to protect it from intense rainfall and summer heat. This protective blanket conserves moisture for the crop and prevents soil loss from wind erosion, water erosion and CO2 (carbon) that could be burned off by summer heat.”

Q: Do you use cover crops?
“Like no-till, cover crops provide a green, protective blanket through the winter months or fallow times. The green-growing cover is collecting solar energy, putting down roots and providing habitat when the soil would otherwise be lifeless and barren,” says Fisher.  This habitat provides food and shelter for a broad population of wildlife above ground and beneficial organisms below ground.

 As the new life emerges, cover crops hold onto the nutrients left from the previous crop and in turn releases them to the next crop.  The solar rays these plants collect are powering photosynthesis, taking in CO2 from the atmosphere to produce food for the plant and the organisms living in the root zone.  This same process also releases clean oxygen to the air and builds nutrient rich organic matter in the soil.

Q: What can we do together to improve soil health on my land?
To improve soil health, landowners and tenants have to think in terms of the long-term. According to Fisher, the duration of the lease agreement is perhaps the most critical matter in encouraging the adoption of these soil health management systems. “Farmers can actually build the production capacity and resiliency of their landowner’s soil, but it may take several years to realize the full benefits of doing so,” Fisher says. He suggests considering multiple-year leases that provide tenure security for the tenant. Longer tenures give both landowners and tenants more opportunities to improve soil health and realize the resulting longer-term production and profitability gains through sustainable conservation practices.

Article courtesy of NRCS.

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