February 26, 2014
Defining soil health is a bit like defining sustainable agriculture. It may mean different things to different people. Indiana is recognized as a leader in soil health nationally, largely because of several efforts to implement continuous no-till and cover crop systems to improve soil structure.
Typically, soil structure and organic matter content improve over time in reduced tillage and no-till systems. Tests taken for the Conservation Cropping Systems Initiative as part of a grant program indicate that there are several pieces to soil health.
Soil health tests: Will fields with cover crops score higher on soil health tests? That question remains to be answered. Soil health tests are a relatively new concept for commercial use in agriculture.
Lisa Holscher, based in Petersburg, is coordinator of training sites and 12 cooperating farmers who are using reduced tillage techniques and putting out plots each year for practices designed to improve soil health. Eileen Kladivko, a Purdue University agronomist, is in charge of the grant, and oversees testing for soil health.
Her tests break soil health into structure, soil fertility and total biological activity in the soil. Farmers who have practiced no-till for a long time tend to score well in soil structure and fairly well in soil fertility. Their scores are much lower in biological activity.
However, experts say that may be a function of the test and the scale used for comparison purposes. Obviously, no-till soils are higher in earthworms and typically in overall biological activity.
Danny Greene, Franklin, an Indiana Certified Crop Adviser and owner of Greene Ag Consulting, LLC., told farmers recently that he will offer to pull soil health tests for clients this year. Chad Wagler, who works with Greene, explains that the tests may become their basis for all available nitrogen rate sampling in 2014. Soil samples for soil health tests are kept moist and shipped to a lab.
"The soil health test tries to estimate the amount of nutrients that can be released from the soil," Greene says. "We're going to record where we pull soil health tests with an RTK-GPS unit on our ATV. Once we get results back, we can share them with customers and explain what the results mean."
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