Higher commodity prices have added extra revenue for many Indiana farms. The big question to ask yourself is, how will you reinvest this year’s profits? During “good” times, farmers often upgrade machinery or invest in farm infrastructure improvements such as grain bins or extra shop space.
Instead of defaulting to investing in this type of infrastructure, take time to consider putting a small portion of this year’s extra profit toward your soil infrastructure. Yes, soil is infrastructure too, and it is one of your most important forms of infrastructure.
Soil and water management have a profound impact on the success or failure of a crop — much more so than the age of the combine that harvests it. Still, many invest in machinery because that is where most of our time on the land is spent.
After this harvest is over, grab a shovel and go for a walk to see what infrastructure upgrades your soil needs. Here are five ways that investing in soil health can pay big:
1. Install tile or repair existing tile. The first step to improving soil health starts with drainage, so keep this in mind before expecting no-till and cover crops to work miracles in ponded areas.
2. Check your soil’s pH level. Lime can have a huge return on investment, especially when fertilizer prices are high, as they are today. Maintaining adequate calcium levels in the soil can also improve soil structure, which helps with infiltration of water into the soil and with drainage.
3. Dig and look for compacted layers. These will show up as horizontal blocky layers in the soil profile. In extreme cases, you will see crop roots turn horizontally where these zones are encountered. Consider using deep-rooted cover crops like radish, annual ryegrass or rapeseed to break up layers of hardpan when you can.
4. Keep soil covered during winter. Soil erosion and nutrient leaching may not show up on balance sheets, but the costs are still there. Use cover crops and no-till to keep valuable topsoil and nutrients on your farm. If you have experience with cover crops but discontinued their use due to tight margins, this is the year to go back to covers. It’s not too late to plant cereal rye, a cover crop that can still perform well next spring when planted late in the fall.
5. Improve soil function. Soil health is defined as the continued capacity of the soil to function as a living, breathing ecosystem that sustains plants, animals and humans. Upgrading soil infrastructure will help you improve soil function, which in turn benefits the plants growing in the soil.
If you have made some of these observations on your farm, now is the time to make the change needed to fix these issues. It will not be any easier when corn is $3 per bushel again. Henry Ford said, “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.”
Nielsen is a district conservationist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service. She writes on behalf of the Indiana Conservation Partnership.