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Change management to boost soil health

TAGS: Tillage
Photos by Caley Gasch, NDSU Close-up of soil
LOOK BELOW: By leaving the surface undisturbed, the soil below creates a healthy habitat for bacteria and fungi, and within time creates a more favorable environment for earthworms to return to aid in root penetration.
Technologies catch up with the desire to reduce tillage.

The age-old question “Why can’t this farming practice work here?” has followed Aaron Daigh north from his roots in Arkansas to a stop in Iowa and now to his new home as associate professor of soil physics and hydrology in the North Dakota State University Department of Soil Science.

“I was born and raised in Arkansas, and then I spent a number of years in Iowa doing research. And now I’m up in North Dakota, and I’ve heard that same comment on not just tillage, but a number of systems all the way up,” he said. “Even down in Arkansas, folks say that about ‘Oh, that’s what the folks in Louisiana and down in Mississippi do.’ So we hear this comment kind of everywhere we go.”

Daigh continues to hear that same question that certain practices aren’t possible here regardless of wherever “here” is. “But then seeing great anecdotes and hearing stories and seeing people’s farms of them actually doing these things is fantastic evidence in itself,” he said.

Time for change

A transition to a different way of doing things usually has constraints, and a switch in tillage practices is no different. Daigh, who has been at NDSU since late 2013, said earlier ideas of farmers changing tillage practices weren’t necessarily ill-thought, but rather ill-timed. Maybe more accurately, producers with those thoughts were merely ahead of their time.

“One of the things that we’ve really seen is with tillage back in the day, several decades ago, maybe back in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, some of the practices were difficult to do,” he said. “But it wasn’t necessarily because it was the system or the approach, or that the idea was wrong in itself or wasn’t good. It was the technology just hadn’t caught up to the concept yet.”

Cover crops and soybeans

Research over the years has proven the relationship between tillage and soil quality, showing how destructive tillage is to soil and its biological aspects.

Advancements with planters and the genetics of the crops being planted allowed “us to do a lot more and experiment with our lands a lot more inside our system, such as reducing tillage,” Daigh said. He suggests that producers need to get beyond merely striving for the highest yields on a piece of ground.

“What it really comes down to is the health of the land and whether or not you’re being profitable on it,” he said. “And with our new technologies, we can now start reducing some of our inputs, and one of the easiest ways to reduce inputs these days is reducing a couple passes on the field.”

Create a better soil habitat

A change in tillage practices, aside from being a change in thinking, is also a change in management systems. Caley Gasch, assistant professor of soil health research in the NDSU Department of Soil Science, said, “When we think about how the soil is changing with those transitions, a lot of it does have to do with the type of habitat that the soil provides to all the soil organisms, including plant roots.”

Gasch joined Daigh and Anthony Bly, South Dakota State University Extension soils field specialist, on a panel during the Dec. 8-9 Dakota Innovation Research and Technology (DIRT) Workshop, a virtual event hosted by NDSU Extension.

Gasch explained that as tillage practices change, “soil changes physically, and that just translates to different conditions that might support different types of organisms in the soil. As the soil starts to change, those habitat characteristics change as well, which takes time.”

She said some soil organisms, such as bacteria and fungi, are quick to respond and can grow quite a bit in a season. The action of plant roots over the course of one growing season “can do a lot of good to improve those habitat conditions.”

Gasch said farmers can start to see that aggregation develop and weak aggregates start to form within a year. “You can see them just by digging in the field, and the strength of that structure just continues to develop as those soils continue to be managed with less disturbance.”

Within three to five years, Gasch said producers will “start to see really strong structure, developing lots of pore spaces and aeration. We start to see earthworms migrating back into soils that have been managed under intensive tillage for many years, and you start to see roots penetrating deeper and exploring more of the soil because it’s easier to root into.”

Cut back on tillage

Just as technology improvements have made the conversion to reduced-tillage or no-till systems successful, research over the years has proven the relationship between tillage and soil health.

“We know so much about how destructive tillage is to soil and the biological aspects,” Gasch said. “All you have to do is just stop or back off a little bit. Because the natural tendency of a soil is to develop that beautiful structure and host so much biological activity that can translate to producing a healthier crop. Those changes tend to happen pretty quickly,

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