The buzz around coffee shops includes the price of fertilizer and rumors of potential shortages. Farmers are contemplating planting more soybeans in 2022, but potash and phosphorus supplies may be short and cost more also. Unfortunately, there may not be much you can do in the short term, but over time, you can develop a system to deal with the ups and downs of input costs.
Your most valuable resource is the soil. It is a dynamic and active medium full of microscopic life just waiting to work for you by providing nutrients for your crops. Dirt is just the opposite: a microscopic desert requiring commercial inputs to produce a crop. The goal of turning dirt into soil is to create a system that will produce crops using nitrogen made available from the atmosphere and other nutrients made available by a soil that is cycling nutrients efficiently.
Do you have dirt or soil? The primary way to build soil and make it more efficient in nitrogen use is by adding soil carbon and increasing soil organic matter levels.
Larry Phelan of Ohio State University says keeping soil high in soil carbon is a key factor in buffering nitrogen and keeping it available to plants. Higher levels of soil organic matter provide a healthier environment for microbial communities. They recycle available soil nutrients to meet a growing crop’s nutritional needs.
Most commercial nitrogen fertilizer isn’t in a form that plant roots can use. It must be converted by soil microbiology into a usable form. The higher the soil organic matter level, the more active the soil biology, resulting in more efficient conversion of nitrogen.
Building organic matter
Farmers moving to systems geared toward improving soil health find they can raise soil organic matter levels. Is it easy? No. Does it happen quickly? Again, no!
While changing to no-till will make a difference, it is not enough. The only way to effectively impact soil organic matter levels is to switch to no-till with cover crops. A growing crop capturing sunlight every day and turning it into soil carbon is the only way to increase levels.
In the short term, faced with historically high fertilizer prices, see if manure is available in your area. Manure can be more economical than commercial fertilizer and provides bonuses while building a healthy soil.
The obvious benefit is nutrient value for N, P and K, depending on your soil test. But manure also has micronutrients and organic matter, which are important for increasing soil carbon. It also adds microorganisms important for healthy soil biology.
Make sure nutrients in manure stay put. Cover crops are a great tool to provide a living plant that takes up nutrients and holds them until the commodity crop is ready to use them. Certain cover crops can also add them by fixing nitrogen at their roots.
Take a step toward being less dependent on commercial inputs by starting on your soil health journey. In Indiana, a great support system is there to help you along the way.
The Indiana Conservation Partnership and farmers making these systems work are available to help you make the necessary adjustments. If you are ready to take that step, contact your local soil and water conservation district or Natural Resources Conservation Service office for assistance in making your farm more nutrient efficient.
Donovan and Harrison are district conservationists for NRCS. They write on behalf of the Indiana Conservation Partnership.