Four Ways to Farm for Soil Health

The Soil Health movement has gained tremendous momentum in the past few years, with practitioners championing no-till and cover crop usage as a path to improved yields, reduced weed pressure and improved “resilience” of farm fields to withstand extreme weather conditions. A fast-paced Soil Health session at Commodity Classic featured soil health tips from several soil health veterans, with several observations from years of practice.

1. Think ahead.

Terry Wehlander, who farms in Sargent County, North Dakota, uses cover crop mixes to keep something growing on his fields year-round. He said growers must have a goal in mind before leaping into cover crop adoption. For instance, rye grown before soybeans helps keep weeds down plus uses surplus soil moisture prior to soybean planting. He adds radish seed to wheat seed when planting, just to encourage deeper root growth. “Making things fit in your system,” he said. “You don’t have to overhaul what you’re already doing. Just start with a simple blend.”

2. Changes can be rapid.

Improvements to organic matter and soil structure can occur fairly quickly, said Abbey Wick, soil health specialist at North Dakota State University. First, break up a corn and soybean rotation with a grass crop, like wheat, the roots of which work to hold soil granules together. Add in cover crop mixes after cash crops are harvested to keep the soil surface covered and provide living roots for the soil “livestock” to feed on, she said. Do these things and you should see improved soil texture and organic matter in just a few years.

3. Feed the soil.

Farmers are attuned to meeting the nutrient needs of crops. But perhaps a better alternative would be to meet the soil’s needs, said Paulo Pagliari, soil scientist at the University of Minnesota. Four years of research covering 1,110 plots at U of M proved that, as long as fields were fertilized according to what the crops needed, soil microbial activity did not increase. “We started thinking, we were feeding the plants, but maybe we need to feed the soil, which in turn would feed the plant,” he explained. Pagliari and his team began fertilizing according to grid soil sample results, added in cover crop mixes of three to five species, and saw a boost in microbial activity.

4. Does it pay?

Lee Briese, a crop consultant from Edgeley, North Dakota, said there are five types of cover crops: warm and cool season grasses, warm and cool season broadleaves, and brassicas. “If you grow corn, wheat and soybeans, you’ve already got three of the five. You just need cool season broadleaves and brassicas,” he said. Farmers don’t always need to plant expensive cover crop mixes; cheap, single species covers still work wonders. He cited adding diversity, moisture management, less nitrogen loss and better organic matter as reasons to adopt cover crops.