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Three ways to boost soil health on your farm

While Jed Clampett became rich after striking “black gold” back in 1962, farmers are striking it rich now with another type of “black gold” – healthy soil.

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While Jed Clampett became rich after striking “black gold” back in 1962, farmers are striking it rich now with another type of “black gold” – healthy soil. Although the classic TV show wasn’t referring to soil back in the day, it should have because healthy, nutrient-dense soil is the black gold of the farming community. The rich, organic matter that supports healthy root systems and keeps all of the microorganisms and earthworms happy results in bountiful crops without the worry of erosion or soil run-off.

The concept of soil health has been around for decades, but the terminology only became part of the farming and land management vernacular in the mid-1980s, according to Kim Kroll, Associate Director of USDA’s Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE).

“The term really resonated well within the farming and science communities,” says Kroll, noting that, finally, there was a common phrase that incorporated specific sustainable agriculture practices that resulted in fertile soil and less erosion.

“Soil is a depletable resource,” says Jason Randall, an Indiana farmland landowner.

Randall owns a 150-acre farm in the Big Pine Watershed in Indiana – a region designated as a highly erodible area by the federal government. For Randall, adopting sustainable agriculture practices not only helps keep land healthy, but boosts the overall value of the farm where these practices are established. On the cusp of his third year of owning the Big Pine farmland, Randall is establishing measures to keep the resource where it needs to be through practices like planting cover crops.

“There is a responsibility in land ownership,” says Randall. “When we commit to doing a cover crop, that means that the farmer is doing extra work because he’s also managing the cash crop, whether it’s corn or something else.”

Soil health is a practice that both landowners and farmers can agree on. Better soil improves the land’s economic output and soil improvement can often be seen after only a handful of seasons. By focusing on increasing soil health, farmers and landowners often see better crop yields, enhanced water quality and better drought resistance. Fostering good soil can also increase carbon sequestration and provide a healthy pollinator habitat, which is beneficial to both the crops grown as well as other native flora critical for a healthy habitat.

What's the Value of Your Land?

Interested in better soil for long-term land health? Here’s three ways to do that:

Cover Crops

Tamara Benjamin, Assistant Program Leader of Diversified Farming and Food Systems at Purdue University, suggests starting with cover crops – one of the easiest ways to boost soil health – and often a “gateway” into other sustainable agriculture practices. Cover crops are used to improve soil aggregation, reduce erosion, increase soil microbes, and improve and manage nutrient density by “scavenging nitrogen from the soil during typically fallow months,” according to researchers Jennifer Woodyard and Eileen Kladivko at Purdue University College of Agriculture. Common cover crops include annuals like rye, barley, wheat and oats; annual or perennials like ryegrass; and warm-season grasses like sorghum-sudan grass, according to SARE. Deciding which type works best for your land can be determined by your specific soil conditions, the climate you live in and what you hope to achieve by utilizing a cover crop.


Go No-Till or, at least, Decrease Till

Try to embrace the adage, “let sleeping dogs lie,” with regard to your tillage system. Reducing the amount of tillage on your fields lessens soil disruptions and keeps aggregates from blowing or washing away, according to Woodyard and Kladivko. Further, Benjamin says it helps increase overall biodiversity on your farm since continual tillage can disturb important microorganisms, earthworms and even interrupt the critical mycorrhizal fungi network that connects all of the microscopic living things that help crops thrive.

“With cover crops and reduced tillage, you reduce erosion and erosion impacts your soil health,” says Kroll. “But it also reduces the impact on the environment. So, there’s that economic cost that the farmer doesn’t see directly, but the community sees instead.”


Understand Nutrient Management

If you want crops to grow during the “on” season, you need to ensure the soil is being “fed” during the “off” season. This means reevaluating fertilizer application after decreasing tillage and adding cover crops as well as testing soil every few years to adjust the recipe for success. For some, the introduction of these practices to improve soil health can turn into a better bottom line, making the initial investments or changes in farming systems incredibly beneficial.

“The folks that have been doing this for 10, 20, 30, 40 years say ‘I don’t buy fertilizer anymore or I’ve reduced my fertilizer costs’,” says Kroll. “And those are often huge costs.”

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