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Healthy soils can make your operation more profitable and weather-resistant, fortifying your business for future generations. But building or repairing soil health can take years. Tom Lawler, an agronomist with Indigo Ag, says it’s hard to compare one farmer’s journey to another’s. “It depends how hard a person wants to push it, how ready they are to view things with a different mindset,” he says.
That’s because changing your soil’s health often means changing your practices. Lawler, who is also a sixth-generation farmer, says the desire for greater near-term profitability paired with the desire for passing down land with healthier soils to the next generation can both have long-term payoffs. While starting to change practices can be intimidating and time consuming, not changing them – and not repairing your soil’s health – could have even more difficult and time consuming consequences.
This article covers two practice changes that can dramatically improve soil health (cover crops and reduced tillage) and how finding the right communities and understanding the benchmarks for healthy soil are two useful ways to successfully implement these practices.
Finding a community
Lawler says a critical first step, as with anything in farming, is finding support. He suggests local soil health groups, watershed groups, and even social media groups. Indigo agronomists can also be an essential part of the support team. The basic principles of successful farming will remain the same – readiness for different situations based on your knowledge, experience, and skillset – but these networks will be important collaborators on this different approach to farming.
“There’ll come a moment where you’re not achieving the success you thought you would, or you run into a pitfall or a trap – a situation where things don’t go right,” Lawler says. “That’s okay, because you’ll have a group in your corner with more experience to lean on, ask for advice, and get encouragement from. That’s essential for your success.”
Understand benchmarks for soil health
After you assemble a support network, your next step is to develop a comprehensive understanding of healthy soil. Every farmer knows how important the top six inches of her land is – an advanced subaquatic ecosystem, teeming with life and powered by photosynthesis. But how do you know when the cover crops or reduced tillage are actually building soil health? Here are three metrics to keep an eye on:
- Infiltration – Good water infiltration means your soil holds more plant-available water during dry spells and quickly drains excess water away from the root zone after intense rainfalls. During especially wet years, better water infiltration means your soil can shed excess water away from the root zone, reducing saturated conditions that rob nutrients while stunting crops. How fast does water enter into your soil? Layler says, “If it takes ten minutes for one inch of rain to penetrate your soil, that’s not too bad. But a couple of years of cover cropping and reduced tillage can get it down a couple of minutes – and that’s a big improvement, especially in a flash flood or downpour event.” If you have struggled historically with water infiltration above ten minutes, then a big change will likely be noticeable.
- Root test – What do you see when you dig up roots? If it starts as horizontal layers, but over time turns into a granular-type structure, often called a “chocolate cake” like structure, blended together and dense, you are making progress. “We won’t see this change throughout the entire profile,” Lawler says, “but we will definitely see it around the roots.” That “chocolate cake” structure is proof that your soil has good breathability – air can cycle in and out. This movement of oxygen is important for the microbes in your soil to effectively do their jobs, building structure, breaking down residue, and cycling other key nutrients. More air space also means more room for holding onto plant-available water and shedding excess water.
- Earthworm counts – Take a shovel-full of soil and count how many earthworms you see. Lawler says, at first, you might see a few earthworms, or none at all. In a year after implementing cover crops or reduced tillage, you can see a ton more. “The holy grail is 25 earthworms per shovel,” Lawler says, because an abundance of earthworms aerate the soil, concentrate nutrients, and process residue. The more earthworms you have, for example, the more earthworm excrement – or “vermicast – you will have in your land. Soil with vermicast has triple the calcium, double to triple the nitrogen, and higher levels of phosphorus and potassium compared to the surrounding soil.
These three tests are easy to conduct, and can keep you motivated during a soil health journey.
Disclaimer. Individual grower experiences may vary. You should independently consider the risks and benefits of the adoption of any agronomic practices on your farmland.