Soil health boosts crop health and more – Nathen Nysse, Peninsula Pride Farms, LLC
Soil health is not just a simple test or a yield map that can tell us if we are proficient or not. As some of my best producers have openly admitted, soil health is a concept that takes multiple years of patience and care for the land to complete. From my perspective, and 15 years of experience walking fields, the following steps can help increase soil health.
- Healthy soil has the proper physical properties. Water holding capacity, air, nutrients (macro and micronutrients) and soil microbes all function together properly to increase the soil’s tilth (the physical properties of the soil). In the 1900s, farmers recognized the benefits of soil health by improved yields, and today’s farmers recognize the same benefits. The practices that we currently use are very similar to those used back then.
- Use rotation to benefit all your crops. When we grow the same thing over and over, we are not doing anything to support soil health. Corn and soybean rotations are a great example, but is it the best option? Our efforts are not recognized until a lot of experts come together to count the soil microbes and discuss the numbers and species of critters that can occupy a soil space. That relationship is huge, and we need to recognize its importance.
- Growing alfalfa and grass forages is critical to soil health. By reducing tillage for a few years and adding this mix, we see huge increases in earthworm activity. These plants leave a fibrous or taproot system behind that helps increase our organic matter levels. These small increases help when this crop is removed and recycled in the rotation. This rotation also helps reduce surface losses of our soil, which is critical to any farmer and his or her operation.
- Using winter cover crops is a task we must all learn to incorporate. Driving through the countryside is often rewarding and eye-opening. Corn stalks or cover crops always have white pure snow. Brown snow in the ditches indicates that something in this system needs to change. Adding a winter cover, like wheat, triticale or rye, is an excellent way to promote no-till and reduce our carbon footprint. This can be a multi-use crop if it is harvested as forage or planted in the spring.
- Adding manure has long been the agronomist’s fast track to improve the soil. I cannot stress this enough. Animal wastes are not wastes but a super tool to improve soil health. It’s what I use in my garden and what works well on a farm scale. If manure is applied to land where it has not been used for several years, the soil behaves completely differently for the next few years because of this application. Animal nutrients help bring back a dead soil much faster than any tillage or rotation change can possibly promote.
- Finally, the most important comment of all, travel in the fields when and where needed cautiously. I instructed a client to no-till plant a field two springs ago after a wet spell of not planting. After walking the field with me, the client said he will wait until the field is perfect. I was shocked that he was willing to wait, but that crop never looked better because of his philosophy. I understand that this is not always possible, but reducing your footprint when harvesting is key to improving soil health. Healthy soil has the proper physical properties. When this mix is not achieved, soil health is lost. Travel carefully and refrain from making unnecessary trips across the field.
Rotating crops, adding forages, like alfalfa and grasses, using winter cover crops, adding animal nutrients, and only traveling on fields going when conditions support harvest whenever possible are simple ways to help improve your soil health.