Heathy soil is more than a good idea

Make your new regenerative practices work for your farm

So you’ve chosen to incorporate some new regenerative agriculture practices on your farm. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but how do you ensure it will have real, tangible benefits? What works for others may not work for you. Setting soil health goals related to specific improvements you want to make on your farm is the most practical way to ultimately drive results. And you might see some unexpected benefits as well.

Learn how other farmers set soil health goals that work for them.

Common soil health goals

I have compiled a list of goals typically considered by farmers. While each one will have a different impact, I recommend starting with a goal that addresses an existing challenge on your farm.

1. Minimize runoff/erosion – Consider implementing fast-growing cover crops and/or reducing tillage. Eroded soil contains nutrients and valuable soil organic carbon necessary to maintain a resilient system and minimize fertilizer loss.

2. Reduce weed pressure/herbicide resistance – As more weeds develop herbicide resistance and few new herbicide modes of action can control them, you may need to look at alternatives to prevent high weed pressure. Using a high biomass cover crop like cereal rye adds competition for the early spring flush of weeds and creates an allelopathic effect.

3. Build organic matter  - This is the first step to increase soil organic carbon. Adding more crop biomass to the soil through residue and cover crops prevents the air from reaching the soil, which in turn limits the loss of more soil carbon. Higher organic matter also improves soil structure characteristics like soil aggregation, nutrient cycling, and water holding capacity.  

4. Increase yield resiliency – With increasing variability in weather patterns, crops are under more stress throughout the growing season. Building soil health gives crops more resiliency during the growing season, which means they handle stress better and produce more consistent yields.  

5. Reduce soil compaction/hardpan – Soil compaction and hard pan prevent water infiltration and can impact soil structure. Implementing soil health practices like the use of specific tillage tools and cover crops can help improve these conditions.

6. Increase nutrient management and water quality – Many watersheds are experiencing significant fresh water impacts and farmers are refining their nutrient management practices by targeting fertilizer management and incorporating cover crops to hold excess nutrients in the topsoil.

Develop your goal

What issues would you like to address on your farm? Choose goals that are field or farm specific based on soil type, cropping history, terrain, etc. Depending on the goal you set, you may realize multiple benefits, but beware. Trying to do everything at the same time could mean you will make little progress in any area. Be patient, because soil health goals will take time to achieve. It can take several years to see improvements, but your determination will reward you.  

Picking a specific goal helps you focus on the realities of your farm. It lays the ground work for success so you can refine your farming practices, save money, and boost your confidence. There is no one-size-fits-all approach, so start slow and work up to it.

Sources:

https://www.sare.org/publications/building-soils-for-better-crops/compaction/#surface-sealing-and-crusting

https://extension.umn.edu/soil-management-and-health/reducing-tillage-intensity

https://www.sare.org/publications/managing-cover-crops-profitably/selecting-the-best/

https://soilhealthinstitute.org/economics/

https://www.sare.org/publications/building-soils-for-better-crops/compaction/#surface-sealing-and-crusting

Anna Teeter

Anna Teeter recently joined Cargill as Conservation Agronomist with Cargill’s regenerative agriculture program. Her goal is to help farmers successfully implement soil health practices while continuing to advocate for agriculture. Anna brings extensive hands-on experience having worked with the University of Wisconsin-Madison extension services, private ag consulting services, and most recently the Soil Health Partnership, which led her to Cargill. She has a Bachelor of Science in Agronomy and Life Sciences Communications from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Masters of Science in Soil Science.

Soil health in a time of rising fertilizer costs

Get to know the basics of carbon markets

A changing conversation in Washington

The power of carbon in soil

Steps to reduce tillage on your farm

Anna’s top six soil health resources