I started on my soil health journey in 2008 with the simple mission of someday offering my children the opportunity to be part of a healthy system that could be easily sustained.
At the time, I had been farming roughly 600 acres consisting of corn, wheat and soybeans with my father since 1991 and our operation was farming the resource to get a crop. Once I knew we had to change things on the farm, I started doing some research and first implemented reduced tillage. After starting this practice, it didn’t take long to start seeing results in the soil. By the following spring we found out that the soil was reacting differently when it wasn’t being tilled. By reducing the disturbance and not destroying the soil structure, we were able to improve our soil structure and in turn, retain moisture versus having it run off and turn to instant mud.
Another benefit was that we had nightcrawlers that were previously nonexistent. As time went on, we were also able to see the input costs started to drop, making what we were doing more profitable. With less tillage, we saved on fuel cost and time it took in the fall to get all the work done before freezing up. Fewer emissions are being released into our atmosphere with less equipment use.
After having done reduced tillage for a few years and seeing great improvement, I decided it was time we implemented another soil health practice. I started to read more about cover crops and the need to have a living root in the soil profile and keep the ground covered as much as possible. In 2011, we decided we were going to fly a cover crop mix (this mix was turnips, tillage radish, crimson clover, annual rye and rapeseed) onto standing corn to see if this was something that could be work for us and our operation.
That year after the corn was off, we were able to let the 50 head stock cows graze into December. This was a huge benefit to us, as we would normally have to start feeding them in the lot in October. These extra grazing months saved us both time and money.
Once cattle were moved in late December, we left the ground to sit and planned for no-till soybeans the following spring. When we started with cover crops, the soil started acting like a sponge. Our soil was retaining moisture instead of letting it sit on the surface, reducing erosion and allowing the water to replenish our aquifers.
Another benefit was the snow that remained all white during the winter while the neighbors experienced black snow from soil loss through erosion. We were able to significantly reduce erosion, keeping sediment and nutrients out of surface waters.
Come springtime, we were able to start planting several days earlier than the neighbors. This was when we really knew that the practices we were implementing were saving the soil while also benefiting us.
The next thing that became obvious was that organic levels started to increase, which means I didn’t need to apply as much nitrogen. Reduction in tillage, along with the use of cover crops allowed us to stop burning up and releasing our soil carbon to the atmosphere, and we began capturing carbon from the air and sequestering it in our soils.
In 2010 I was applying 180 pounds of nitrogen to produce 200-bushel corn. Today it takes 140 pounds of nitrogen to produce the same yields, which is clearly saving me money. On side by side testing, I save on average $73 per acre on inputs without sacrificing yield. With the cost of $20 per acre to plant cover crops, I have been profiting roughly $50 per acre just by the decreased inputs for the past eight years.
Once the soil became healthy again, we noticed so many other benefits that we didn’t even know we needed, as well as benefits to wildlife and our surface waters. We continue to look for ways to improve our soil health every year and how to make it better for generations to come.
Published Tri-State Neighbor 4/22/2020 https://www.agupdate.com/tristateneighbor/opinion/columnists/guest-column-farmers-focus-on-soil-health-for-the-future/article_4ab0b82e-78d7-11ea-9eec-031cf1d99362.html