Items of interest for Marion County Farmers
Landowners: Do You Understand the Impact of Soil Health on the Value of Your Farm?
Donald Donovan, District Conservationist, NRCS, Rockville Field Office
Soil Health, just what does that mean and how does Soil Health impact the value of cropland? NRCS defines Soil Health as the “continued capacity of soil as a vital living system whereby plant and animal grow and environmental quality is sustained: a holistic approach in which plant, animal, and human health is promoted.” In more layman’s terms, if the soil is acting as an active, living biological system it will be healthier and therefore produce heathier food for man and animal.
So how does this whole concept of Soil Health apply to you, a landowner who rents their ground to a tenant or shares in the expenses and crop with a tenant? When you are considering a tenant to farm your land, what is the primary aspect in making your final decision? Is it the amount of cash rent you will receive per acre or is it the management practices your tenant will use that may harm the Soil Health of our farm or improve the Soil Health of your farm? Do you discuss what tillage systems will be used, what the crop rotation will be, whether cover crops will be used over the winter?
Just how do we know if a particular soil is health or not? There are several physical indicators that will give you a relative idea of the soil’s health.
Soil Organic Matter: The amount of organic matter in the soil determines the color of the soil, in short the more organic matter the darker the soil. Improved organic matter levels improve soil health. Carbon in the soil is destroyed or burned up when the soil is tilled due to oxidation. If you want to increase organic matter levels, you must reduce or eliminate tillage and move to a no-till or never till system. Even if you are in a fully never till system, you may only be able to drastically improve your organic matter levels by using cover crops within your cash crop. Take a look, how dark are your soils, what is the organic matter level of the soils on your farm?
Soil Aggregation: Soil aggregates are ‘clumps’ of soil particles that are held together by moist clay, organic matter (such as roots), by organic compounds (from bacteria and fungi) and by fungal hyphae (pronounced “highfee”). Soil structure describes the arrangement of the solid parts of the soil and of the pore space located between them. Improved aggregation leads to improved water infiltration, which means less runoff, thereby less erosion. And of course, improved infiltration means more moisture stored in the soil for times of dry weather. Looking at aggregation can be as simple as taking a spade and doing some digging. Look at the soil in the crop field where tillage has been used and then dig in a fence row where there no tillage has taken place. You will see the difference.
Earthworms: Yes something as simple as earthworms will indicate the relative health of your soil. Earthworms feed on residue and plant tissue on the soil surface. If there is not anything on the soil surface for them to eat, they move on or die. Tillage not only destroys their food source, but destroys their midens or tunnels. Would you stick around if a big piece of steel destroyed your home and food supply multiple times a year? Take some time to walk out into a tilled field and see if you see earthworm midens, little mounds that the earthworms build and live in. Then take a walk in a no-till field in August and see all the earthworm midens and where they have pulled corn stalks down in the hole. A field with a healthy soil will have numerous midens, indicating a healthy earthworm population. Earthworms are just one of the livestock of your soil, turning plant residue into organic matter.
Now that you have looked at your farm and made this simple assessment of the health of your farm’s soil, what should you do next? Are you concerned about your soil, do you see some things that bother you? Do you see fall tillage, very little residue on the soil surface, erosion and gullies, light soils that indicate low organic matter levels, no earthworms? Or do you see, no tillage, lots of residue protecting the soil surface, soils that are getting darker due to increased organic matter levels, no erosion, a green cover crop growing all winter, lot of earthworm midens?
If you see signs that concern you, take some time to talk to your tenant about his management system and express your concern. After all, he is farming your land, the land that you would like to pass down to your children and grandchildren in better shape than you got it. Discuss options that would improve the Soil Health of your farm, a system of continuous no-till, cover crops over the winter to protect the soil and improve organic matter levels, other management practices that improve Soil Health while protecting yield potential and income potential for your tenant. While income from renting your farm is no doubt very important to you, the long term Soil Health is just as important to protect the ability of your farm to produce a healthy yield and healthy food.
If you have any questions concerning the Soil Health of your farm contact the Marion County Soil & Water Conservation District at 317-786-1776.
You can locate your nearest USDA Service Center at our website http://www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/main/in/contact/local/. Farmers who have never worked with NRCS before and who want to make improvements to the land they own or lease can find out more on the Get Started with NRCS webpage http://www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/detailfull/national/home/?cid=stelprdb1193811.