NRCS recommendations for improving soil health

Why would farm landowners be interested in the topic of soil health?  Managing soil health helps to increase water infiltration, water holding capacity, and nutrient availability and reduces runoff, erosion, and nutrient leaching.  Because the economic value of cropland is largely based on its ability to produce a crop, improving soil health helps to protect the long-term value of this investment.  As a landowner, do you understand soil health and what your renters do to impact (improve or decrease) soil health? What practices can you encourage to improve soil health?

NRCS recommends farmland owners ask (potential) renters these five soil health questions.

1) Do you build organic matter in the soil? The level of organic matter has a big impact on the farm’s productivity.  No till, cover crops, and diverse rotations all have the potential to build organic matter.
2) Do you test the soil at least once every 4 years? Maintaining soil fertility and pH levels are important aspects of productivity.  Regular soil testing can give an indication of trends in soil fertility, pH and organic matter levels in each field.  They indicate fertilizer needs.  Fields with very high fertility could benefit more from cover crop use to keep the nutrients in place than adding even more fertilizer.  Depending on the length of a lease, either the renter or landowner can pay for the soil sampling. 
3) Do you use no till practices?  Crop residue helps to protect the soil surface from erosion.  Tillage breaks up the soil aggregates, increases the potential for soil erosion, and causes organic matter to break down faster.  No till soils have better infiltration because the soil pores, which are created by earthworms and roots, are maintained.  They also hold together (aggregate) better and can withstand more extreme weather events. 
4) Do you use cover crops?  Cover crops are planted near or after harvest to provide cover over-winter on soils that would otherwise be bare.  Their roots and surface cover help to protect the soil from erosion and spring rains.  Depending on what is planted, they can help to scavenge nutrients, reduce compaction, and add organic matter to the soil.  Winter-hardy species, like cereal rye, are encouraged in this area because they can be planted later (by October 21 for cost-share) and grow later in the season.  However, they need to be terminated in the spring by herbicide or tillage.  Winter-kill species, like oats, have an early seeding deadline of September 9 if receiving cost-share, which is far earlier than most people would be able to plant unless utilizing aerial application or other interseeding method.
5) What can we do together to improve soil health on my land? The duration of the lease can have a big impact on adoption of soil health practices.  Many of these soil health building practices take several years to realize their benefits.  Longer lease tenure provides both landowners and tenants greater opportunities to improve soil health and realize the many benefits. 
There are four main principles to improve soil health and sustainability.  Those include increasing crop system diversity, managing soils by disturbing them less, keep plants growing throughout the year (like cover crops), and keep the soil covered as much as possible by perennial crops, cover crops, or surface residue.  Consider talking to your tenant about protecting and improving soil health.  There may be cost-share assistance available through the SWCD/NRCS office for trying new practices.

If you have questions about soil health, please contact the Allamakee SWCD/NRCS for more information by calling 563-568-2246 ext. 3, stopping by 635 9th St NW or email