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It Can be Scary to Make the Switch to Soil Health
by LuAnn Rolling, District Conservationist
Barry Fisher, recently retired from the USDA in the NRCS Soil Health Division, is now a Certified Crop Advisor and operates Fisher Soil Health, a consulting firm specializing in soil health and regenerative farming.  In an article in the April 2022 Issue of No-Till Farmer he says he can understand that it’s easy for a producer to be complacent about soil health, particularly when overall yields continue to climb and growers are raising some of the best crops of their careers.  He states that, “Psychologically, it’s a challenge to make management decisions which pose risks to a long string of successful harvests.”  

Fisher acknowledges that farmers tend to take the same path they took last year because they have so much invested in outlay and to make a change is a huge risk that threatens their self-preservation instinct.  He points out that it is ironic, but as yields have continued to climb, studies show some of the most productive soils have lost more than half of their soil organic matter. “Furthermore, if we’re selecting hybrids grown on eroded soils that have lost much of their biological activity we’re possibly selecting away from the symbiotic relationship many plants have naturally.”

While it’s intuitive that a producer would want to build organic matter if they do take a different path, say start using cover crops, there needs to be obvious improvement to offset the reluctance to change. According to Fisher that means we need to track true gains in soil function. “We have to think of this as a complete system, and in the back of our minds we need to be monitoring and measuring the things that track our progress.”

Studies show that no-till alone is not enough to rebuild soil carbon (organic matter) levels. Fisher explains that when we add cover crops to no-till farming we begin to see improvements in carbon levels and when we add other practices like crop diversity we see even faster buildup of carbon in the soil.

Lack of soil health can lead to poor aggregate stability which is obvious by gullies after a rain and crusting. Fisher says even without obvious signs of poor aggregate stability a field may be suffering “vertical erosion” where small particles are moving into the pores.  This silting from above impedes water infiltration and damages soil function. He says numerous studies show increasing carbon can repair soil function and reverse its damaging effects on production. “Improving soil function is about optimizing and understanding all aspects of the conservation cropping system. When soil health becomes the central focus of every operation each practice begins to complement and enhance the others of the system.”

When a producer applies fertilizer to a field only 30 – 40% typically winds up in the crop. Fisher says that most producers don’t understand that over 50% of a crop’s nutrient supply comes from the biology in the soil and comes from the soil itself. He says, “as growers begin to plant green and manage for additional soil organic matter, we’re intentionally mastering the management of sequestering carbon in the soil. “We’re doing it while at the same time raising good crops – and not at the loss of our cropland’s productivity.”