Soil health is a term that is being used with increased regularity in agriculture, though no one seems quite sure exactly what it means.
“Soil health is a term you can’t define. Define a beautiful woman or a handsome man —you can’t define that. You can’t define soil health either, but you know one when you see it,” said Dwayne Beck, manager of Dakota Lakes Research Farm and a speaker at today’s Conservation Tillage Conference in Ada. “We spend a lot of time trying to define what we should or should not do and not focusing on where we should be. Much of the research and management effort is focused on optimizing a single component instead of acting to get where we want to be. It is like driving down the highway by looking at the ditch. Where do you want Ohio agriculture to be in 200 years?”
Ohio Ag Net’s Dale Minyo talks to Dwayne Beck on soil health.
John Lundgren also had more to add at the Conservation Tillage Conference regarding his specialty of insects.
Beck strongly argues that a move away from tillage to cover crops and no-till is the path to developing those productive but hard-to-define healthy soils every farmer is seeking. The Dakota Lakes Research Farm demonstrates his point. The farm is a cooperative effort between South Dakota State University and the Dakota Lakes Research Farm Corporation, a not-for-profit corporation established and owned by area farmers. The production enterprise is managed so that the research program is optimized with the goal of making as much money as possible on the production enterprise.
Since 1990, the farm has been 100% no-till and cover crops have been an increasingly important component of the farm.
“We are right along Missouri River and very concerned about phosphorus. We’re not getting phosphorus responses in long-term no-till even with the low levels we apply. We have incredible mycorrhizae in the soil that supplies our phosphorus,” he said.
The dramatic improvements in the soil health on the farm have benefitted every aspect of production — reducing inputs, increasing water infiltration and efficiency and boosting yields. One of the key components of this transformation is the increasing organic matter in the soil.
“All tillage tools reduce infiltration, reduce organic matter and increase weeds,” Beck said. “The problem you have in Ohio is that you have too much water in the spring and it is too dry in the summer because you have taken all of the organic matter out of your soil and it can’t hold the moisture.”
Also at the event, Ohio State University researchers talked about and demonstrated a new tool that allows farmers to easily predict soil organic matter content and can help them make decisions about what practices will most benefit their soil health.
“Farmers are aware that soil organic matter is the foundation of sustainable agriculture for enhanced ecosystem services,” said Rafiq Islam, soil, water and bioenergy resources program leader at Ohio State University’s South Centers in Piketon. “How you farm today will affect the amount of soil organic matter content your fields will have in years to come, so it’s important to choose sustainable production practices that sustain soil health and protect long-term productivity.”
The soil organic matter calculator can benefit growers by providing information for more timely planting and harvesting, reducing operating costs, increasing farm income, and building healthier soils. The tool is designed to allow farmers to easily evaluate the impact of selective crop residue removal on the long-term agronomic and environmental integrity of their farm’s soils.
The soil organic matter calculator is a spreadsheet-based tool that consists of three primary worksheets that offer multiple options, including a user guide, data manager, a calculator for prediction of soil organic matter, a test scenario module and printed results.
“The calculations are based on several factors including crop rotation, yields, tillage type, tillage depth, erosion rate, manure applications and cover crops,” Islam said. “The calculator, which uses soil organic matter level at the beginning of the simulation period as the baseline parameter, can predict annual soil organic matter dynamics and parameters for up to 50 years.
“The outputs of the calculator consist of total, active and passive soil organic matter, total nitrogen and change in organic matter over the simulation period. The tool can also help calculate the revenue from residue sales and the amount of carbon emitted as carbon dioxide to the atmosphere or sequestered yearly or over the evaluation period.”
The annual conference is also offering the latest research, insight, tips and techniques on conservation tillage including cover crops, no-till, soil quality, seeding technology, water quality and nutrient management, said Randall Reeder, an emeritus faculty member of Ohio State’s Department of Food, Agricultural and Biological Engineering and co-developer of the soil organic matter calculator.
In all, the two-day conference (today and tomorrow) features some 60 presenters, including more than 20 researchers and Extension educators from the college, as well as farmers and industry representatives.
More information is available online at http://southcenters.osu.edu/soil-and-bioenergy. Select “SOM Soil Organic Matter Calculator” under the Extension menu.