By Brianna Gwirtz, OCJ field reporter
“Despite all our achievements we owe our existence to a six-inch layer of topsoil and the fact that it rains.” This quote, made popular by a Midwestern equipment dealer, has been around for years, but it still rings true. Many farmers have made conscious efforts to improve that layer of topsoil, and in turn, improve the health of their crops.
The health of soil is based on a few key factors: soil organic matter (SOM), soil microbes and organisms, and plants. The interactions between these three soil characteristics result in soil quality. It’s a delicate balance, that when managed properly, can lead to big rewards.
Matt Falb is an organic farmer in Orrville, Ohio who has taken a keen interest in improving the quality of soil on his family’s farm.
Falb has always been interested in science. After growing up as the fourth generation on the family farm, he pursued a degree in natural sciences, then a graduate degree in epidemiology before spending most of his twenties living in major metro areas.
“I grew up on the farm and I always watched my dad, Dean, work full-time off the farm and then come home and work long, crazy hours,” Falb said. “I thought, I don’t want to do that! There’s no free time and so much stress. But after living in cities for a while, I realized so many people were disconnected from their food and where it came from. I started to appreciate my agricultural background a lot more.”
Organic crops were starting to become more popular in the early 2000s and Falb saw it as an opportunity that could work for him and his family. His parents agreed to transition the farm from conventional production to organic in 2008. Falb returned to his childhood home in 2010 and sold his first certified organic crop in 2011.
Now on their eleventh growing season, Falb, along with his father, grow organic hay, corn and small grains on their eighty-acre farm. Most of his crop is sold to local organic dairymen. Additionally, Falb and his father raise grass-finished cattle, which he markets as freezer beef and sells to Ohio retailers.
The transition to organic agriculture really pushed Falb to think outside the box when it came to soil health.
“When it comes to soil health, there’s obviously quite a few tools in the toolbox,” Falb said. “We hear about really impressive gains in soil health coming from conventional no-till farms. However, conventional farms are relying on herbicides to control weeds and break down crop residue. Organic standards prohibit the use of herbicides so we can’t utilize herbicides to burn down weeds and crop residue.”
As a result, Falb and his father do have to utilize more tillage, in the form of plowing and cultivation.
“We are challenged to think about ways to improve weed control while reducing tillage in our organic system,” Falb said. “One of the management practices we are looking at is using a roller crimper to terminate a cover crop prior to planting corn.”
Falb puts emphasis on understanding and improving his soil chemistry, soil biology and physical attributes of the soil in order to promote overall health.
“When we think about the chemistry of the soil, we really want to know if the soil is in balance,” Falb said. “We look at the calcium, the phosphorus, the potassium, and micronutrients to make sure they are within the recommended ranges to optimize plant growth. Then we look at the soil tests to see our organic matter. The organic matter has been really important for us because it helps improve water infiltration on a wet year and water retention on a dry year. Improving soil health for us is almost like a crop insurance policy that helps buffer the impact of weather extremes.”
Falb describes improving the soil biology as a journey. He first learned about soil microbes and bacteria through a grazing school put on by Ohio State University Extension. According to the Natural Resource Conservation Service, a teaspoon of productive soil contains between 100 million to 1 billion bacteria. Falb focuses on caring for this microbiome.
“We are trying to think about how we can promote the biology of the soil so it can do its job and contribute to the growth of the plant,” Falb said.
Plowing down plant mass into the soil aids in feeding the biome. Lastly, the physical attributes of the soil are another indicator of soil health. After implementing cover crops, Falb noticed a difference in the soil tilth.
“Almost immediately we noticed the soil would plow much easier. We also try to avoid compaction, like most people do,” Falb said.
Falb prioritizes farm-management practices to improve soil health. Cover crops, rotational crops and rotational grazing are just a few. The incorporation of cattle to the farm has helped his fields as well.
“I try my best to think of my cattle as my employees. How can I maximize their value?” Falb said.
They integrate grazing into their crop rotations. In Falb’s experience, the cattle benefit the crop program by distributing nutrients directly back into the soil, help break down crop residue with hoof traffic, and stimulate nutrient cycling.
The integration of grazing into the crop rotation includes the use of annuals.
“The cattle will graze annual cool season grasses in the fall and winter, and then in the summer they’ll graze a warm season annual. Then we’ll go back and do that again in a different field,” Falb said. “Another way we integrate cattle into the crop rotation is grazing the residue after corn harvest. Husks and leaves left in the field are an excellent feed source for dry cows and extend the grazing season well into December.
“Some of the best soil on my farm has been grazed for 30 years. From my understanding, cattle really help to improve soil biology. We haven’t had to ever fertilize our pastures, I think there’s a lot of nutrient benefit in having cattle manure and urine on the soil.”
Keeping the soil planted all year with a cover crop has also improved the topsoil. After harvesting their small grains, such as oats, Falb has a short window of time around July/August to plant a cover crop. Usually this cover consists of a blend of legumes, cool season grasses, and brassicas. The blend helps fix nitrogen, scavenge for minerals, and provide roots that feed microbial life in the soil. The crop is then plowed down in the spring before being planted to corn.
“Since we are organic, we have to find other ways to introduce nitrogen to the farm,” Falb said. “These legumes really help in building up our nitrogen and obviously help with soil erosion as well.”
Crop rotation is also an integral part of Falb’s operation. Hay fields are typically used for three to four years, before being plowed. Then their typical cycle is to plant to corn, followed by a cover crop after harvest, and then a spring planted small grain. The process repeats itself with another cover crop and then back to corn before returning to use as a hay field.
Grass-fed, grass-finished beef relies heavily on the combination of cover crops and crop rotations.
“I need really high-quality forage to grass-finish beef. It was almost by accident that I discovered we could utilize some cover crops for finishing the cattle,” Falb said.
After taking oats and straw off one year, Falb disked the field and planted a cover crop. A stand of volunteer oats started growing through the legumes. On a whim, Falb decided to do a cutting of the oat/legume mixture. What he got was a high-energy feed source for his cattle.
“It showed us that cover crops have potential not just for nitrogen production but also for beef production,” Falb said.
This discovery has led them to including more brassicas and turnips into their cover crops.
“The cattle love the tops of the turnips and it’s really great protein,” said Falb.
The cover crops attract other animals as well. Falb has noticed an increase in beneficial insects.
“It seems we have a lot more pollinators coming to the farm,” Falb said. “We let our cover crops go into flower sometimes and we have seen an increase in butterflies and other pollinating insects.”
Falb is still learning as he goes with the goal to continue caring for his soil, which in turn cares for his crops and livestock.
“Since we started implementing some of these practices and prioritizing soil health a decade ago, we have seen an increase in our soil organic matter by .5%,” Falb said.
They hope to see a steady increase in soil organic matter in the coming decades. Falb looks up to his dad Dean, who he describes as a lifelong learner.
“Dad is not afraid to try new things. He is always thinking about ways to improve our practices,” Falb said. “We try things out on a small-scale before we ramp things up the subsequent year. Sometimes the new practices are successful, sometimes they aren’t. But I hope to always be inquisitive and model this trait for my children, regardless if they choose to farm one day or not.”