Nationwide Case Study on Soil Health

By James Hoorman, Hoorman Soil Health Services

A nationwide study of 30 farms in the United States shows how improving soil health helped farmers economically while also creating resilience to adverse weather.  These farms covered the USA and included both crop farms, livestock farms, orchards, grazing systems, and vineyards. The study was conducted by the Soil Health Institute (SHI), the National Association of Conservation Districts (NACD), and USDA-NRCS.  This was a multi-year study looking at farms that had adopted soil health management systems (SHMS) long-term. 

The Midwest farms used practices like no-till and cover crops to improve soil health.  Crops like corn, soybeans, wheat, and hay were primarily studied in the Midwest along with dairy, hogs, and chickens. Farmers were interviewed over several years comparing the economic costs and benefits of their system before and after adoption of conservation practices.  The goal was to determine how resilient the farms were and what were the costs, risks, and overall benefits or detriments to adapting soil health practices.  Overall, soil health systems were both feasible and more profitable, but results varied, and it takes time to adapt the new soil health practices. 

There were several key findings. Out of 30 farms studied, 29 farms adapted soil health management systems (SHMS) that increased farm income by an average of $65 per acre.  These farms did not include any organic farms which tend to have higher price premiums.  On corn, producers were able to save $14/acre to produce corn, $7/acre on soybeans, and $16/acre on all other crops.  On farms using SHMS, 42% reported yield increases on corn, 32% reported yield increases on soybeans, and 35% yield increases were reported for other crops.

Some of the biggest benefits were not directly related to economics.  Soil erosion was reduced on most farms that adapted SHMS long-term. Soil compaction declined, water infiltration increased, and higher water holding capacity due to higher soil organic matter accumulation were benefits listed.  Most farmers said that over time, they could get earlier access to wet fields due to better soil structure and less standing water.  They also reported they were able to withstand extreme weather events which just means these farms were more resilient.  Overall, SHMS helped farmers increase profits, reduce costs, and limit their risks while conserving the soil.  

Locally, Ron Snyder in Wood County was one of the farms studied.  Ron farms 200 acres of corn, soybeans, and wheat using no-till and cover crops.  Ron has been using no-till for 20 years and cover crops for 10 years. Ron farms primarily Hoytville clay soils.

Ron eliminated one disk field operation and two field cultivating operations on each crop.  Ron used cereal rye after corn going to soybeans, after soybeans he went to wheat, and then after wheat he used a 14 cover crop species mixture.  The cover crop after wheat cost $35/acre and the cereal rye after soybeans $20/acre. Ron eliminated phosphorus and potassium fertilization in both corn and soybeans since his soil test values were adequate to high.  Ron also used a crimper crop roller to terminate cover crops. Ron did not report any yield increases but he did report overall higher net income of $19.72/acre on corn and $28.62/acre on soybeans. 

The Blaine Brothers in the Raison Watershed in Southern Michigan farm 2,500 acres corn-soybeans with a dairy farm.  The Blaine Brothers used no-till for 30 years and cover crops for 13 years.  They eliminated three tillage trips on corn and two tillage trips on soybeans.  They also eliminated one spray pass on corn which saved them $14/acre. Cover crops before corn cost $17 and before soybeans $15 per acre.  They used annual rye, kale, and radish before corn and cereal rye before soybeans.  The Blaine Brothers did not report any yield increases but had overall higher net income of $23.32/acre on corn and $7.06/acre on soybeans. Soil erosion was less, water infiltration was higher, crop yields were steady and they reported greater resilience to adverse weather conditions. 

David Ransbottom in Claypool, Indiana farms 3,500 acres of corn and soybeans using no-till for 30 years and cover crops for 12 years.  Over 30 years, David was able to eliminate three tillage passes for both crops, one herbicide, and one insecticide pass for each crop per year. Nitrogen was reduced 10#/acre on corn and they spent 1 day fixing fields compared to 5 days due to less soil erosion.  Organic matter increased, water infiltration improved, and crops were more resilient to extreme weather. Corn yields were 10 bushel higher and soybeans 3 bushel higher.  David had higher net income of $68.92 on corn and $60.86 on soybeans.  For these farms, soil health paid them dividends. Visit soilhealthinstitute.org/our-work/initiatives/economics-of-soil-health-systems-on-30-u-s-farms/ for more details. 

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