Taking the first step can be the most difficult, and this is the case for producers to consider the step of incorporating soil health practices. Taking those first steps is much easier now than it was 20 to 30 years ago.
“Anybody starting this journey now has the ability to talk to other people doing the ‘heavy lifting,'” says Anthony Bailey, South Dakota State University Extension soil field specialist. “Don’t think that you are all making these decisions for your farm.”
Bly knows of what he speaks, because not only does he preach about building soil health and regenerative agriculture, but he also lives on his family farm near Garrettson, SD, where he founded Full No. Switched on -til. There were landline telephones, and newspapers and magazines, all of which provided “a very powerful source of information”, but paled in comparison to the connectivity and sources of information available today.
“Education is the key, learning, knowledge — and then realizing that it doesn’t stop,” he says.
soil health theory
Knowing where to start is the first step, and Blee suggests that farmers focus on soil health principles. “You need to understand them — how they interact, interact with each other,” he says.
According to the South Dakota Soil Health Coalition, there are five principles of soil health:
Soil cover. Keep plant debris on the surface of the soil. look down; What percentage of your soil is protected by residues? Erosion needs to be reduced before we can start building soil health.
Limited error. Cultivate as little as possible. You’ll start building soil aggregates, pore space, soil biology and organic matter.
Diversity. Try to imitate nature. Use cool and warm season grasses and broad leaf plants as much as possible and rotate cover crops with three or more crops. The diversity of grassland and crop plants enhances soil and animal health.
living roots. Keep plants growing year round to feed the soil. Cover crops can add carbon to the soil, providing a food source for microorganisms. Start small to find the best fit for your operation.
Integrated Livestock. Fall and winter grazing of cover crops and crop residues raises the nutritional plane of livestock at a time when pasture forage quality may be low, increases soil biological activity on croplands and improves nutrient cycling. Proper pasture management improves soil health.
“It’s not just one that’s getting you there, it’s a combination of all of them, and I think that scares a lot of people,” he says. “Especially that last one – the livestock part – but I believe you can introduce that component” through means other than hooves actually on the ground.
While farmers implementing soil health practices are great resources for knowledge, Bly also recommends checking out “A Soil Owner’s Manual: How to Restore and Maintain Soil Health” by John Stika, as well as articles on soil health. conquest of the land through seven thousand yearsby WC Lowdermilk.
‘Can’t do it here’
Farmers looking to improve the health of their soil, whether it’s by implementing two or three or all five of the soil health principles, don’t have to look far for consultants. “While I cannot name one [farmer] for every county in our state [South Dakota]I’ll bet there’s someone who’s trying to do something,” he says.
He says some of those practicing soil health improvement measures are succeeding on land to which others would say, “It won’t work here.”
“The two biggest reasons I hear that ‘it won’t work here’ are that it’s too cold and it’s too wet,” he says. “There are farmers out there who are doing it where it’s very cold and very wet.” Bailey is one of those farmers whose farm is in one of the “very cold, very wet” regions of southeastern South Dakota.
Acknowledging that there have been several attempts over the years, Bailey encourages farmers not to give up too quickly on improving soil health.
“If you’re just thinking of tillage, it’s going to take a lot longer to see the benefits,” he says, “but with the use of cover crops and retaining crop residues, farmers can see runoff within a year or two.” The gap should be visible.
While monocultures work for many farmers, Bailey recommends seeking diversity.
“When you start to realize that diversity or the soil food web is so important, you understand that in order to function correctly, this diversity is needed,” he says. A monoculture system can be fed artificially to keep the system going, but Blee says, “It’s diversity that can do that job for you, and that’s where all these principles come in handy. So , if you take a field or part of a field, and you understand the principles, and you’re incorporating rotation, and no-till and cover crops, and maybe pasture and everything goes well, I I’ll bet in three to five years you should see a noticeable change.
He also suggests not making a complete change at once; Begin applying these principles to small farms or small sections of a farm to see what works on your farm. Also note that there are many farmers who have already walked the path of improving soil health – let them take your lead and learn from them.