Taking the first step can be the most difficult, and this is the case for producers considering taking steps to incorporate soil health practices. Taking those first steps is much easier now than it was 20 to 30 years ago.
“Anyone who starts this journey now has a much greater ability to talk to other people who have done the ‘heavy lifting,'” says Anthony Bly, a field expert on extension soils at South Dakota State University. “Don’t think you’re making these decisions for your farm all the time.”
Bly knows what he’s talking about, because not only does he preach building soil health and regenerative agriculture, but he practices them on his family farm near Garretson, South Dakota, where they switched to completely no-till in 1992. Farmers at the time had landlines, newspapers and magazines, all of which provided “very powerful sources of information” but paled in comparison to the connectivity and sources of information available today.
“Education is key, learning, knowledge – and then realizing it doesn’t stop,” he said.
Soil Health Principles
Knowing where to start is the first step, and Bly advises farmers to focus on soil health principles. “You need to understand those — how they interact, how they interact,” he said.
According to the South Dakota Soil Health Coalition, the five soil health principles are:
soil cover. Leave plant residues on the soil surface. Looking down; what percentage of the soil is protected by residue? Before you can start building soil health, erosion needs to be minimized.
Limited distractions. Till as little as possible. You’ll start building soil aggregates, pore space, soil biology and organic matter.
diversity. Try to imitate nature. Use cool-season and warm-season grasses and broadleaf plants whenever possible, in rotations of three or more crops and cover crops. Plant diversity in grasslands and croplands increases soil and animal health.
root. Let the plants grow year-round to nourish the soil. Cover crops can increase carbon in the soil and provide a food source for microbes. Start small to find what works best for your operation.
Integrated animal husbandry. Fall and winter grazing of cover crops and crop residues can increase nutrient levels for livestock when pasture forage quality may be low, increase soil bioactivity in croplands, and improve nutrient cycling. Proper grass management can improve soil health.
“It’s not just one method that will get you there, it’s a combination of all of these methods, and I think that scares a lot of people,” he said. “Especially the last one – the livestock part – but I’m sure you could introduce that component in a different way” than actually having hooves on the ground.
While farmers practicing soil health practices are a great resource for knowledge, Bly also recommends checking out “The Soil Owner’s Handbook: How to Restore and Maintain Soil Health” by Jon Stika and the article Seven thousand years of land expropriationby WC Lowdermilk.
‘can’t be done here’
Farmers who want to improve their soil health, whether implementing two or three, or all five of the soil health principles, needn’t look for too many mentors. “Although I cannot name a [farmer] every county in our state [South Dakota]I bet someone is trying something,” he said.
He added that some people implementing soil health improvements have had success in lands where others would say “it won’t work here.”
“The two biggest reasons I’ve heard ‘it won’t work here’ are too cold and too wet,” he said. “There are farmers out there doing it in places that are too cold and too wet.” Bly is one of south Dakota farmers whose farms are located in one of the so-called “too cold, too wet” areas.
Bly acknowledges that times have been tough over the years, but he encourages farmers not to give up too early on the path to improving soil health.
“If you just focus on tillage, it takes longer to see benefits,” but by using cover crops and maintaining crop residues, farmers should see less runoff within a year or two, he said.
While monoculturalism works for many farmers, Bly recommends seeking diversity.
“When you start to realize that diversity or soil food webs are so important, you understand that to function properly, it needs that diversity,” he said. Monoculture systems can be artificially fed to keep the system running, but Bly says “diversity does the job for you, and that’s where all these principles come in. So, if you pick a field or part of a field, you understand Those principles, including crop rotation, no-till and cover crops, and maybe grazing, all go well, and I bet in three to five years you’ll see dramatic changes.”
He also advises against making a full conversion right away; start implementing the principles in a small field or field and see what works for your farm. Also, remember that there are many farmers out there who are already on the path to improving soil health – let them lead you and learn from them.