Learning to Farm the Soil

Think of your soil like it’s an engine and learn to fine tune its performance.

What is the size of your soil engine? Have you checked lately? Maybe it’s time to start farming the soil just like your farm your crop! And just like you use a dynamometer to measure the horsepower on an engine you can use soil health testing to measure the horsepower of your soil.

I like the analogy of an engine when talking about soil health. The more fine-tuned an engine the greater the horsepower output and torque efficiency. You can further modify an engine to produce more horsepower than it was normally designed to produce. I believe soil is similar and by improving the quality (fine-tuning) and building the biological factory (modifying and supercharging) you soil engine can produce more ‘horsepower.’

Over the past couple years, I have recognized that soil is probably more of a limiting factor than we realize. When I talk to farmers, crop contest winner and crops researchers they never mention the soil as a limiting factor or as a partner in yield, beyond compaction, nutrients and pH. Is it because they don’t think of it as a living entity that plays a significant role in yield? Soil can be managed more intently beyond just a place to put seed and add fertilizer or apply chemicals.

“Liebig’s Law of the Minimum’ states that a crop’s yield will be determined by the most limiting factor. Blog #2 imageWe see this illustrated as staves of a barrel with water leaking out when the stave is shortest, signifying a limited factor such as nitrogen, zinc, etc. Of course, this could be weather, population, weed competition, pest infestations or even (any maybe more often than we think) soil health.

Farmers know how to manage crops: how to select a variety and plant it; how to control weeds, pests and diseases; and feed and water it. If seems than that soil is primarily a surface to drive over, put seed and chemical in it and apply fertilize over the top of it. Yet with all these factors optimized and in a perfect season, yields can still be limited by something else. Maybe it’s the soil that isn’t optimized and that is limiting yield?

So maybe it is time to start farming the soil and start measuring the size of your soil’s engine. Measuring the size of your soil’s engine can be simple and quick by measuring carbon mineralization or CO2 (carbon dioxide) output from soil respiration – just like measuring engine horsepower with a dynamometer. But there is more to it, you need to know the quality of your soil because you can’t have health without quality and you also want to know what all that CO2 output is doing for your soil and crop in terms of mineralizing nutrients, creating soluble carbon, stabilizing soil aggregates and building soil tilth. I will elaborate more on this in later blogs.

So maybe it is time to start farming the soil. It’s time to start thinking of soil as the little engine that could. You must be positive, keep trying and accepting that you can do it.

Dan Davidson is a PhD agronomist, soil health expert and part time farmer from Nebraska. He is also an Associate of Woods End Laboratory in Maine who markets the Solvita Suite.

Welcome to MySoilHealth.com!

MySoilHealth is a new page to talk about soil health, what it means, how to measure it and how to improve it. It also provides me with an opportunity to blog and share information and ideas, discuss management practices, and respond to questions from readers like yourself.

While this page will start out primarily as a blog, over time we will expand the page to include additional information and tools. It is always better to start with a crawl and start rather than delay launching while trying to figure out how to make the best web page possible and have all the tools and functions at the launch.

Blogs are popular, are web-based and run by an individual or small group of individuals that is updated regularly. It is written in an informal or conversational style, often spontaneous, 350 to 500 words in length and not only shares information but engage readers in a conversation. It is often written by an ‘expert,’ such as me, and often in first-person prose.

Today soil health is an important topic, it is getting a lot of press and everyone wants to be involved in talking about it, advising on how to manage it or selling something to improve it. I consider soil health ‘the undiscovered country,’ taking the title from a Star Trek movie released in 1991. Why do I call it ‘the undiscovered country?’ Because if we are going to take crop productivity to higher and more sustainable levels producers must learn to farm the soil just like they farm crops. Yet most producers and practitioners don’t yet realize this and continue to treat the soil as something to drive on, put seed in or apply fertilizer or chemicals to. And I must admit we haven’t even discovered all the ways to achieve and manage soil health, beyond adopting no-till and cover crops.

As an agronomist, farmer and soil health practitioner I view the world of soil health through how to understand it, how to measure it, how to improve it and the economic benefits I gain from it. We must understand what the soil can tell us, what to measure, have simple tools for measuring and set goals to improve health. I have been practicing soil health on our family farm in Northeast Nebraska for over a decade and have made great strides in improve soil productivity and yield while reducing the impacts of soil variability on yield.

I look forward to writing these MySoilHealth blogs on insightful soil health topics. Please check in every few weeks to read my next blog and share it on Facebook and twitter. And don’t be reluctant to get involved with a response or question. You can reach me at djdavidson@agwrite.com or ring 402-649-5919.

I want to thank Doug Miller and Midwest Bio-Tech Inc. for sponsoring this page. While Midwest Bio-Tech is a commercial company offering biological product and providing soil health laboratory services, MySoilHealth page will remain non-commercial.

Dan Davidson is a PhD agronomist, soil health expert and part time farmer from Nebraska.