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.