While your farmers are busy in the fields this fall, start planning for those postharvest conversations.
While you’ve probably got a short list of topics to discuss with your customers, including seed selection, fertility strategy and weed management, there’s another important conversation you should consider: soil health.
Soil is a farmer’s most valuable natural resource and the foundation of their profitability potential, so you should spend just as much time planning for soil health as you do managing the crop.
Here are four questions to ask your farmers to engage in meaningful conversations about soil health this fall:
Farmers may assume that if they are meeting their yield goals, their soils are healthy. Unfortunately, there is a lot more to soil health than producing a bumper crop. According to the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, monitoring physical, chemical and biological characteristics is essential for a holistic understanding of soil health.
Visually examining soil can give you some indication of its health. Changes in soil color, ponding water, excessive runoff, weed species, or reduced plant response may indicate that soil health is declining. If farmers notice these changes in their fields, they should take a more diagnostic approach to examine their soils.
The physical characteristics of soil – topsoil depth, bulk density, porosity, aggregate stability, texture, crusting and compaction – also provide clues to determine soil health.
Measurements including pH, salinity, organic matter, phosphorus concentrations, cation-exchange capacity, nutrient cycling, and soil nutrient concentrations provide data to help understand the soil’s nutrient and water holding capacity.
We know that healthy soils include robust populations of micro- and macroorganisms, including bacteria, fungi, earthworms and nematodes. If soil biology becomes unbalanced, there can be negative consequences for nutrient availability, plant decomposition, water infiltration and plant growth and development.
Your role as a trusted advisor is to help farmers determine how healthy their soil is today and use that baseline to make improvements. Fall is a great time to take soil tests to assess physical, chemical and biological soil properties. Encourage farmers to make that the first step in their soil health journey.
Minimizing soil disturbances can increase soil health over time. Physical disturbances, such as tillage or excessive equipment passes, can reduce and remove pore spaces in the soil. That’s problematic because it limits water infiltration and destroys the biological organisms that aggregate soil particles.
Some of the consequences of intensive tillage methods include:
- water and wind erosion that transports soil, nutrient, and water to offsite locations
- ponding water that limits soil oxygen, increases nitrogen loss and restricts plant growth and development
- more soil crusting that restricts plant emergence
- less soil organic matter
Talk with your farmers about their tillage practices. Learn why they’ve chosen the method they’re using and discuss how it could affect overall soil health. Some farmers are doing what they’ve always done. But with compelling information, they may be open to adopting more sustainable tillage methods, including conservation tillage or no-till.
Ultimately, the best tillage method is the one that provides the most suitable seed bed with the least amount of soil disturbance.
Maintaining soil fertility can be a delicate balance. Farmers need to apply enough nutrients to meet their crop’s nutritional needs, but overapplying can negatively affect soil health, crop productivity and the farmer’s pocketbook.
Studies have shown that inorganic fertilizers can increase soil acidity, reduce soil organic matter and decrease the diversity and populations of soil microorganisms. In addition, excess fertilizer often ends up in waterways, affecting marine life and water quality.
Take time to understand your customers’ views on fertility management. Turn the discussion into an educational opportunity where you can provide data and evidence to support more sustainable fertility practices.
For example, if your farmers are applying all of their nitrogen in the early spring, talk to them about the benefits of a split application to improve nutrient availability. Encourage the use of nitrogen stabilizers to protect the nutrient investment and ensure that nitrogen is available when crops need it most. Talk to your more progressive farmers about a variable rate fertility strategy. Focus on optimizing the application timing, rate, source and location to maximize the ROI of fertility applications and protect soil health.
Be straightforward with your customers about soil health. The agriculture industry is moving toward a more sustainable future, and sooner or later, your farmers will need to adapt to stay profitable. Some may be eager to become early adopters, while others may be hesitant to make changes on the farm. Your responsibility is to arm your farmers with accurate information relevant to their operation so they can make sound decisions.
For farmers who are ready to adopt sustainable soil health practices, start small. Before you recommend planting a cover crop on 500 acres, start with tweaking the nutrient management plan. It’s an easy, low-risk way for farmers to start their sustainability journey. Unlike other sustainable practices, optimizing fertility management should provide a near-term, measurable ROI as fertility costs are reduced.
As you continue to learn more about your farmers’ operations, there will be other ways to implement sustainable practices. From optimizing irrigation water use to reducing tillage to support soil health, you’ll be able to recognize opportunities to expand the on-farm impact.
It’s easy to take soil health for granted, but every farmer’s decision has a global impact. As Franklin D. Roosevelt said in a letter to U.S. governors in 1937, “The nation that destroys its soil destroys itself.”
Healthy soils provide more resiliency to extreme weather events, improve nutrient cycling, reduce nutrient losses, and help farmers meet the demand for more sustainably produced fuel, fiber and food. Take the time to engage your farmers in a discussion about soil health as you collaborate on next season’s management plans.
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