No doubt most farmers are good stewards of the land and want to conserve it for themselves and future generations. To most farmers that means conserving their soil base and to others it means improving it which means practicing no-till.
We farm 160 acres that have been in continuous no-till for 12 years and the soils have remained virtually unchanged and under-performing over that period of time. We have another 80 acres of similar soil type and landscape that also has been in continuous no-till. However, we have improved it to the point that its performance far exceeds expectations and it went from the worst to the best field in terms of crop yield and soil fitness. Question is can I extend that same fitness to the worst field if we incorporate the right techniques? So what is ‘my’ recipe for success?
First, no-till is the underlying foundation technology to keep as much residue on the surface as possible and protect the soil from erosion, to slow the decomposition of that residue so it produces more stable humic compounds instead of releasing much of the carbon as carbon dioxide back to the atmosphere.
Second, I have come to appreciate that vertical tillage can be a benefit because it processes cornstalks or wheat stubble by slicing, dicing and shearing the material while throwing on a little soil to help stimulate decompositions. It levels the seedbed, evenly distributes residue and remediates surface compaction and crusting.
Third, is planting of cover crops. Cover crops protect the soil, suppress winter annual weeds, add organic matter, scavenge nitrate and ammonium, etc. However, what I consider the true benefit of cover crops is its root growth and natural root leakage of sugars and nutrients that stimulates soil biology.
Fourth, is the addition of compost or animal manures. Organic materials provide nutrients and organic matter but most importantly it provides microbial active carbon and organic nitrogen that soil microbes crave.
Fifth, is the addition of gypsum, either mined ag gyp or pelleted or synthetic by-product. Gypsum provides both calcium and sulfur to plants and soil fauna and flora. And the calcium helps builds soil structure by flocculating soil particles into more natural aggregates which improves structure and tilth and provides numerous other benefits.
All five of these technologies improve the soil but it takes time, maybe as much as five years to see meaningful changes.
What is your recipe for building the perfect soil on your farm?