No-till and strip-till farmer Rod Sommerfield of Mazeppa, Minn., shares his thoughts on a recent article we published from South Dakota State University, “The Five Principles of Soil Health.”
I somewhat agree that these are good principles, but they are more based in man's practices then in emulating nature's methods for creating and sustaining the soils health in the first place.
1. Soil Armor
Conservation tillage trying to maintain a minimum 30% residue on the surface to cushion the impact of raindrops seems like a great idea. I am pretty sure it is the basis for the government's compliance requirement law since 1985 to qualify for government subsidies. When is the last time you heard of anyone denied payments because of this? I have asked NRCS DC's why they won't do anything to enforce this and get all kinds of excuses. Mostly if they get after a farmer for non-compliance he just contacts his legislator and they’re the ones who get chewed out. I know many farmers who tell me that the fields up the watershed are no longer farmed by responsible good steward neighbors. Now even a couple inches of rain will send a flood of runoff filled with mud and who knows what chemicals or weed seeds to cover their fields.
After decades of regenerative management, unless the soil is frozen, rain seldom does not infiltrate where it falls on our regenerated soils anymore. Our shield for the soil is most often the O Horizon we work hard to maintain, so that when we do get runoff it looks like spring water flowing in the grass waterways.
2. Minimizing Soil Disturbance
Few people ever see the benefits of an O Horizon because they are not willing to do the management designed to keep this high organic matter zone on the surface. Once blended out with soil from deeper than a couple inches there is seldom enough new Humic and Fulvic acid to repel suspension in runoff. Also this level of decomposition acids to keep soil particles from going into suspension is likely only going to be prevalent after a decade or more of dedicated management.
3. Plant Diversity
Not all of us have soils that were created under a natural prairie environment. Where we farm here in southeast Minnesota, the topsoil developed slowly under hardwood forests. Biodiversity for your soils health talks to having a diverse community for all kinds of life in your soils food web. The diversity of plant species importance comes from the fact that the largest population of microbial soil life live next to the plants roots, where each plant species decides what it wants the microbial life to provide it for supper by the root secretions providing sugars and regulating this rhizoshere environment. There are a lot of nutrients in most soils you do not need to be purchasing from the fertilizer dealer. Having biodiversity of your life makes them available without spending the money.
4. Continual Live Plant Root
Ever wonder if our modern chemical industry didn't do too good a job of eliminating our pest problems? I remember as a kid my dad's biggest weed problem were plants like Quakegrass, Canada thistle and other perennials. They slept there under the snow until spring. Their roots provided a home for the microbiology through the winter. We eliminated them with things like glyphosate and are now trying to figure out how best to replace them with cover crops.
5. Livestock Integration
I don't know! If you see livestock as part of a sustainable future for you operation, I'm happy for you! Sub $10 per CWT hogs in the 90s is what opened my eyes to farming in partnership with nature. I'm not sure I was ever interested in having the numbers of animals people now appear to need to show a profit. Since we left the livestock industry, the soils we farmed back then have A horizons and soil organic matter readings 2-3 times what they were back then. I am not sure how environmental concerns are going to deal with what I see as overconcentration of livestock in a small area. If that used feed were possibly composted and available at a cost that seemed viable to replace commercial fertilizer, then I'd like to look at that.
To learn more about Sommerfield’s operation, check out the recently published article “Three Strip-Tilling Tips from a ‘Regenerative Agriculturist’.”