As more people become engaged with where their food comes from and who is growing it, a central question comes into focus: Are we doing the best we can with the resources we have? One way farmers answer yes to this questions (and an element of farming that’s growing in popularity) is through soil health. We can adjust aspects of our planting, growing and harvesting practices to increase soil health.
For many corn farmers in Nebraska and across the country, they’ve already identified soil health systems and have been implementing them for years. The right strategies can actually increase the productivity and resilience of the soil in ways that are more self-sustaining. This offers exceptional advantages not just for the soil and crops, but for the farmer and the consumer as well. More farmers are embracing these sustainable practices to reap their rewards.
But First, How Do We Define Healthy Soil?
Soil health can be defined as the continued capacity of soil to function as a vital living ecosystem that sustains plants, animals and humans. To achieve this goal, improving soil health focuses on four main principles:
- Maximizing living room
- Maximizing diversity
- Maximizing cover
- Minimizing disturbances
As you can see, even this definition recognizes that healthy soil should sustain greater biodiversity than solely planted crops. Instead, truly healthy soil sustains vibrant ecosystems that generate extra benefits for every organism involved. You might think more plants and animals in a field would actually restrict how much it can produce, but this isn’t always the case. Instead, balancing the soil’s ecosystem can improve yields, reduce pests and ensure every crop is getting all the nutrients needed to produce.
Farmers know their land best and can can identify the strategies that work best for them. Depending on their farming needs, they can improve specific elements of soil health such as:
- Nutrients: Carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus and other nutrients are vital to healthy soil. Farmers can cycle in the right proportions of these nutrients, along with the right source, to maximize the growth of their crop.
- Water: Healthier soil allows water to reach further down, regulating infiltration and availability. Techniques that add and retain water in soil can expand what crops will be viable options for planting.
- Filtration and buffering: Minerals and microbes present in the soil can filter out, break down or detoxify a wide range of substances that would otherwise reduce its health. Maximizing residue and improving soil health reduce the runoff after extreme climate events, improving the entire ecosystem downstream.
- Physical stability and support: A firm soil structure helps anchor plant roots, preventing them from being blown over or uprooted.
- Biodiversity: Many regenerative and sustainable methods to improve soil quality don’t require more fertilizer or other man-made solutions. Instead, they allow nature to do the heavy lifting. Microbes, insects, companion crops and other organisms will autonomously help sustain the soil.
Four Methods Farmers Use to Improve the Health of Their Soil
Depending on what elements of the soil are lacking, there are numerous strategies for improving soil health. Here are four options farmers may utilize to keep their soil healthy:
- Cover crops – As opposed to the main crops, cover crops aren’t necessarily planted for harvest. Instead, they’re planted to preserve and improve soil structure and nutrients between the main crops and during the off season. For corn grown in Nebraska, various cereal and legume seed are popular choices.
- Crop rotation – Crops like soybeans can fix nitrogen into the soil, improving the nutrients for the next crop planted. Instead of using more nitrogen fertilizer, corn farmers can instead plant a field of soybeans one year to reduce the need for other sources of nitrogen. Crop rotation has additional benefits of pest and weed control.
- Buffer zones – Farms in Nebraska and across the Midwest rely on rivers and other waterways for irrigation and other important tasks. Buffer zones are planted or allowed to grow between the fields and waterways to filter runoff following large rain events. This also benefits other people or ecosystems further downriver.
- No-till planting – Minimal disturbances keeps the soil loss at a minimum and offers more time to collect nutrients. This is especially helpful in times of drought when less water is available for the crop.
Benefits of Improving Soil Health
As farmers improve the health of the soil in their fields, they can enjoy a wide range of immediate and long-term benefits. These range from supporting the environment to increasing the profitability of their land.
- Sequesters carbon in the soil
- Reduces greenhouse gas emissions
- Increases nutrient availability
- Increases drought resilience
- Enhances water quality
- Boosts crop yield
- Suppresses plant diseases
These regenerative and self-sustaining soil health systems can benefit Nebraska corn farms in more ways than initially thought. In fact, the Soil Health Institute conducted a thorough study to evaluate the effects soil health systems increase on-farm productivity and profitability. Explore the results to find out how you can benefit from farmers implementing soil health systems.