Soil health plan works best with gradual gains

Soil experts recommend starting small for bigger long-term results

Building soil health takes time, and reducing tillage passes is the first step.

Improving overall soil health takes time – a long time. But for Kelsey Banks, crop representative and agronomist with Embrun Co-op, making gains doesn’t require immediate drastic action. 

Many growers opt for conventional tillage in Banks’ area of Eastern Ontario for various reasons but mostly because it’s an effective, tried-and-true approach.

Why it matters: Better soil health takes years to accrue, though small production changes now can have noticeable impacts in both the short and longer term. 

Reducing tillage is one of the main ways growers can start improving the soil, however. In Banks’ experience, the prospect of going no-till raises grower concerns around residue management, equipment capability and overall appearance. 

“One thing they always seem to say is they’re nervous about what to expect in terms of what [the crop] looks like. It’s just they’re not used to looking at soybeans growing in a reduced tillage environment,” Banks says. 

“The first thing we need to do is say, OK, let’s go on a crop tour. … One thing I like to do is take growers around and show them some reduced-till fields and what their beans look like at the time. It’s not to necessarily compare but to comfort them mentally that it’s OK, the first few years it takes time.”

Time is indeed what Banks tries to emphasize when discussing soil health plans. She encourages growers to consider where they would like to be, and what they could do, five and 10 years out. 

Smaller steps can be taken at first, such as reducing the number of tillage passes. 

Even one less pass, such as only working corn stalks once in either spring or fall, can go a long way. 

One of Banks’ clients, for example, has already found plant health gains in their IP soybeans after taking that approach three years ago. Overall, she encourages growers to consider where it is easiest to eliminate one pass in their production system.

“It’s a very slow process to go from conventional tillage to no till, but there’s ways you can start and kind of get into the soil health process,” says Banks, adding those growing IP soybeans or other specialty crops should check for production restrictions that might affect their move. 

Talk to an agronomist

An agronomist’s job is to help farmers grow better crops. Consulting trusted sources for advice, ideas and methods of navigating potential problems is an excellent time investment, Banks says. 

“If you do have concerns, reach out to your agronomist. That’s what they’re there for.”

How to measure soil health

Improvement requires initial measurement. Along with soil testing, OMAFRA’s Agronomy Guide lists a number of lower-tech soil health measurement methods. 

Earthworm Counts

  • Take a shovelful of soil and count the number of earthworms. Ten earthworms per shovel is considered good. 
  • Count the number of earthworm middens (pathways through the soil) in a quarter metre square (50 cm x 50 cm) area; 10 to 15 are considered good. 

Water Infiltration

  • Insert a plastic or metal cylinder in the ground (avoid tire tracks) far enough that water cannot seep out from underneath the sides. Lay a piece of plastic down in the ring covering the soil so it will contain the water.
  • Pour 800 ml of water in the ring on top of the plastic. This represents about one inch of water.
  • Remove the sheet of plastic and start timing the amount of time it takes for all the water to drain. Repeat a second time and use that time as it is more representative.
  • If the water is slow to drain, the amount left after 30 minutes can be measured with a ruler and recorded along with the time. An infiltration rate of three to 10 minutes per inch is considered rapid, 30 to 100 is considered moderate, and 300 to 1,000 minutes per inch is considered slow.

Soil Compaction

  • When soil is moist but not saturated, insert a tile probe or penetrometer at a constant pressure to a depth of approximately 50 cm. If a tile probe is employed, note the depths at which more resistance is felt. If using a penetrometer, record the depth where readings exceed 350 psi.
  • For planted fields, examine roots for flattened or stub ends. These indicate compaction issues. 

Underwear, and N-free corn

  • Cotton is easily degraded by soil microbial activity. Burying a pair of underwear is an effective way to determine strength of the microbial communities in a given area. The Innovative Farmers Association of Ontario offers instructions and recommendations on this method. 
  • Analyzing yields for small corn test strips grown without applied nitrogen can also highlight soil health. The healthier the soil, the higher the yield will be.

Check out Matt McIntosh’s Field Talk video interview with Kelsey Banks, here.

About the author

Contributor

Matt McIntosh

Matt is a freelance writer based between Essex County and Chatham-Kent. He is interested in all things scientific, as well as rock n' roll, hunting and history. He also works with his parents on their sixth-generation family farm.

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