Soil Health and Conservation Tillage Put to Work

One size doesn’t fit all.

“In a perfect world that university staff dream about, you would treat every field separately according to its soil test,” says Dick Wolkwoski, Extension soil scientist at University of Wisconsin-Madison.

At the Conservation Tillage Conference in St. Cloud, Minnesota, this week, experts covered a variety of soil health topics, but throughout all discussions were reminders that you have to know your environment and cropping system to make the management decisions that are right for your field conditions.

Below are practical strategies to consider:

  1. Minimize soil erosion so that you can restore and stabilize the organic matter of your fields. David Lobb at the University of Manitoba recommends cover crops – and time – to build up your soil health, because if you started with poor soils, you probably can’t get any conservation practices to work properly on your farm.
  2. Harness precision ag to narrow down the practices that work for you. Ken Franzky with Centrol Consulting says there is a big difference between information and data. Data drives decisions, so use yield maps and quantify the economic losses on your fields so you can make a plan that increases your profit and improves the function of the soil.
  3. Dr. Anna Cates, Minnesota state soil health specialist, recommends starting with a shovel in your fields to dig up soil and look at the structure. Healthier soil will have aggregates (groups of soil particles) that allow water to infiltrate and be stored. She also mentions that if you incorporate livestock grazing on your farm, take extra care to ensure you’re not also compacting the soils with too much livestock activity.
  4. Rob Olson, farmer from Hawley, Minnesota, says conservation grows on you. Have an open mind, take new practices one step at a time, and prove it to yourself first that conservation can work for you.
  5. Jodi DeJong-Hughes with University of Minnesota Extension says, “Strip-till is the gateway drug to no-till.” But even if you aren’t planning to go no-till, strip-till provides many benefits and has fewer barriers to entry. To implement strip-till successfully on your farm, start with the combine. DeJong-Hughes says from the combine, you’ll want an even distribution of chaff and straw, which will result in an even temperature and moisture distribution in the soil, help planter performance, and promote even germination. Her biggest tip for selecting strip-till equipment is to pick a representative you like who will visit your farm and hold your hand as your learn the system.

While soil health seems to be the major buzz now, the principle isn’t at all new. Dr. Cates shared an image from a University of Wisconsin Extension pamphlet from 1935 with the wise words: “The earth gives life to all through the soil. The farmer is the user and protector.”

University of Wisconsin Pamphlet

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