Prioritize soil health to restore profitability and open new doors
Lance Klessig, a certified crop adviser, fields all kinds of questions from farmers. Most troubling are questions from farmers who are reaching the end of their rope. Klessig sometimes hears them say: “If I don’t do something to change, I’m going to be renting my land out. I need to change. Can you help me?”
“I have a lot of hope for those farmers who are acknowledging the need to do things differently,” says Klessig. “It’s the guys in trouble who continue to resist change — those are the ones I’m really concerned about.”
Klessig’s background informs his guidance. Besides being a farmer running his own operation, Heart and Soil Ridge near Dakota, Minnesota, Klessig has worked for several agricultural organizations over the past 15 years. His speaking engagements, Soil Keepers soil health education and consulting business, and YouTube channel expose him to farmers throughout the Midwest and parts of the Great Plains.
Embracing regenerative farming practices and giving the health of the soil priority shape the heart of his advice to producers. Adopting no-till and planting cover crops are core practices he suggests.
One farm family who did both after reaching out to him as a last resort reported back to Klessig about their successful comeback from the brink of disaster.
One of the farm partners said: “Five years ago we started by growing just 30 acres of cover crops, and we had good results. We also no-tilled part of that field. All our soybean acres are now growing cover crops, and now we’re moving on to plant cover crops on corn ground. Every acre is going to be in cover crops, because we have found those are the most profitable acres.”
5 Principles Plus 1
Teaching farmers the five soil health principles and how they play out in a whole-farm setting underpins Klessig’s guidance related to soils and crops. Before addressing these five principles, Klessig presents a sixth principle — context — that serves as a hub from which the other five radiate.
“Farmers need to think about and identify the context in which their family and their farm operates,” he says. “What’s your financial context, for instance. Do you rent or own your land? What kind of equipment do you own or rent? What’s the community context in terms of market availability and access to inputs and supplies? What’s the spiritual context that plays into your feelings about land? How does the next generation figure into your farming operation?”
The context of a family’s farming operation shapes the unique ways in which a farmer addresses the five soil health principles that can potentially infuse wellbeing and resilience into an operation:
1. Keep armor on the soil.
“When we leave the soil bare by taking away its covering of residue or living plants, it’s exposed to erosion,” says Klessig. “It’s also exposed to the cold and to the summer heat when bare soils can heat up and be 15°F. to 20°F. warmer than soil that is covered. Extreme heat in the soil starts killing soil biology.”
2. Minimize soil disturbance.
“When we talk about minimizing disturbance, we tend to think only about minimizing tillage,” he says. “But perhaps we should also think about minimizing soil disturbance by minimizing chemical applications.”
3. Increase plant diversity.
Growing diverse crops, including cover crops, increases the diversity of roots, thus the diversity of soil life each plant species attracts.
4. Keep living roots in the soil.
“Living roots make nutrients plant-available for the next year,” says Klessig. “Living roots provide food for the soil biology, increasing plant health. The more we can do that, the faster we can move away from chemical inputs.”
5. Integrate livestock grazing.
“Manure and urine — even saliva from livestock grazing — have powerful biological value for the soil,” he says. “Livestock bring in new organisms, and these stimulate the soil.” The dual practices of adopting no-till and growing cover crops go a long way toward implementing the soil health principles. However, inexperience and possible discouragement from non-supportive friends and neighbors can be daunting obstacles to getting started, says Klessig.
“Find a network of people who are willing to think outside the box, or find a farmer who can teach you,” says Klessig. “Then start small. Even on just a 5-acre field. And start simple. If you’re a corn-soybean grower trying cover crops, plant cereal rye after corn. The next spring, it’s relatively simple to plant soybeans into a cereal rye cover crop.”
Don’t expect immediate success. Even expect a possible downward bump in yield at first from a transition to no-till and cover crops. Like any major change a living system undergoes, there’s a period of adjustment. The soil environment needs time to adapt to the absence of tillage.
“The first year or two it can be a wild card,” says Klessig, in terms of what to expect from plant performance and yields. “In the first year of no-till I advise farmers to bump up the starter fertilizer. Tillage releases some nutrients from the soil, and without tillage you might have to add some N [nitrogen], P [phosphorus], and K [potassium] to get the crop started.
“Become a student of the soil,” he adds. “As you begin to add cover crops, you’ll see more life in the soil — more earthworms, for instance.”
Hand in hand with increasing soil life comes crop resilience, better crop stands, and greater trafficability in the soil surface, says Klessig. Soil aggregates increase as well. This leads to more rapid water infiltration than occurs in tillage systems.
“Every time we till, we shatter the conduits in the soil that infiltrate moisture,” he says. “My water-infiltration tests show that where there’s tillage, water will often infiltrate at a rate of only ½ inch to 1 inch per hour,” he says. If you get more rain than that in an hour, it will simply run off and be inaccessible to your crops.
“But what I have seen on farms in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Iowa, where soil is not tilled and after just two years of growing cover crops, water will infiltrate soils at a rate of 4 inches per hour,” says Klessig. “When many of our rains these days come 3 inches in an hour, a 4-inch-per-hour rate of water infiltration is exponentially huge. The water stays in place and becomes available to the crop.”
As moisture becomes more available to soil life and plants, and as diverse plant species along with livestock, perhaps, provide sources of food to soil life, the soil system begins meeting more and more of the crops’ previous needs for “outside” inputs.
“We may create a closed-loop system where the soil cycles the nutrients, making the farm less dependent on commercial fertilizers, herbicides, and insecticides,” says Klessig. “That helps the farm better control costs.” While overall yields of commercial crops could indeed be lowered in a no-till production system providing most of its own fertility and pest control, profitability could be increased.
“We need to study things and look at them differently,” he suggests. “Perhaps we should be less concerned about getting big yields and more concerned about profitability — about our return on investment.”
Doors to New Opportunities
For farmers planning to evolve into no-till and cover crops, Lance Klessig sees potential opportunities in the carbon marketplace.
“I see that as a way for farmers to potentially get paid for adopting practices that build soil health,” he says. “There are lots of options, but I advise producers to be extremely cautious and carefully review the fine print of a contract.”
Additional economic incentives for adopting soil health practices are available through a variety of agencies and organizations.
“Your participation typically has a fixed timeline, providing you with the time you might need to learn more about the practices as you put them to work on your farm,” says Klessig.