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The quest for soil quality

Farmers know they can't make any more land, but many are learning they can still add to their operation by making the land they already have even better. By focusing on biologically based management systems that improve soil quality, they're able to add production without adding acres, add profits without adding inputs, and add sustainability without adding risk.

“We've found that improving soil quality makes both dollars and sense,” says Emporia, Kansas, no-till farmer Gail Fuller. “We've been able to increase productivity and profitability, which has allowed me to live up to an important promise I made years ago to my son and daughter that they could come back to the farm.”

Improving soil quality begins by understanding the microbial interaction that occurs between the billions of organisms that live in the soil. “The soil is more than just a place to put the seed,” says Kris Nichols, USDA-ARS soil microbiologist from Mandan, North Dakota. “It's the host to a living network that includes billions of organisms with interconnecting life cycles.

“It's a very complex system that is best fed by a diverse, no-till cropping program that delivers a steady supply of crop roots and residue to the soil,” Nichols continues. “If farmers learn to manage this system, they can produce crops more efficiently by allowing the soil organisms to make nutrients more available, disrupt weed and disease cycles, build soil structure, increase water-holding capacity, and spur root growth.”

“It requires a paradigm shift, “ adds Jill Clapperton, a soil health expert who operates Rhizoterra Inc. from her family ranch near Florence, Montana. “Instead of feeding their crop, farmers are learning to feed their soil and allowing it to then feed the crop. Plants take up nutrients from the soil more effectively and efficiently when they go through the decomposition and mineralization processes provided by the soil ecosystem.”

“We like to say that we feed billions on our farm every day, referring to the number of soil organisms that exist in only a handful of healthy soil,” says Fuller. “We've added a diverse cropping system (growing 53 different plant species last year) to our long-term no-till program to aid their development.”

Bismarck, North Dakota, farmer/rancher Gabe Brown can also attest to the interest in and benefits of a healthy soil. “I get 10 to 20 calls a day from farmers wanting to improve their soil health,” says Brown, who travels widely to speak of the benefits he's seen from transforming his conventionally tilled spring wheat/summer fallow cropping operation into a diverse, intensive no-till system.

“We've found that many of the production problems farmers face – like poor fertility, compaction, low yields, a lack of moisture, and weeds and diseases – are actually the symptoms of an unhealthy soil,” Brown says. “We've been able to boost the organic matter levels of our soils, and that has more than doubled our water-holding capacity. This has allowed us to grow as many as 25 different crops. This plant diversity is the key to enhancing soil quality and is the reason we've often been able to eliminate the use of commercial fertilizer and to cut herbicide costs by 75%.”

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