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5 Key Points for Top-notch Soil Health

Keep your farmland in as good of condition as you can these days to sustain its value in the broader context of falling grain prices and values across the general grain production sector. It's a fairly common refrain these days when gleaning more value from just about wherever you can is a high priority in farm country.

Soil health is one of those areas where your direct actions can have fairly profound effects on its overall quality, and in a fairly short time period, says one USDA-NRCS soil health specialist. But, if you're a landowner and relying on someone else's hands to do the daily work, it's admittedly tougher to make sure all the right things are getting done. So, consider these 5 points if you're working with a farm manager or leasing farmer on acres you own, according to a report from USDA-NRCS report by writer Elisa O'Halloran.

First, organic matter. If you've got a lot of it, chances are you're in a garden spot. Keeping it maintained will mean the difference between a garden spot one year and a desert the next, according to Fisher. That puts a premium on soil organic matter as a component of farmland sale prices or lease rates.

"The amount of soil organic matter often determines the price farmers will pay to rent or buy land," according to Fisher. "Finding a farmer who is interested in building organic matter by using practices like no-till and cover crops is like finding a bank with a better rate on a Certificate of Deposit."

But, how do you know if you've got good organic matter or not? Maintaining a regular regimen of soil testing is another critical step to maintaining high-quality crop ground. Asking about a manager or operator how often the ground is tested (Fisher recommends once every 4 years) will help get a grasp on how high and consistent soil fertility will likely be in the future.

"Maintaining fertility and pH levels are important to your farm’s productivity. Regular soil testing can give an indication of trends in soil fertility, pH and organic matter levels in each field. These tests will determine the amount of fertilizer each field needs," according to Fisher. "If a field has a history of manure application and very high fertility, a farmer could save money by planting cover crops to keep those nutrients in place rather than applying more nutrients that may not be needed."

Tillage also goes a long way in sustaining or robbing soil of quality over time. The less it's disturbed through tillage -- though this isn't always optimal for the owner concerned with the land's appearance -- the better the crops will sustain themselves.

"The reality is a field that has bare soil is subject to erosion and loss of organic matter, since it no longer has the protective cover from the crop residue on the surface," Fisher says in a USDA-NRCS report. "No-till farming utilizes the crop residue to blanket the soil surface to protect it from the forces of intense rainfall and summer heat. This protective blanket will conserve moisture for the crop and prevent loss of soil from wind erosion, water erosion and CO2 (carbon) that could be burned off by summer heat."

Cover crops have been coming on as a new way to sustain soil health by keeping it in place through a mix of complementary plants that can themselves have soil health benefits. So, are your farm operators or managers putting cover crops into their crop rotations?

"Like no-till, cover crops provide a green, protective blanket through the winter months or fallow times," NRCS' Fisher says. "The green-growing cover is collecting solar energy, putting down roots and providing habitat when the soil would otherwise be lifeless and barren."

Finally, beyond what you as the landowner can ask the operator to do themselves, what can you do to work together with the other party to make sure soil health is protected? Asking that question and staying open to working with the operator will be critical to the soil's health in the long term, Fisher says.

"Improving soil health can provide long-term, stable dividends for you, your family and your farming partner," Fisher says. "Improving soil health also can decrease the effects of flooding, make food production more resilient to weather extremes, and improve the health of water and wildlife, as well."

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