Soil health sabermetrics
Billy Beane upended professional baseball in the early 1990s when he added unprecedented levels of data analysis to traditional player scouting metrics of running, fielding, throwing, hitting, and hitting for power.
The general manager of the Oakland Athletics baseball team’s use of data – called sabermetrics in baseball jargon – has earned the Athletics the fourth best record in all of baseball since 1990, despite annually fielding one of the sports’ lowest payrolls. Thanks to copious amounts of data, and new ways to use it, the use of sabermetrics in sports has revolutionized player evaluation.
Your farm is similar, generating reams of data with every:
- Field pass
- Soil test
- Crop protection application
- Fertilizer application
- Harvest swath
Meanwhile, weather stations track wind speed, precipitation, and temperature, all of which influence your crop. Connected to any of a number of easy-to-use data analytics tools for smartphones, tablets, or computers, all the data help farmers predict yield and profit outcomes based on the management practices they follow.
Soil Health Indicators
There are several easy indicators that a farm’s soil health is improving:
- Aggregate stability, or the ability for soil particles to cling together
- Earthworm presence in the soil
- Improved organic matter content
- Water storage
While there are in-field tests farmers can conduct to ascertain these qualities, some of them are cumbersome. Shoveling a spade full of dirt gives great signals for earthworm activity and aggregate stability, but driving rings of steel into the soil to measure water absorption rate is often time-consuming and can be frustrating. Thus, some farmers are seeking smartphone applications or computer models that give an “easy button” solution to soil health assessment, similar to the ease in which farmers gather yield data or make variable-rate fertility and planting prescriptions.
Brian Lutz wants that, too.
“My hope is that one day we’ll be able to help farmers understand how cover crop implementation will be beneficial,” says Lutz, who is the chief science officer at The Climate Corporation. “But it takes a lot of data.”
Good Data … and Bad
As Beane learned at the Oakland Athletics, there are good data and bad data.
“There’s tons of really good work in agriculture to gather data and information, but it’s not enough to simply get a lot of data points,” says Dianna Bagnall, research soil scientist at the Soil Health Institute. “We have to understand the context of our soil. Data are good, but good data are better.”
Data collection for soil health practices is a new and evolving study. Maria Bowman, lead scientist at the Soil Health Partnership (SHP), says that group has collected data on soil health indicators and outcomes since it was founded in 2014. At first, the group focused on measuring common soil health indicators such as soil respiration, aggregate stability, and organic matter. The group then zeroed in on how soil health plays a role in profitability.
“We’re collecting data based on soil health indicators, and then basic chemical nutrient indicators that any farmer would collect, but more often and at a greater spatial intensity in the field,” Bowman says. “We’ve also started gathering much better data about, for example, seeding rates and costs of cover crops.”
Connecting With Farmers
The Soil Health Partnership connects soil health field managers with farmers to field-test soil health practices, comparing them side by side with other farm practices in participating farmers’ fields. Farmers choose their own objectives – whether they are adopting practices to boost organic matter, increase grazing opportunities, improve water retention, or any of a number of goals – and SHP helps design a program to test practices.
“People want to do good things for their soil, and they have a general concept of what they want to see,” points out Elyssa McFarland, development manager at SHP. “Even though these are complex systems, if you don’t have a guiding light for the main issue to be addressed, it’s hard to measure success along the way.”
Before easy-button solutions to soil health are deployed, large volumes of data must be processed. Slowly, third-party applications are being developed to do this.
Bagnall says SHI is testing a user-friendly app, developed at the University of Sydney, that measures aggregate stability, a leading early indicator of soil health. The app, called SLAKES, is available to farmers now on their iphone and android devices free of charge.
Lutz says learning how soil health practices influence profitability is a difficult task. Combining all the data points on a farm – soil types, weather, soil maps, farming practices – yields a tremendous amount of information. Companies such as The Climate Corporation aim to aggregate data from multiple farms across multiple states. It takes tremendous computing power to do that.
“We’re only going to learn so much from our own farm,” Lutz says. “When you start to look at hundreds of thousands of fields and management systems, you can pull signals out of the noise.”
Through its FieldView platform, Climate officials say soil health assessment is quickly evolving. Remote sensing powered by satellites is finding new ways to detect features on the soil surface, such as cash crops, cover crops, rangeland, and bare ground. Combined with high-resolution maps or soil organic matter and soil residue, the data can be combined to create useful soil health conclusions. Having affirmation that soil health practices pay is vital.
“You believe in your gut that you’re doing the right thing by reducing tillage and planting cover crops,” Lutz says. “There is a lot to be learned about our soil, if we look at the data.”
10 traits of healthy soil
Cornell University is a leader in the study and testing of soil health. The university’s soils team has developed the criteria to determine whether a soil is “healthy.” They include:
- Soil tilth. It is crumbly, dark, and well-aggregated.
- Sufficient depth. Roots are able to dig deep to find water and nutrients.
- Sufficient, but not excessive, supply of nutrients. Soil has balanced nutrient content for optimal plant growth and balanced nutrient cycling.
- Good water storage and drainage. It’s able to take in and store more water in medium and small pores, and also drain water from large pores.
- Small population of plant pathogen and insect pests. Healthy plants can better defend themselves against a variety of pests.
- Large population of beneficial organisms. These help with cycling nutrients, decomposing organic matter, and they’re the base for soil structure.
- Low weed pressure. Weeds compete for water and nutrients.
- Absence of chemicals and toxins. Stable organic matter and diverse microbial activities limit the plant’s ability to take up these toxins.
- Resistant to degradation. Healthy soils can withstand environmental and pest challenges.
- Resilience. It will rebound more quickly after negative events