Three Steps to Healthier Soil

November 8, 2013 02:00 AM
Three Steps to Healthier Soil

Boost profit potential with an improved soil profile

Would you describe your soil as fairly weatherproof, able to handle harsh conditions and poised to bounce back quickly? That’s how Farm Journal Field Agronomist Ken Ferrie described healthy soil at this summer’s Farm Journal Corn College event.

"All soils have a certain level of health and a certain level of sickness," Ferrie explains. "You have to be respectful of the soil type. The more athletic of a field you have, the more abuse it can take. Other fields, you can destroy in a heartbeat."

The good news is that any farmer can give his or her fields a physical. Start by evaluating these three aspects of soil—its chemical, physical and biological properties.

  1. The chemical component can be monitored with a soil test. Fixes are relatively easy, Ferrie says. Apply fertilizer to achieve balance, and maintain it over time to keep that balance.
  2. The physical component is a little more complicated because there are a variety of potential causes and corresponding solutions. For example, tackle compaction and old horizontal barriers with vertical tillage or cover crops such as radishes. Become familiar with tools such as slake tests and soil penetrometers to help you accurately diagnose problem areas.
  3. The biological components of soil can be detected through in-field and lab testing. Test in the spring when soil moisture is close to field capacity.

What you can do. You can improve chemical or physical properties in a relatively short time, but a soil’s biological health might take more time to heal, Ferrie says.

"Improving soil biology is a long-term commitment with very little short-term payback," he says. "It might be a 10-, 15- or even 20-year process. So the moral of the story is, don’t let it get to that point. Keep your soil healthy."

People who want better health might reach for a stalk of celery or hit the gym. There are ways to whip soil into shape, too, notes Lisa Holscher, soil health program manager at the Indiana Association of Soil and Water Conservation Districts. The best way to keep soil disturbance to a minimum is no-till practices, Holscher says. According to USDA, less than 40% of farms practice no-till.

Holscher suggests that farmers deve­lop their objectives and then set strategies around them. She also recommends easing into any new practice. For example, farmers who are new to cover crops should start on 10% to 20% of their acres.

Jon Gingerich, an Iowa farmer, says that Farm Journal Corn College helped him put various soil health issues front and center. For Gingerich, growing corn on corn led to some important challenges to conquer, such as breaking down residue more quickly.

Gingerich achieves this by promoting higher microbial populations for faster residue decomposition. He also makes regular lime applications to keep his soil pH neutral for maximized nutrient uptake.

"It’s important to know where your pH is and where you want it to be," he says. 

Head Back to School

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To learn more from the Farm Journal Field Agronomists and other experts, make plans to attend one or more Corn College, Soybean College and/or Wheat College events, which will be hosted throughout 2014. Call (877) 482-7203 or go to for dates, locations and to register.

You can e-mail Ben Potter at

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