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When we talk about soil health at SHP, we often talk about how important it is to find a strategy that fits your farm. That’s especially true when you think about how varied soil types and weather conditions can be. Sure, that’s obvious when you start comparing different states – California vs. Maryland or Florida vs. Minnesota, for instance – but it’s also true when you look a little closer to home. 

Here’s an example: in Nebraska, where I live, the terrain and conditions are vastly different from one end of the state to the other. Across more than 77,000 square miles, we can see up to 15 inches of difference in annual precipitation. That means finding conservation approaches that work for farmers on the eastern side of the state looks totally different than what our western, dryland farmers can do.

If you’re looking to develop a soil health strategy that fits your farm and your unique logistics, here’s some advice from Nebraska that works for farmers anywhere.

Consider starting with no-till 

Because moisture availability is so variable here, our farmers often start with no-till as Step 1 in building soil health. Nebraska has one of the highest rates of no-till production in the country for several reasons: it can be implemented regardless of rainfall or irrigation, helps reduce operating costs and the benefits are seen on a fairly short timeline. If you’re interested in trying no-till, make sure to check out this advice from another farmer who tried no-till for the first time.

Experiment with cover crops

Since Nebraska is such a high no-till state, the bulk of our SHP trials here are studying the use of cover crops. As is true for many states and many farmers, it’s not a question of whether or not cover crops are good (the benefits of adding a cover crop to your rotation have been well-documented), but exactly how to adopt cover crops – especially in the western part of the state where we’re often dealing with dry conditions.

By experimenting with cover crops on a small-acre basis, you can figure out what works for you – from species selection to application method to determining moisture needs.

Understand the needs of your farm

No two farms are the same, so don’t try to do the exact same thing your neighbor does. When developing your approach, keep in mind things like:

  • Farm scale – Are you trying to harvest 200 acres or 2,000 acres every fall?
  • Harvest window – How many days, on average, do you have to get your cash crop harvested and your cover crop seed planted?
  • Labor – What are the people resources needed to facilitate both cash crop harvest and cover crop planting on your farm?
  • Moisture availability – Will you have adequate rainfall to support your cover crop? When does that rainfall happen? How does irrigation fit in the mix? 

Many of my growers are trying to get 2,000+ acres harvested in 35-45 days plus get their cover crop seeded with limited labor and limited moisture. That means they’ve got to really think through delegating (Can a local retailer help with cover crop planting?), water management and selecting the right cover crop species and/or species mix to fit their logistics.

The questions you reflect on may be different than the ones my Nebraska farmers are answering, but the main point here is to consider the factors that may help or hurt soil health practices on your farm – so you can be proactive in setting yourself up for success. 

Digging In

The research we’re doing on adopting cover crops at scale in Nebraska continues, but there is one thing we’ve found to be true: cover crop management is more predictable and the results are far more consistent the longer a farmer is using this practice. Whether you are looking to follow our lead and add cover crops to your operation or you’re experimenting with another soil health practice, know that the strategy needs to be tailored to your farm and may take a few years to dial in. Just because something works for your neighbor doesn’t mean it will work for you. Learn from their experience and then don’t be afraid to adapt to find a plan that fits your needs.

Keith Byerly
Keith Byerly
Keith Byerly is the Field Team Director–West and a Field Manager for Soil Health Partnership covering Kansas and Nebraska.