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12. Kent Solberg – Diversity in Crops, Farm Operations Empowers Soil Health

Cover crops, Grazing, Industry partnerships

Kent Solberg is a livestock and grazing specialist for the Sustainable Farming Association, as well as a field consultant for Understanding Ag, and a farmer. He is interested in the ability of well-managed soil to transform farms, families, and even communities. He believes diversity is key.

“We’re focusing on these key principles of soil health: keeping the soil covered, minimizing disturbance, increasing plant diversity, keeping a living root in the soil, and integrating livestock,” said Solberg.

Many farmers interested in building better soil health on their farms are investing in keeping the soil covered and minimizing disturbance, but fewer are thinking critically about plant diversity and integrating livestock.

According to Solberg, including at least one of each of the three plant functional groups – grass, legume, and broadleaf – in a crop rotation can increase the health of the farm’s soil exponentially. In a typical corn/soybean rotation, farmers have a grass present in the corn crop and a legume present in the soybean crop, but adding a broadleaf can make a world of difference.

“Even if it’s not a crop we can harvest, we’re harvesting solar energy, we’re putting carbohydrates through photosynthesis into the ground, we’re freeing that microbial community, we’re keeping the soil covered – all of that building soil biology,” he said. 

Better soil biology builds soil aggregation, which increases the ability of the field to handle and hold water and impacts trafficability. Solberg admits that it is difficult to put a value on trafficability and being able to get into the field at the proper time, but that we all know intuitively how critical timing can be to farm productivity. With that in mind, trafficability is a tremendous factor worth considering. 

A lot of this is about being creative, says Solberg, and setting aside a few acres of your farm to try something new. Adding livestock could be a great way to bring a younger family member back to the farm, but if a livestock herd is not in the cards for you, he encourages thinking about custom grazing. A farmer can have the soil health benefit of adding livestock without the labor if he or she is creative about it.

“All the things we can control in the production and potential profitability of our farm fall under the ability to help that soil capture and store water and build that nutrient cycling,” said Solberg.

Learn how to implement additional crop and animal diversity to benefit your soil’s health in this podcast.