Get to Know What Lives in Your Soil

Healthy soil is the foundation for productive crops and a resilient farming system. When it comes to building soil health, we often talk about the physical and chemical properties of soil – things like soil texture, aggregate stability and soil organic matter. There is a third component of soil health, though, that is highlighted less frequently: the biological component.

At its most basic level, soil is made up of weathered rock material, water, air, and the remains of decomposed plants and animals. Beyond that, the soil is an entire functioning ecosystem full of life! In just one handful of soil, there can be billions of microorganisms, including some you’re probably already aware of, like bacteria and fungi. 

Other living organisms in the soil can be classified as invertebrates. An invertebrate is simply an organism that does not have a backbone. Some common soil invertebrates include mollusks, earthworms, arthropods (i.e., insects, spiders and crustaceans), and nematodes. Soil invertebrates living beneath the soil surface may be harder to detect, but by familiarizing yourself with the most common invertebrate groups, you can be sure you won’t underestimate their impact on soil health and agriculture.

Arthropods and Earthworms

The role of arthropods and earthworms in agriculture is well-established. Arthropods, at the soil surface and beneath, are great decomposers and nutrient cyclers. Arthropods that feed on plant residue help to build soil organic matter and can impact soil fertility. Soil-dwelling arthropods can be pests (e.g., cutworms or white grubs), but they can also help to control pest populations. For example, ground beetles and spiders are arthropod predators that are often encountered in fields. 

When earthworms move through the soil, they create channels that can help improve soil drainage. Earthworms also enhance soil structure and nutrient cycling through their movement and feeding habits. Scouting for earthworms is fairly simple and can be done by counting the number of earthworm middens on the soil surface. An earthworm midden is a small pile of plant material and worm castings (worm poop!) that can be found at the entrance of a worm burrow. The photo below shows five earthworm middens in a no-till field. Click on the link below the photo for more information. 

Earthworm Middens

Credit: Sjoerd Duiker via No-Till Farmer

Nematodes

Nematodes – or microscopic roundworms – are lesser-known organisms in the soil. Plant-parasitic nematodes can be agricultural pests that impact plant health and yield by sucking out the contents of plant cells using piercing, needle-like mouthparts. This type of nematode can also vector plant diseases, such as tomato mosaic virus. There are also beneficial nematode groups that are present in healthy soils, such as bacteria feeding, fungal feeding, and predatory nematodes. 

Nematode feeding damage is often misidentified as a nutrient deficiency in crops; plant symptoms – such as chlorosis, stunting, and wilting – are common examples. While some nematodes, like Soybean Cyst Nematode, can be visible on plant roots, most nematodes will require positive identification through a soil sample. When soil sampling for nematodes during the growing season, use a soil probe to sample 6-8 inches deep and sample at the base of the plant in the root zone. If sampling outside of the growing season, fall is the best time for detecting nematodes because populations will be at their highest.

Some plant-parasitic nematodes are very common and can be found in nearly every soil type or cropping system (root lesion and stunt nematodes [see picture below], for example). Generally, these nematodes will rarely cause economic harm to crops. Some nematodes, however, are more specific to a soil type or to the crop they are attracted to. Two examples of harmful plant-parasitic nematodes are Soybean Cyst and Corn Needle (see picture below) Nematodes.

The head of a Corn Needle Nematode. This nematode feeds almost exclusively on corn roots and the economic threshold is just 1 or 2 individuals in 100 CC of soil (about a handful of soil). 

Stunt nematodes are plant-parasitic nematodes that feed on field and vegetable crops. The economic threshold for stunt nematodes varies by crop and soil type, but is 100-200 individuals in 100 CC of soil (about a handful of soil) in corn.

Time to Dig In

The soil is a living, functioning ecosystem full of organisms you can and can’t see. Microscopic or not, these organisms can have a big impact on your productivity. The next time you’re out in the field, keep an eye out for signs of earthworms and other invertebrates that can be seen with the naked eye. And, if you are interested in learning more about soil invertebrates on your farm, reach out to your SHP field manager or your local agronomist to explore scouting and soil sampling options.

Why No Change in Yield Can be a Good Thing

The success of a growing season is typically measured by yield, bushels per acre, actual production history (APH) and farm average. It’s commonplace to hear comparisons of these measurements in conversations at the local coffee shop this time of year. The higher the increase in a season, we tell ourselves, the more successful we were. However, I’m going to argue that not seeing a change in those measurements can actually be a good thing. 

When it comes to agriculture, business decisions are made more methodically and emotionally then in most business sectors. The way your farm operates goes back generations – my father did things this way, my grandfather did things this way – and those family ties make operational changes difficult. 

However, in 2020, consumers are demanding more from their products. They want sustainable, renewable, green, organic products that are not only perceived to be good for them, but also good for the environment. At the same time, farmers have begun to realize the importance of resilient soil and that soil health practices are a tool to manage the function of soil and crop productivity.  The bright side here is that, at the Soil Health Partnership, we are seeing positives in these shifts

Since SHP began in 2014, questions from farmers have been, “How have cover crops and no-till trials compared to the normal practices?” And when they talk about comparison to “normal,” they mean one thing: yield. 

Do cover crops pay? Can I afford to no-till? 

After six years of research and studies on more than 200 farms, we are seeing many farms able to maintain their yields when implementing soil health building approaches and, to us, that’s a good thing. Here’s why:

Maintaining yield from the get-go is important because a farmer can confidently make the switch to sustainable practices and know their production will still be there. They can market, plan ahead, and sleep at night knowing their APHs will stay put. Even though our trials show no significant yield loss or change, they are showing big differences when it comes to soil health management factors like soil quality, soil resilience, weed suppression and organic matter…just to name a few.

When we look at these factors, it’s easy to see that yield isn’t the only factor in these decisions anymore. I, for one, have growers who have eradicated herbicide resistant marestail by simply putting down a basic cereal rye cover crop. They’ve eliminated a fall burndown pass and, depending on establishment, a spring burndown when they plant soybeans green, as well. 

I have other growers who experience a more timely harvest and planting time frame on no-till fields – where the soil structure is better than on tilled fields, allowing them to get into the fields sooner and with less ruts and damage during wet harvests. The combination of cover crops and no-till are also helping growers prevent gullying and erosion, especially when weather patterns lately are bringing large quantities of rain at a single time frame compared to 1-2” rains in a timely manner. 

The time has come to reframe our measurement of success. It’s not always about more yield anymore. It can be about less – less weeds, herbicides, fuel, compaction…all while maintaining yield. It can be about more of other things, like lengthening the planting window, better water infiltration, and improved aggregate stability. This fall at the coffee shop, I challenge you to talk about less – as in, what you didn’t do while still maintaining your yields. Not only for our generation of farmers today, but for the generations to come in our ever-changing industry.

The Importance of Data Collection

After the harvest issues in 2018, planting issues of 2019, and the heavy rains in mid-May of 2020, data software and collection might be on the back burner of important things on your operation. Farmers have been so focused on getting a crop in or out of the field that, when the monitor beeps or acts up, the reaction for most is to ignore it and keep on going. Not to mention prices have been volatile, making breakevens tight and preventing farmers from upgrading their systems.

Why, then, is data collection still something to focus on?

At Soil Health Partnership (SHP), we believe quality information is critical to farmer success. For example, in order to truly understand the yield potential and fertilizer efficiency for every grower in our program, we look at planting dates, fertilizer rates, and population counts (among many other things), and tie that information to harvest data – which gives us a more complete picture of farming practices for the year in that SHP trial.

Data collection allows us to report back to the grower the best information possible. In return, that information helps the farmer decide what to do or not do in the years to come. Our data and reports are only as good as the data we receive – proving that good data collection is pivotal for you and SHP.

Here’s another example of just one of the many reasons information gathering can be useful:

Let’s say your crop was planted in a timely manner, was open and growing – and then heavy rains came through and washed out 5-10% of the field. If you were collecting good data, this would show up on a harvest map come that fall. Because you’re able to take this map to your landlord and show them the problem spots in the field, you can help the landowner understand the value of tile drainage, and how the return on investment (ROI) of tiling could quickly increase both their income and the value of that piece of ground.

Another interesting takeaway from good data is the ability to look more closely at areas that struggle to be profitable. Wet holes, fence rows and tree lines are places that drainage and conservation farming practices will not help. These areas might be prime candidates for NRCS programs, which ensure an income while setting back acres that are costing you money year-in and year-out. When you use this data and look at it from an ROI point-of-view, it can help you make decisions that can increase your bottom line and decrease your workload.

I encourage you to research and look into ways to track and collect data on your operation. There are many different companies out there; I recommend finding a local company with great service to work with. With so many products available, service and reliability are my top two priorities. From there, learn the software and find ways to utilize the data received, both on and off the farm. As with any software, keep up-to-date with everything, as companies are constantly upgrading systems to help justify and simplify things annually for their growers.

10. Wayne Honeycutt – Farmer Adoption of Best Soil Health Practices is Key

Wayne Honeycutt is the CEO of the Soil Health Institute – not to be confused with the Soil Health Partnership. The Soil Health Institute is focused on the science of soil health and how different practices impact different elements of the soil.

Honeycutt’s interest in the soil stems from a big “A-ha!” moment as he conducted research on the soil in Maine. In one study, he was able to double the yield of potatoes in one cropping system by either irrigating or by improving soil health. After soil health improved, he discovered irrigating no longer boosted yield. Soil health was the answer on that Maine farm – and Honeycutt remains convinced the same can be said for many farmers in many regions of the country.

“The whole concept of soil health is holistic. There are chemical, physical and biological properties. It’s like human health. For human health, we don’t just go in and ask for our blood pressure to be checked and feel like we have a complete picture. We have many other things that we want to be analyzed, including what’s in our blood. It’s a similar way with soil health. There are not just one or two things. There’s a whole suite of things that need to be analyzed,” Honeycutt said.

For now, the Soil Health Institute is focused on analyzing each aspect of soil health and figuring out how to increase farmer adoption. They are working on programs to quantify the business case for farmers and identify the best measurements and tools for farmers to select management practices that improve soil health.

Farmer adoption is key.

According to Honeycutt, the models indicate that if farmers will adopt soil health practices on at least three-fourths of land, then all greenhouse gas emissions for the entire U.S. agriculture sector are reduced. Also significantly reduced, by millions of pounds, would be the amount of nutrients that are lost to U.S. waterways.

“And, of course, these losses are not just environmental issues and impact. They also directly impact the pocketbook of farmers, too,” said Honeycutt.

Listen in below to learn more about this innovative and exciting new area where scientific discovery will eventually make prescriptive soil health a reality.

09. Debbie Reed – Translating Consumer Preferences to Farmer Opportunities

The Ecosystems Services Market Consortium (ESMC) is a market designed to sell carbon, water quality and water quantity credits for the agriculture sector. Debbie Reed is the executive director of the ESMC, and she’s had a long career in Washington, DC in food and agriculture.

Debbie studied human nutrition and dietetics landing her a job with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. But her appreciation for production agriculture grew, and later she became involved in how agriculture can mitigate climate change. Now, under Reed’s leadership, the ESMC considers agriculture an incredibly important component of natural resource preservation and enhancement in our country and helps farmers capitalize on their environmental investments.

“The interest from consumers right now is on climate change, climate change mitigation, and that translates into carbon and greenhouse gases. So, what is the carbon and greenhouse gas impact of food production and agricultural production?  We [ESMC] track soil carbon, net greenhouse gases, water quality and water quantity, but we will be adding additional components such as biodiversity. That’s another ecosystem service benefit that agriculture truly impacts in terms of its focus on agricultural lands and working lands,” Reed said.

She is working hard to perfect the infrastructure of the ESMC marketplace right now. She describes it as “kicking the tires.” The process includes gathering feedback from the farmers and ranchers that will supply ecosystem credits and from the corporations that will purchase the credits.

“We hear the voices of all those particular members as we test, as we refine and perfect the system. And our plan is to launch as a fully functioning market in 2022,” said Reed. “The beauty of our system is that we know that there is demand from our members at the table in purchasing those credits at the end of the system. So we’re trying to take the signals we’re getting from society, from these corporations and turn them into opportunities for farmers and ranchers to just engage in the system and we take on the work of the quantification, if you will.”

Reed describes what it might look like for a farmer or rancher to enroll and participate in the ESMC in the podcast available above.

Terry Bachtold

Terry Bachtold of Strawn, Illinois, has been farming his entire life. He grew up with cattle and hogs along with an annual rotation of oats, soybeans, corn and hay.

He appreciates cover crops to naturally increase organic matter and values the return to the old ways via a shorter term, similar rotation system.

“We have come a long way in technology as far as nutrient management, but I think the next leap forward is going to be improving soil through practices like cover crops and no-till,” said Terry. “Organic matter is basically what holds the soil together. If you don’t have organic matter, you’re not going to raise a crop.”

Terry is also interested in cover crops because of their ability to suppress weeds and hold nitrogen for use by growing plants in the next crop year.

He’s hopeful that incorporating cover crops will reduce his commercial application of nitrogen, but only time—and research with the Soil Health Partnership—will tell.

“As you increase the organic matter, you also increase the amount of nitrogen as it decomposes from plants will release back naturally,” Terry explains. “Each one percent of organic matter is basically 20-30 pounds of nitrogen that’s available to the crop and gets released every year out of your soil.”

07. Elyssa McFarland – Soil Science is the New Frontier in Agriculture

Elyssa McFarland is the Development Manager for the Soil Health Partnership, but she is also a farmer with her very own SHP research trial.  She is passionate about soil, and can’t remember a time when soil didn’t excite her.

“I think my interest in soil started pretty early, but I always thought our farm was really interesting.  We have super sandy soils that we have to irrigate, and we have some really rich deep prairie soil that tends to be a little too wet. It was a really interesting mix of things I saw growing up on the farm,” she said.

Later in her life, after being thrown onto the FFA soil judging team last minute, her dad told her that she’d never really know what it was to be a farmer until she jumped right in.  So she rented a farm and started making decisions.  She quickly got a true farmer experience and still loved studying soil.

As a farmer, she sees anecdotal changes on her farm due to the soil health management practices she’s incorporated.  As a researcher, she is really interested in being able to measure and track the changes and tie them to outcomes on the farm.

In Elyssa’s mind, soil health is the new frontier in agriculture.

“Soil is this medium that allows us to interact with all these other parts of our community and our industry.  Soil health is such a new area, even though we’ve learned a lot and we’re better at managing our soils than we used to be, there are still really complex things that happen over time, and those cycles and changes throughout the year are really variable.  There’s a lot for us to learn about how those changes interact with our environment and our crops,” she said.

New opportunities abound for people that are interested.  Elyssa looks forward to a future where scientists and farmers are interested in what is going on a bit deeper in the soil than where we focus now.  Understanding subsoils could offer big improvements in yield and water holding capacity, she says.  Also, infield soil testing could change the future.

Listening to our Land Through Plant Tissue Testing

Today, we are more in tune with listening to what is going on around us than we were 20 years ago. This is particularly true when it comes to our fields. Whether it has been the wide adoption of soil sampling, yield monitors, or even the advent of infield sensors like moisture probes, we have come a long way in learning how to listen to the messages that our fields give us. These messages (or our willingness to listen to these messages) have unlocked a lot of yield for us in these last 20 years, as we have seen the average corn yield in the U.S. go from 140 to 170 plus bushels per acre. But for a majority of growers, I can think of another area that we could be listening to more: plant tissue testing.

When it comes to fertility testing, soil health, or any other test we do in our fields, we are taking a “picture” of what is happening at a moment in time. In the case of a soil sample that is taken in the fall, we know that there are nutrients in the residue that will not show up on that soil test, but if we take it in April, it will be a different set of results. In general, we accept this as part of the process. The same is true with plant tissue testing. Plant nutrient levels can and often do change based on plant maturity, the part of the plant sampled, the hybrid or variety, and even the weather we have in the hours and days leading up to the test.

For me, I look at plant tissue tests in one of two ways. It is either to monitor the health of the plant for a specific set of parameters, or it is to look at the health of the plant to  diagnose a problem within the plant.

Today, I feel like most growers that use plant tissues are testing solely as a diagnostic tool, akin to going to the doctor. I know I only am going to go to the doctor if I am sick. When I do go, I want answers right now. I also want a course of action or medicine to cure the problem. Many growers and agronomists apply that line of thinking directly to tissue samples. We go take tissue samples if the crop has poor color, is weak, or is struggling. Then, we look to that single test for answers and action.

I challenge you to think of a different course of treatment. I know my physician would be quick to say that, while important, the doctor’s visit when ill should not make up the entire health care plan. An annual physical can help be proactive and take care of little things before they become big things. That is where the monitoring potential of plant tissue testing unlocks additional, and perhaps greater, value.

Sampling at predetermined times and intervals identifies deficiencies, excesses, issues and successes in time to “take action” if needed to help reach yield goals and manage economic risks. Again, it is a bit like an annual checkup. If you indicate that your plant is at growth stage x, then the lab of your choice will compare the values of your plant with their standards (universities and private labs have their own values, and they differ slightly from one to another) and advise how healthy the plant is or if there are indicators that raise concern. Late-season samples serve as the report card to tell us how well we did getting nutrients from the soil to where they needed to be in the plant. This report card can help identify where we need to focus for upcoming growing seasons.

It is important to remember there is a difference between soil and plant deficiencies. If you are tissue testing once or twice per year, it can be a good idea to take a soil sample and even a soil health sample at the same time and place as the tissue sample to help bring clarity to the process. Not only does it give you soil nutrient baselines at the same time but it can also reveal issues like compaction, insects, nematodes, or other variations from “healthy” soil that could be contributing to the above-ground symptoms that you would miss otherwise.

The real power in any testing, whether soil, soil health, or tissue, is in establishing a cadence. Using the same lab, sampling in the same area, and doing it at the same time each year build a pattern. Once you have a pattern, you can study it to find the answers that you are looking for. Remember, do not be discouraged by having values that are outside of target ranges. It doesn’t mean that you or your trusted advisor are doing a bad job.

Finally, remember that this is a part of tuning the machine that is your ecosystem. Just because you show a deficiency of a micronutrient or an excessive amount of something else, it doesn’t definitively mean to go spray a foliar product or cut a rate in the future. It might mean those things, but it first means to study the system and theorize on your why before you decide on your response.

04. Kristin Poley – Translating Data to Real Work Answers

Kristin Poley, SHP Michigan Research Manager, visited with The People of Soil Health podcast host, John Mesko, on how she builds research partnerships that help answer key soil health and water quality questions.

Poley, who grew up on a Christmas tree farm in Southwest Michigan, attended Michigan State University and earned a degree in Fisheries and Wildlife Biology. While finishing her master’s degree there, a new program in Nematology and Soil Health began. She took a job as a research technician where she investigated the use of various cover crop species as a method of nematode pest control. She then went on to serve as a teaching assistant before joining SHP.

Poley shares how her current position is made possible through joint support of SHP, the Corn Marketing Program of Michigan and Michigan Nature Conservancy. Her responsibilities in each of the roles differ slightly, but also intersect.

“Our network is so diverse. The agronomic systems themselves might be similar, but the challenges that are faced, and the motivations for change, can be so different from region to region.” Poley said. “The opportunity to study those differences is very exciting to me.”

She hears from farmers that they want local data and told Mesko that most of the trials she conducts with farmers are side-by-side trials, which offer flexibility. Currently, the Michigan sites are looking at two different cover crop mixes as a tool for building soil health, and also, as an additional source of forage for the dairy herds.

Poley and Mesko spoke on the value of having multiple years worth of data to help to detect and explain patterns in the data that can be translated to real world answers that are ultimately better for the farm’s bottom line.

You can learn more Poley’s work at soilhealthpartnership.com.

03. Dr. LaKisha Odom – A Comprehensive Approach to Soil Health

John Mesko, host of The People of Soil Health Podcast and Senior Director of SHP, spoke with Dr. LaKisha Odom who is the Scientific Program Director for the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research, known as FFAR, in this week’s podcast.

Odom worked at the USDA and Tuskegee University before she found what she describes as the perfect job for her at FFAR: to chase complex problems but do it in an innovative way that involves partnerships.

“It’s finding like-minded folks that want to run with you. A huge part of what I do as the scientific program director at FFAR is to identify research gaps and white spaces and identify areas of alignment,” Odom said. “For me, part of that chasing is thinking about those areas that are complementary to the work that our federal partners, such as USDA are doing, but also those spaces where no one is really funding a lot in that area. Or, what are those research needs from our industry partners and other stakeholders, like farmers and ranchers, that say they need this research, and no one is really funding it? Then, the chase begins.”

FFAR was created in 2014 through the Farm Bill to be complementary to USDA. For every dollar FFAR spends, they have to find a non-federal matching partner. They operate in six strategic research spaces: soil health, sustainable water management, next-generation crops, advanced animal systems, urban food systems and health ag nexus.

With partnerships at the core of her work, Dr. Odom shared the Soil Health Initiatives as an example of how the organizations she works with leverage their expertise and learning to accelerate the adoption of soil health practices.

The Soil Health Initiative is a partnership between the Soil Health Institute (SHP) and The Nature Conservancy. She shared that the Soil Health Institute develops and tests soil health measurements; Soil Health Partnerships comes in to implement and evaluate those soil health practices on working farms. Then, the Nature Conservancy works with the non-operator landowners to try to encourage the use of science-based soil health practices.

Dr. Odom told Mesko about a couple of her current projects. Open Team looks at decision support tools to improve soil health. A new project that is getting underway involves thinking about ways in which  we can impact the lowering of greenhouse gas emissions in agriculture.

FARR is online at https://foundationfar.org/. You can follow them on Twitter at @FoundationFAR and Facebook at @FoundationFAR.