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.

Soil Health is Not Formulaic: Soil Health Indicators Webinar Explains More

Every farmer wants their soil to be healthy; many probably already believe that it is.  But how can you know for sure?  Anna Teeter, Soil Health Partnership Minnesota Field Manager, walks us through soil and soil health indicators during the most recent Soil Sessions Webinar held March 31 and recorded for later viewing.

Teeter reminds viewers that soil is dynamic and biologically active and different across regions and changing the health of your soil will take time.

The soil on each of your farms – and on the farms in Minnesota versus the farms in Illinois or Kentucky – will respond differently to different management techniques.  Teeter recommends patience.

“Changing management on your farm to include soil health means you must be patient as these changes can happen very slowly over many years. Soil needs to transform to its new normal before it can perform for you,” she said.

As farmers begin to investigate the health of their soil, they can focus on key elements, some of which must be reviewed in a lab, but many of which can be observed.  Keep an eye out for how quickly standing water absorbs into your fields after a rain.  Standing water can indicate an infiltration issue.  Watch for erosion problems or plant indicators that you might have root issues that show soil compaction.

Some farmers who have already invested in soil health for a few years indicate better trafficability, or that they can get into the field to harvest or plant sooner than their neighbors, which is another farmer-level indication of improving soil health.

In the lab, soil is evaluated on texture, available water capacity, wet aggregate stability, soil organic matter, soil protein and other properties to indicate improving soil health.

Teeter advises farmers to make small improvements over multiple areas and to document their journey. 

“Observe, but don’t worry too much.  Progress isn’t linear,” she says.

Documenting changes on your farm can help you gain perspective when things become challenging and it might help someone else to be more successful.  Talking to others in your area who have implemented soil health practices can also be a wealth of knowledge. 

Always remember, when evaluating soil health on your farm that changes will happen slowly, and that improving soil health isn’t just about one input change.  It’s many changes over time.

Watch this recorded webinar, previously recorded webinars and register for future webinars by visiting SHP’s Soil Sessions webpage.

Soil Health Indicators

SHP Field Manager for Minnesota Anna Teeter discusses soil health indicators, including: the different types of soil health indicators, how to test soil health on your farm, and the soil health indicators that SHP collects and what they mean.

Soil Sessions is a webinar series by the Soil Health Partnership that provides monthly, in-depth updates on various SHP programs and research findings. Soil Sessions covers a range of topics such as our evolving data insights, how SHP manages and integrates data, our connection to and work with our partners, as well as providing technical information on topics like cover crops, scouting and grazing. To view all SHP webinars, visit our website here.

5 Ways to Evaluate the Health of Your Soil

There are three main types of soil health indicators: chemical, biological and physical. While soil testing through a laboratory is required to determine many of these, there are ways to physically assess your soil at home.

Here are five ways you can evaluate your fields to determine if your soil is healthy.

  1. Water infiltration
    Use a water infiltration kit if you have one. Otherwise, you can observe how much standing water there is after a rainstorm. While infiltration rates can vary based on soil texture, it can also vary because of issues like compaction, low soil aggregate stability, or low organic matter.
  2. Soil aggregate stability, slump test or slake test
    Perform a slump test or a slake test to evaluate the soil aggregate stability. Soil that falls apart in water or completely loses shape has poor aggregate stability which indicates lower organic matter and less “biological glue.”
  3. Smell
    Soils should have a pleasant earthy odor. Soils that have a strong, off-putting or sulfur-like smell can indicate poor drainage or lack of oxygen in the soil.
  4. Erodibility
    Observe the amount of residue on soils. More residue should protect soil from wind or rain. Rills and channels on soils, as well as soil color, can indicate erosion occurring in your field.
  5. Root health-checking at multiply stages
    Sickly plants can occur when there is compaction in the soil because root development is slowed. Digging up plants to observe the size, shape, direction, and color of roots can show issues with compaction. Root health may also indicate water infiltration, as slow growth can occur when soils are too wet.

Evaluate these indicators multiple times throughout the growing season. Take photos and document changes over time.

The earlier you assess your soil, the earlier you can develop strategies to improve it. These indicators are just part of a systematic approach to improving soil quality.

Soil health indicators

Soil health indicators

Soil health indicators

Slake test

3 Types of Soil Health Indicators

Soil health is the capacity of soil to function as a vital living system to sustain biological productivity, maintain environmental quality, and promote plant, animal, and human health. This is a concept that characterizes the ability of a living soil system to perform functions such as supporting plant health.

The idea of a healthy soil must be conveyed through useful measurements known as soil health indicators that are sensitive to changes in soil processes and represent connections between soil biological, chemical, and physical properties.

There are three types of soil health indicators:

  1. Chemical Indicators
    • pH: pH is an important indicator of soil health because if there is inadequate soil pH, crop growth can be impacted and key nutrients may become less available. Additionally, soil pH can vary soil microbial communities.
    • Macronutrients: N, P, K, Ca, Mg, S are all macronutrients that are vital to plant growth. If these nutrients are not available in plant usable quantities, crop growth will likely suffer.
    • Micronutrients: Although necessary in smaller quantities than macronutrients, micronutrients are just as critical to plant growth. Typically, soils provide plants with enough necessary micronutrients.
  2. Physical Indicators
    • Aggregate Stability: Soil aggregates that are held together tightly via root exudates, soil fungi, and inherent soil properties. They can be improved upon by creating environments for “biological glues” to be produced by plants and microbes by reducing tillage that physically breaks soil aggregates.
    • Available Water Capacity: Much of this depends on innate soil texture but can be impacted by the amount of soil organic matter and soil aggregation, both of which can increase water holding capacity.
    • Soil Compaction: High amounts of soil compaction mean less room for air or water in the soil, impacting water infiltration and drainage, plant root growth, as well as soil microbial communities. Being timely when driving large equipment on soils, as well as implementing deep rooting plants on the soil, can help alleviate this.
  3. Biological Indicators
    • Soil Microbial Protein: Measures nitrogen from proteins being broken down in the soil which would then be available for plant uptake.
    • Active Carbon: Measures the carbon-containing compounds which are readily broken down by microbes as food. Active carbon is essentially a measure of the food stock available for microbes, which promotes nutrient availability and cycling.
    • OM: Organic matter influences water holding capacity, contains nutrients that can be broken down and made available, and provides food for microbes. Improving organic matter in the soil can be challenging but made easier by introducing conservation tactics like reducing tillage, adding other crops to a rotation, and using cover crops.
    • Respiration: Measures the amount of CO2 produced by microbes which can help indicate soil microbial activity.

How are you measuring the health of your soil? Check out this Soil Sessions webinar all about soil health indicators for more ideas.

Calibrating Yield Monitors for Accurate Data

Harvest is an exciting and extremely busy time of year. There is no other season when you have more wheels in motion than there are right now. And the preparation that has gone into this season is nothing short of spectacular. From maintenance on combine heads to rebuilding auger flightings, there seems to be no shortage of tasks to complete. Yet prior to heading out to the field, there is one piece of hardware that often gets overlooked, especially considering that is used on every pass of every field all season long.

There are few things closer to you while you are in the seat of the combine than the yield monitor. While we often overlook the most obvious things, we cannot assume harvest equipment works the same way it did last harvest season. Yield monitors are part of a complex system of machine pieces that differ in their tolerances and accuracy throughout the course of a season, depending on the wear and tear of the combine. Have you checked on the wear pieces of the combine’s yield monitor system?  Problems like the elevator chain on the combine stretching can affect the way that grain hits the impact plate of the yield monitor, meaning that yields might not be measured accurately. Parts themselves cannot be overlooked, such as the wear of the impact plate, wear on portions of the moisture sensor, and the deflector plates, all which need to be checked regularly.

We also need to acknowledge that the growing season itself can alter how the yield monitor performs. A system that was calibrated for high test weight dry corn may not perform with the same accuracy if moisture or test weight varies significantly this year.

As your combine or yield monitor manufacturer releases software updates, it is important to realize that updates can, and do cause changes in the calibration process. The way you calibrated a couple of years ago may not be the same calibration method that should be used this season. It is important to spend a couple of minutes looking at software release notes, or at the very least asking the technician that installed the software upgrade about any potential changes that will affect you going forward.

When analyzing farm management, the first thing agronomists look at is the yield data that corresponds with what is going on in the field. Having clean, accurate yield data is essential to making the best management decisions for your farm.

The data collected this year plays a huge role in your decision-making process. Knowing and following your procedures for calibrations is key to securing the most accurate calibration. It is important to know what your monitor wants. Different manufacturers prefer different things. Does your equipment want a single calibration load weighed at maximum flow, or several loads at different flows that create a calibration curve to look at different numbers?

There will never be another opportunity to get an accurate foot by foot, row by row map of the weather conditions, the inputs and the hybrid and varieties you decided on this season. There are no second chances in getting harvest and yield data on your field. It is important to take the time to get the monitor prepared, and the calibration process right for the sake of your data.