18. Dr. Charles Rice – “New Science” of Soils and the Holy Trinity

Kansas State University Soil Microbiology Professor Charles (Chuck) Rice has always been interested in science and nature. A biology-turned-geography focus in college turned his attention to soils and water. Now, he revels in the new field of soil microbiology.

“Soil microbiology is a young field, compared to some of the chemistry and physics components. Over time we knew what the microbes were doing in the soil, but we didn’t necessarily know who they were. There’s a huge opportunity to further understand the soil microbe component,” Rice said.

This opportunity for more information about soil microbes is illustrated by the fact that we can, at this time, only cultivate less than 1% of the microbes that exist in the soil.

Rice currently studies soils in two different ecosystems: the native prairie and cultivated ag systems. He studies the relationships between carbon, microbes, and structure – his Holy Trinity, as he puts it – as he works to understand the soils in these two environments.

An example of how the “Holy Trinity” works is the additional fungi that occurs in no-till soils, which binds and builds soil aggregates – resulting in improved soil structure. Inside the aggregates is trapped carbon, which builds the organic matter of the soil. 

Rice says there are practices we know are changing this three-way interaction, but measurement can be slow and difficult.

“Carbon is the centerpiece, but it does take a long time to measure that change. But we can detect earlier – within three or four years – a change in soil structure through aggregation. We can measure the microbial composition, so we can pick up changes in fungal-bacteria ratios much quicker than a carbon change.”

According to Rice, if you have these three components – your soil has good structure, carbon content, and microbes – then that soil is going to hold more water. Soil with these three factors will capture intense rainstorm events better and be more resilient to dry periods or drought years than less-healthy soil.

“You may not get higher yields, but you should get more stable yields with healthier soil,” he said.

And healthier soil can influence the atmosphere and mitigate some of those extreme weather events.

“There’s two to three times more carbon stored in soils than there is in the atmosphere. So if we can make some small changes in soil carbon, it can have significant influences on the atmosphere and one of the causes of our changing climate,” he said.

Learn more from Dr. Rice about the amazing “new field” of soil science by clicking the player above or listening to this episode in your favorite podcast player.

What Human Health Can Teach Us About Soil

It’s been said many times before and it’ll be said many times again: we live in an instant gratification world. From fast food to fast information to fast delivery – when we want something, we want it now…and we usually get it.

Many of us have the same wishes for soil health.

What is the exact practice I can do right now that will build my soil health and build my yield and reduce costs? How much will that practice cost me to implement? What will be the net gain to my bottom line? 

We want soils that support productivity and profitability; we want to know exactly how to get there – and we want to know now. 

What if, instead of looking at soils through the lens of what we know about technology, we looked at it through the lens of what we know about human health?

Our understanding of soil has evolved

When I was getting my agronomy degree in the 1980s, I was taught that soil is nothing more than a medium for holding onto plant roots, and that the main thing we, as agronomists, would be concerned about is the soil solution – the part of the soil where the nutrients are held. 

“We’re going to feed the crop by determining the amount of nutrients needed and apply enough of them to the soil to get the most yield we can,” they taught us. “And, sure, organic matter is great if you can get it. But at the end of the day, it’s not as important as managing the soil solution.”  

We were taught that soils were almost like a factory – inputs go in on one end, crops come out on the other.

At the time, we didn’t know agriculture was on the cusp of a revolution of understanding about the value and complexity of the soil microbiome, the living system present in soil that has so much to say about a particular soil’s productivity and resilience. Since the 1980s, we’ve come to realize that soil is not simply a medium for keeping the plant in place. It’s a living system, with numerous components – all interconnected and impacting each other.

And, in that way, soil is not so different from people.

Human health is complex – and so are soils

I visited my doctor this past summer for a check-up and here’s a little snapshot of how it went:

  • He looked at me, made some assumptions about my health from his visual inspection, and then verified those assumptions by asking questions.
  • He conducted tests and collected data, measuring my height and weight, my resting heart rate, blood pressure, and temperature.
  • He ordered blood samples, and had them evaluated for all kinds of metrics like cholesterol, blood sugar, and a variety of enzymes as indicators of liver health, etc.  
  • He asked general questions like, “What is your family medical history? How much exercise do you get? How active are you? How are you feeling generally right now?”

He collected all of this information in his notes, and then put it into an online portal with the test results, which I can see and track over time. The process is not unlike the field checks our SHP Field Managers are doing throughout the growing season.

Turns out, I’m a pretty healthy guy. I was only in for a checkup, but if I’d had some kind of presenting symptoms prompting my doctor visit, he probably would have made a diagnosis around potential causes and most likely prescribed one or more interventions – like a change in diet, exercise, rest, or possibly a prescription drug.

In that situation, assuming I trust my doctor, I would have taken the prescriptions and acted accordingly. I would likely not ask the doctor which of the prescriptions is the most important, or what my exact outcomes would be if I implement some or all of his recommendations. I would not ask, “How many more months will I live? How quickly will my symptoms get better? How much will my quality of life improve?”   

We face all sorts of questions like this in human health. Situations where, if we make a change in one area, we’re not totally sure how that will impact another area or our health overall. For example, how does a change in measurement of cholesterol impact how long we’ll live or our quality of life? 

Sure, we have some general idea about these things, but my doctor won’t be able to say, “If you get one more hour of sleep every night or if you reduce your cholesterol by ‘this much,’ you’ll live another 10 years.” If I were to ask those questions, the doctor might hazard an educated guess, but that’s all it would be. More likely, he’d say something like, “Well, I can’t say for sure, but I think you’ll feel better if you do these things. Then, make another appointment in six months and we’ll run the tests again and see how things are.” With all the medical research we have on-hand right now – which is way more understanding and data than we have about soil – we still don’t have the kind of certainty we’d like in many areas.

Understanding our own human health – the complex living organism that is each individual person – isn’t always easy. We all understand that specific answers take time and are sometimes elusive. 

In the same way, when it comes to looking at the living systems that make up our soils, that kind of predictive certainty about how a change in practice (aka following an agronomist’s “prescription”) will impact our yields or bottom line is just as elusive.  

Don’t dismiss the progress we’ve made

I know it’s hard not to wonder how a change in management practices will impact your numbers. But let me ask you this:

Would you keep smoking just because a doctor can’t tell you if stopping will increase your life expectancy by 5 years or 50 years? Of course not!

In that same way, I hope you won’t avoid cover crops or reduced tillage or grazing, simply because an agronomist can’t tell you if yields will go up by 5 bushels or 50 bushels.

Soils are complex – which means we have to allow for complex processes when it comes to understanding how they work. When I look at the arc of my own career in agriculture and the way our understanding of soils has grown, I see tremendous progress – progress we can all be proud of. 

We still have a ways to go, but with all the progress we’ve made, there’s never been a better time to work in agriculture.

16. Dr. Steve Wood – Accessible Data for Everyone with AgEvidence

AgEvidence is a new online dashboard where farmers and soil health experts can access cutting-edge research into the impact of soil health practices in the U.S. Corn Belt. Dr. Steve Wood, Senior Scientist for Agriculture and Food Systems for The Nature Conservancy and AgEvidence project lead, believes the tool gives access to foundational data on soil health that can keep the industry and its stakeholders moving forward together.

“You don’t need to be a scientist at the university with a subscription to the academic journals in order to get the data,” Wood says. “This platform makes sure everyone has the same tools in their toolkit.”

In total, the database includes about 16,000 data points, which come from nearly 300 studies. The studies cover different locations, different measurements, and span a 40-year period.

In order for research to be included in AgEvidence, it must first be published in a peer-reviewed journal. Studies also must be taking real measurements in the field. No modeling or simulated growing systems – like lab- or greenhouse-based studies – are included.

For first-time researchers or someone who isn’t a skilled scientist, AgEvidence distills findings down to a manageable set of insights. For example, the main page of the AgEvidence website curates results related to commonly asked questions like, “Which practices most improve water quality?” or “What’s the impact of conservation tillage?”

“We just wanted to make the data really quickly and readily available for folks who are working on this issue day to day, and want to be able to have easy access to the data in a nice, visual, compelling format,” Wood says.

Learn more from Wood about the AgEvidence tool by tuning into the podcast above and visit www.agevidence.org to explore the database.

3 Questions to Ask Yourself Before Setting Up Yield Monitors for Harvest

One of the most challenging aspects of farming is that, unlike other areas of life, there’s rarely an in-the-moment chance at a do-over.

When the weather is right, it’s time to roll. Planting. Harvest. You only get to do it once under that exact timing, with those exact conditions.

That means, when it comes to collecting accurate data – data that helps you make better, more impactful decisions in the future – you’ve got to be prepared. Because (especially when it comes to harvest) you can’t go back and do it again just because you discovered too late your equipment or software wasn’t functioning properly.

By asking yourself three big questions about your yield monitoring system, you can head into harvest confident that you’ll be collecting more accurate information that can be used to make informed choices on your operation for many years to come.

Question 1: Have parts of my yield monitoring system worn out?

We’re sorry to break it to you, but just because your yield monitoring system was ready last season doesn’t mean it’s ready to go now. Yield monitoring systems are built almost entirely of wearable components – impact plates, elevator chains, moisture sensor face, small drive motors and even power cables are all susceptible to wearing out.

Before you hop in the combine, take a look through the hardware of your system and be sure to replace or update anything that isn’t functioning correctly. Especially with some of the weather events we’ve experienced in certain parts of the country, you’ll want to be sure your system is ready to collect data on grain that may be wetter or isn’t feeding into the combine ideally (example: corn that may be lying down following strong winds).

Question 2: Have I double-checked my data system?

It’s not only the nuts-and-bolts, metal-and-plastic components of your yield monitoring system that you should be staying up-to-speed with – your data system is also critical to accurate information collection.

Is your software up-to-date? Is your system communicating back to a central database like it’s supposed to be? Is your farm and field structure the same on the combine monitor as it is on the planter? Do you have full data cards? 

Data collection is only as valuable as your ability to analyze and draw conclusions from it. Be sure to work with your precision ag specialist for support in ensuring this system is ready to roll when you are. 

Question 3: Do I understand who is collecting data and how it is collected?

It can often feel like everyone and anyone is interested in farm production data these days. And while that makes sense – after all, we can’t monitor what we don’t measure – it can also be overwhelming when trying to remember and account for who’s collecting what.

Be sure to touch base with your various precision ag and data collection resources (e.g., equipment manufacturers, ag input suppliers, your SHP Field Manager) prior to harvest. In your conversations, seek to understand what data they’re collecting, how it will be stored, how it will be used, and how you can access it. Talking with these folks proactively can help eliminate data preservation and usage issues later on.

Digging In

When it comes to harvest, there will be dozens of sensors, bells, and whistles to pay attention to when you’re in the cab – don’t let questions around whether or not your data monitoring system is working be one of the things you’re worried about. By asking yourself these three questions and taking some time before harvest to get clear on the answers, you can be more confident you’ll have the information you need when you’re ready to make future decisions for your farm.

Want more details on what to check, update, replace, or ask when it comes to your yield monitoring system? 

Be sure to register for our Soil Sessions webinar on September 29 when SHP Field Manager Keith Byerly will be walking you through a step-by-step process for getting your system ready for harvest. With nearly 20 years’ experience in precision ag, Keith has seen a lot of things go wrong when it comes to data monitoring. By implementing his tips and approaches, you can make sure you won’t fall victim to those mistakes! To join Soil Sessions live or get access to the recording, register here.

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.

How Does Aggregate Stability Support Quicker Field Entry?

When planting season begins, it always seems like a race to get as much seed in the ground as quickly as you can. It is disappointing when conditions are not favorable to get planting done. It is extra frustrating when you see that your neighbor is able to get in the field, and you are not.

Aggregate stability

More often than not, this difference in time to enter the field can come down to one factor: aggregate stability.

How does aggregate stability factor into quicker field entry?

  1. Better aggregate stability means better water infiltration, and better water infiltration leads to increased yield. This is especially true in a region like Nebraska, where the most limiting factor is moisture availability to a crop. When plants can absorb and store more water, it limits the amount of work they have to do to find it. This will allow the crops to better prosper to reach the best yield.
  1. Better aggregate stability also means soil is more adaptable to moisture. When conducting aggregate stability tests by submerging a cube of soil in water, the sample with the better aggregation sticks together longer. What does that mean for the long run in your field? This can be the difference in planting on May 15 vs. May 18. Soil with this aggregation is able to contain more water without falling apart, allowing for a spongy effect. This keeps the soil particles together instead of breaking apart and making a muddy track across the field.
  1. Built in pore space is often overlooked but is also an important piece to good aggregate stability. These pore spaces are usually created by earthworms, roots, and other critters in the soil. They also add to the ability to hold more water. This creates a better environment for oxygen to filter in the soil. The more oxygen transfer in the soil, the better it can mineralize and convert the already present nutrients into a plant available form.

Universally, there are no detrimental effects to building aggregate stability. There are multiple ways to address and show how aggregate stability has positive effects in soil; however, it is awfully hard to come up with even one negative impact of managing a field to include better aggregation.

Aggregate stability

Aggregate stability

02. Pipa Elias – Allies in Conservation

The People of Soil Health Podcast host John Mesko spoke with Pipa Elias, the Director of Agriculture in North America for The Nature Conservancy.

Elias received her master’s degree in soil science, but started her career in policy, which led to her explaining the science of soil at the U.N. climate negotiations. She was working in a coalition with TNC which is how she ended up moving over to work with them.

TNC believes farmers are among their greatest allies in conservation.

“Our vision is a future in which both people and nature thrive. To me there is not a better connection between people and nature than agriculture,” Elias said. “We all need to eat and we can do so in a way when we’re promoting soil health that really benefits people and nature.”

Mesko and Ellias discuss the opportunity for agriculture to create solutions and one tool TNC has to measure that is the Optimal Tillage Information System, known as OTIS. The automated system shows the progress of soil health practices like cover crops and reduced tillage through remote sensing. OTIS imagery data can then be put into models to show what it means for water quality and carbon sequestration across a watershed, county, state or the country. The watershed scale data is available publicly at https://ctic.org/optis.

Mesko shares that SHP is working to quantify the benefits of soil health practices. Both SHP and TNC are both members of Ecosystem Services Market Consortium. While Elias admits it’s been tried before, she is excited about the potential to incentivize farmers for their work in improving soil health systems that benefits society. She believes we are in a place now to move forward because of new technology and more ambition to create a market along with paying farmers for improving water quality and addressing climate change. TNC is interested in developing capacity so when the market comes online farmers can participate. They are working on technical pieces and public investment.

Elias introduced Mesko to the book the Wizard and the Profit by Charles Mann. It follows the paths of Norman Borlaug and William Vogt who took two different approaches to challenges humanity faces. Borlaug took the path of technology and Vogt took the path of preservation, but their paths cross in the end.

Elias’s work can be found at nature.org/workinglands. TNC is on Twitter at @natureag and Elias is at @pipaElias.