Farm Progress Show soil health photo

Soil health was one of the topics on display at the Farm Progress Show Aug. 29. Conservation practices increase soil stability and reduce the chances for water runoff and nutrient loss.

BOONE, Iowa — As farmers look for ways to increase their crop production, soil health was one of the topics on display at the Farm Progress Show Aug. 29.

From cover crops to adopting no-till practices, there are many ideas on how to better increase the health of farm fields, but one of the goals of Iowa State Ph.D. student Tim Sklenar is to change the perception of soil health.

“If soil has health, it has to be alive, right?” Sklenar said. “What we want people to consider is the not directly agricultural benefits of some practices that could have benefits to the agricultural pieces.”

Sklenar had a display demonstrating the effects of tillage on water retention, where the tilled soil showed increased water runoff.

“The water infiltration is extremely reduced where there is tillage because the core structure gets collapsed and there are plants and critters, the things that live in the soil like the microbes, the insects and the worms,” Sklenar said.

“When you destroy that structure, you make it harder for the soil to hang on to itself, and you make it harder for water to get into your soil profile.”

A less stable structure increases the chance for water runoff and losing the “good stuff” — nutrients — from your soil, Sklenar said.

USDA soil conservation technician Douglas Adams, from Humboldt, Iowa, also discussed the impacts of tillage at Conservation Central, which was a partnership between multiple conservation sources, including the Iowa Department of Agriculture and the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

“We are using the slake test to demonstrate the difference between no-till and conventional till and how the water interacts with the soil and why it’s important to continue to do no-till,” Adams said. “The soil doesn’t fall apart as easily when it’s hit by the water. On our no-till acres, you are going to see less erosion off it and better water infiltration and hopefully better production.”

Adams said that in his area in north central Iowa, no-till and cover crops are slowly coming into practice, and farmers are starting to reap benefits.

“Farmers are seeing the benefits, especially in economics right now,” Adams said. “We are eliminating some tillage passes, probably saving $10-15 per acre by eliminating fall tillage passes ahead of soybeans, because Iowa State University is saying there isn’t really a difference in yield for soybeans no matter what you do for tillage.”

Adams added that normally it takes about three to five years to see major benefits in soil health, but cover crops can help speed up the no-till benefits.

“We’ve had farmers that have done it for about two years and have seen a big improvement in their soil structure,” Adams said. “Cover crops and no-till go together for soybeans like peanut butter and jelly. To me, it’s something that we can use together when you are starting. Some cover crops, no-till and soybeans — that’s the easiest way to start.”

Real-life examples are the best way to show the impacts of these practices and what an increase in soil health can bring.

“We had a guy visit from northern Illinois, and he’s been doing no-till for 20 years and had an awesome video on YouTube of his field on one side of the hill and his neighbor’s,” Sklenar said.

“His neighbor does conventional tillage, and though it was actively raining, you couldn’t see water coming off of his field. He panned to his neighbor’s, and it was a muddy rut. Then he drove down to the creek, and you could see two streams of water, one clean (the no-till) and one dirty (conventional tillage) coming into the stream. That was a distinct difference.”

While not all farms are created equal, Sklenar said the ability to retain high-quality soil and have strong water infiltration can help in times of drought.

“If we get these really big rain storms in the spring, and (your soil) runs off into a ditch, you don’t have it there when you have a drought for six weeks in June and July,” he said. “When your corn is trying to mature, there’s nothing there.”

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