Soil health

Editor’s note: The following is an excerpt of the 2017 Iowa Farm and Rural Life Poll, an annual survey of Iowa farmers.


Awareness of and interest in soil health has been increasing, with major outreach efforts by public agencies such as the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, private-public partnerships and private sector entities focused on helping farmers learn about and improve the health of their soils.

In 2013 and 2015, the Iowa Farm and Rural Life Poll survey examined aspects of farmers’ knowledge of and attitudes toward soil health and their capacity to improve it. In 2017, several measures of awareness from previous years were repeated, and two new question sets asked farmers to evaluate their own performance on actions that can improve soil health and their farm operations’ performance on key biophysical indicators of soil health.

As in previous years, the question sets were introduced with a short definition of soil health: Soil health has been defined as “the continued capacity of soil to function as a vital living ecosystem that sustains plants, animals, and humans.”

Awareness

Responses on the awareness items that were asked in both 2015 and 2017 showed little change over the two-year period. Eighty-one percent of respondents agreed they had noticed more discussion of soil health in the farm press over the last couple of years, compared to 80 percent in 2015.

Seventy-six percent agreed that they had paid more attention to soil health over the last couple of years, compared to 72 percent in 2015.

Fifty-two percent agreed they had noticed more discussion of soil health among other farmers, compared to 46 percent in 2015.

The only decline was for the item, “I have a good understanding of the concept of soil health,” which dropped to 65 percent agreement in 2017 from 69 percent agreement in 2015.

Personal evaluation

Farmers were provided with a list of six actions that can have positive impacts on soil health, and asked to rate how well their farm operations were performing. Only results for farmers who had row crops are reported here.

The highest-rated actions were “keeping the soil covered as much as possible” and “disturbing the soil as little as possible,” with 75 percent and 71 percent of farmers, respectively.

Sixty-five percent of farmers reported they were doing well or very well at eliminating or greatly reducing tillage.

Farmers were less favorable in their self-ratings for the remaining three items. Thirty-eight percent reported they were doing well or very well on “keeping plants growing in fields throughout the year,” with the balance selecting fair, poorly or very poorly. A similar proportion, 32 percent, reported they were doing well or very well at “varying rotations with crops other than corn and soybean.”

Using cover crops was the lowest-rated item, with 24 percent rating their operations as performing well or very well.

Progress and policy

The survey provided a list of nine major physical and biological indicators of soil health and asked respondents to rate their farm operations’ performance on those indicators. A “don’t know” category was also provided.

Farm Poll Soil table

Respondents generally seemed confident about their soil health indicators. They rated percent organic matter highest, with 74 percent reporting either good or very good levels. Available water capacity was also high, with 73 percent good or very good ratings.

These were followed by presence of earthworms and water infiltration rate, both at 68 percent good or very good. Biological activity, aggregate stability and bulk density each received good or very good ratings by about 60 percent of farmers. Low levels of soilborne disease (54 percent good or very good) and presence of macropores (48 percent good or very good) rounded out the list.

It is notable that substantial proportions of farmers selected the “don’t know” category for the categories that they did not rate as highly, such as bulk density and presence of macropores.

Three additional questions focused on policy and outreach. The survey asked the question, “If more cost-share funding were available for soil health practices such as cover crops or adding additional crops to rotations, would you be more likely to try them or expand use?” Fifty-six percent of farmers responded affirmatively, 21 percent would not try them or expand use and 23 percent selected “don’t know.”

Similarly, 47 percent of farmers indicated that they would “… be interested in learning more about soil health by attending field days, workshops, etc.”

Finally, anecdotal evidence has pointed to crop insurance as a barrier to soil health-enhancing actions such as cover crops. However, just 8 percent of farmers indicated that insurance requirements had discouraged them from using practices to improve soil health.