Jen Filipiak (far right) conducts an infiltration test to compare the speed at which water enters the soil of two different soil samples from a farm owned by her husband’s family in Minnesota. “The water goes right through the good soil structure, but it doesn’t take the soil with it,” the natural resource conservationist said. “That’s infiltration, and that’s what you want.”
Jen Filipiak (far right) conducts an infiltration test to compare the speed at which water enters the soil of two different soil samples from a farm owned by her husband’s family in Minnesota. “The water goes right through the good soil structure, but it doesn’t take the soil with it,” the natural resource conservationist said. “That’s infiltration, and that’s what you want.”
ARCOLA, Ill. — There is life happening in healthy soil.

“Fungal associations are the glue that holds soil particles together,” said Jen Filipiak, natural resource conservationist for the American Farmland Trust. “When it rains, good soil can hold itself together, but soil that doesn’t have as many associations will fall apart.”

“There is so much going on below the surface that we can’t see,” added Kathleen Holthaus with Ag Spectrum Co. and ProHarvest Seeds Inc. “There is a whole ecosystem that provides nutrients for the plants.”

Filipiak conducted two tests to show the differences in soils during a Women Caring for the Land Conservation Meeting, sponsored by American Farmland Trust.

She used soil that came from pasture ground and compared it to soil from a field that has been conventionally farmed. A slake test will measure the disintegration of soil aggregates when exposed to water.

“Good soil texture is like chocolate cake — it crumbles,” Filipiak explained. “Bad soil texture is like flour.”

The infiltration test demonstrates the speed at which water enters the soil.

As Filipiak sprinkled water on the two different soil samples, she said, “Conventionally tilled soil has less soil pores because it has lost the glue holding it together.”

“When it rains hard, the water runs off the field or after the rain there are ponds on the field,” she said.

However, in fields that feature good soil structure, the water will go through the soil, but it doesn’t take the soil with it, Filipiak said.

“The water trickles through, and that’s infiltration, which is what you want,” she said.

Boosting Resiliency

Improving soil structure will impact the resiliency of the field.

“Farmers that had been doing no-till and cover crops for a while got 30 percent higher yields than their neighbors during the drought in 2012,” Filipiak reported. “Because when it rains, the soil holds onto the water by filling the pore spaces.”

There are both benefits and extra management and risks associated with cover crops, Holthaus noted.

Some of the challenges include the getting cover crops planted in a timely manner to get enough growth in the fall to achieve the benefits. Cover crops can be drilled, spread with a dry fertilizer application or seeded with an airplane.

“We’ve had good and bad experiences with an airplane,” Holthaus said. “Sometimes you don’t get the coverage you would with drilling.”

Termination of some cover crops in the spring can be difficult.

“Some of them like radishes and oats winterkill, so you don’t have to worry about terminating them in the spring,” Holthaus said. “However annual ryegrass and cereal ryegrass will overwinter and begin growing in the spring, so it is important to kill them in a timely manner so they don’t become a weed for our cash crop.”

However, she said, cover crops are versatile.

“You can make them work almost anywhere, and there are many crops to choose from,” she explained.

Cover crops can retain and recycle nutrients.

“They have deep roots that grow down in the soil and scavenge nutrients left behind by the previous crop,” Holthaus said. “The cover crop will hold those nutrients, and when it dies and decomposes, those nutrients are released back into the soil for your next cash crop to use.”

Root Benefits

Since there will be something growing during the fall, winter and spring, the root system helps to reduce the risk of erosion by water or wind.

“The strong deep rooting system of cover crops can break through compacted soils,” Holthaus said. “They can also reduce weed pressure by shading out weeds in the fall and weeds that pop up early in the spring, which can reduce the need for herbicides.”

Building organic matter in the soil is another benefit of cover crops.

“Organic matter is like gold — it’s what makes the soil that dark color and helps to hold water,” Holthaus said. “There are so many benefits from organic matter, and you build organic matter by leaving residues in the soil.”

Enhancing the soil environment for the microbes in the soil produces several benefits.

“Microbes help to decompose plant material and release that material as useable nutrients for the plants,” Holthaus explained. “If we can enhance their environment and help them do a better job, we’re getting more useable nutrients for our next crop for free.”

A radish tap root can go as deep as three feet or more, she said.

“It is pretty amazing, radishes really do a lot of good and can help break up compaction when the tuber gets large,” she said. “And radishes winterkill, so you won’t have anything to kill with an herbicide in the spring.”

The holes in the soil left by the radish give water and air a place to go down into the soil.

“The next plant will use the channels those roots made in the soil,” Holthaus noted.

“Oats and radishes are a popular mix because the oats also winterkill,” she said. “In our ProHarvest plot, we got the biggest radishes when they were growing with oats.”

Annual ryegrass will grow through the winter and will need to be killed in the spring.

“You need to be timely about when you spray because annual ryegrass will take off in the spring and grow pretty fast,” Holthaus stressed. “Make sure this crop fits into your operation.”

Managing Risk

Diana Ropp with BATES Commodities also presented information about risk management.

“I encourage people to determine their breakeven and then make strategies from there,” she said.

“We all need to protect our bottom line because farming is big business,” Ropp stressed.

“There are a lot of costs we know like seed, fertilizer, crop insurance, machinery, fuel, storage and drying,” she said. “Then you need to manage the risk.”

Although the weather is beyond the control of farmers, Ropp said, “You can manage what you sell your crop for, and there are multiple strategies.”

In addition, she said, it is important to remember that farmers now are involved in a world market.

“It’s not just what’s going on outside our back door,” she said.

For example, several years ago, when the earthquake hit Japan and the tsunami followed, Ropp said, the U.S. grain markets were down the limit three days in a row.

“Nobody knew that was going to happen,” she added.

“During the last several weeks, with the huge South American soybean crop, many traders thought we’d see the soybean market take a tumble,” Ropp said.

“But, instead, the market has gone the other way because with the politics in Ukraine and Russia, there is concern exports would be disrupted, and the market doesn’t like uncertainty.”