Indiana Conservation Cropping Systems Initiative coordinator Hans Kok (left) and Dan Towery, CCSI assistant coordinator, stress the importance of soil health during the recent Conservation in Action Tour of the Indian Creek Watershed Project in Livingston County, Ill.
Indiana Conservation Cropping Systems Initiative coordinator Hans Kok (left) and Dan Towery, CCSI assistant coordinator, stress the importance of soil health during the recent Conservation in Action Tour of the Indian Creek Watershed Project in Livingston County, Ill.
FORREST, Ill. — The physical and chemical characteristics of soil has been a primary focus of crop production for generations, but the biological aspects are as important.

Hans Kok, coordinator of the Indiana Conservation Cropping Systems Initiative, said soil health now is on the radar because of the increasing demand for food production on a limited amount of acres.

Meeting the demand of doubling food production over the next 40 years will require a systems approach to soil health management.

The CCSI promotes a systematic approach to production agriculture, focusing on no-till production, integrating cover crops, precision farming and nutrient and pest management.

“I worked most of my career at the university, and putting out plots was an enormous undertaking with a lot of students, lots of flags to lay out the plots and a lot of sampling,” Kok said in his presentation during the recent Conservation in Action Tour of the Indian Creek Watershed Project.

“Now you don’t even have to get out the combine or the tractor. You can lay out research plots, and it can tell you a lot of stuff about changing practices on you farm.

“And, of course, one of our goals is to keep the water clean, so buffers are very important in this whole system.

“It’s a systems approach. It’s not, ‘We’re just going to do no-till, and now everything is cool.’ The whole thing around it needs to change.”

Dan Towery, assistant coordinator with the CCSI and founder of Ag Conservation Solutions in Lafayette, Ind., added that the systems approach involves multiple years.

“So if we look at our soil properties, we’ve done pretty good job on the physical elements, but the biological and there’s this interaction that takes place and a lot of our soil health focus on the biological part is very important,” he said.

“We’re very unfamiliar with the biological part of the soil. We know a lot about the physical and chemical,” Kok said.

“Basically, since we started continuous row crop, we didn’t know about the biology back then, but we had a diverse crop rotation,” Towery noted.

“We kind of ignored the biological part, and that’s resulted somewhat in a degraded soil — loss of organic matter, loss of aggregate stability, loss of moisture-holding capacity, loss of nutrient cycling. We can make the soil a recycler, if you will, on the nutrients.

“As our equipment has gotten bigger, we can get out there sometimes not under the best of conditions and that can result in soil compaction.”

“And our soils cannot handle that compaction like they used to because they’ve lost a lot of that organic matter,” Kok said.

One example of soil health concerns over the years is data collected from soil samples taken from the Morrow Plots at the University of Illinois.

When those plots first were used in 1876, the soil contained about 6 percent organic matter. By 1904, the organic matter fell to under 5 percent, and two years later it was less than 2 percent.

“They lost two-thirds of the organic matter in the soil that was plowed up from the prairies. That makes an enormous impact on a lot of things that impact those soils,” Kok said.

“For example, if we increase mycorhizae fungi, they produce the glue that holds the particles together. If we have a storm event, that allows that water to infiltrate through the soil,” Towery explained.

“If you have tillage out there, the soil is going to seal over if we have a rain event, then we’re going to have increased runoff occurring. It’s also taking soil and nutrients with it.”

“In the tilled soils, you have low aggregate stability, and your soil biology is mainly bacteria. If you go in a no-till situation, you have mainly fungi in your soil, and you have much better soil aggregation,” Kok said.

“We can increase that by reducing tillage – and, in fact, the key components to soil health is minimizing soil disturbance,” Towery stressed.

“Cover the soil as much as possible. The microbes are sensitive to temperature and moisture, and you want a diverse crop rotation or cover crops. We’re not going to change from corn and soybeans, but by adding cover crops, we can add more diversity.

“Also, when corn hits black layer, it’s done. Agriculture is all about capturing sunlight, and we have a period in the fall and in the spring where we could also capture as much as we can.”

“For seven months, we’re not using our fields, we just pay taxes and we fight weeds. So Mother Nature is trying to tell us something with those weeds,” Kok said. “Instead of having weeds out there, why don’t we plant what we want out there, that’s actually going to benefit and do some stuff for us?”

A demonstration was held during the tour showing how cover crop seeds can be applied by an airplane through the corn canopy and to the ground. Seed also can be applied with a highboy-type system.

The cover crop is then killed with a herbicide application in the spring, and corn can be planted in field.

“Is it as easy as planted in a moldboard-plowed field? Yes, it is, but it is different. Your planter needs to be set different. But even corn on corn in no-till, we can put cover crops in there and have good results,” Kok said.

“People complain about the residue accumulating. If you get the soil biology going when this corn gets knee-high, it’s looking for more residue,” Towery added.

“Our long-term no-tillers are complaining about not having enough residue in their fields because the earthworms eat it all,” Kok said.

“Last year was a good example, where we were very worried about cover corps. We had cover crops using moisture in the spring and we were going to plant corn in it and it turned dry.”

He referred to yield tests in adjacent fields near the Indiana-Illinois border last year. One field had conventional tillage and no cover crop. A neighboring field with the similar hybrid featured no-till and a cereal rye cover crop.

The conventional tilled field with no cover crop yielded 65 bushels per acre, and the field with the cover crop had a yield of 109 bushels per acre.

“The cover crop had broken up the soils for the corn root to go down and get to moisture,” Kok said.

“A healthy soil can somewhat act as an insurance policy. We’re making the soil more resilient, especially if there’s a dry summer. We can increase the organic matter. Most of the increase is going to be in the top couple of inches, and it’s slow — it takes time,” Towery added.

“It took a long time to breakdown the organic matter, and it’s going to take a long time to build it up,” Kok said.

“We can build it up faster than we broke it down, though, because we’re adding fertilizer to the soil, and we have much higher crop yields in the soil than we used to have, so we’re putting a lot of materials in the soil to start building organic matter.”

“But, remember, most of the organic matter is actually coming from the decaying roots. You can’t increase organic matter if you’re having any erosion at all,” Towery said. “By increasing the organic matter, we can easily pick up after a couple of years five to seven inches more moisture-holding capacity.”

“Some farmers really can cut back on their fertilizer. I’m not promoting anybody cutting back on their fertilizer until you have been in the system like this for 20 years with probably five or 10 years of cover crops,” Kok added.

“Some guys are doing this because the crops root deeper. They can go to nutrients that a normal crop can’t go after. Plus, the cover crops can actually carry nutrients from one year to the next.

“Last year was a great example. We had half the crop or less in a lot of fields. We put a cereal rye cover crop out there. All the rows were sidedressed and showed up beautifully because all the nitrogen was in the ground. The crops never got to it and carried it into this year.

“In looking at the soil biology in a healthy soil, we estimated that the amount of weight under your feet of the soil biology equates to 22 cows per acre. You have a lot of soil biology in a healthy soil.

“Everybody can think about what a field does when you graze cows in there. Now, think about feeding 22 cows per acre underneath the fields in a no-till system.

“So hopefully if we improve our soil, we improve our water quality in our rivers and streams and increase profitability for farmers.”

Greg and Ryan Myers of Fairbury have been using no-till for soybeans for more than 20 years and strip-till for corn for five years. They have used cover crops for three years.

Ryan Myers explained their farming operation and its relationship to soil health issues.

“We apply anhydrous in strip-tills in the fall,” he said. “One of the benefits we’ve seen in our strip-till and no-till is equipment costs. We don’t have large tillage costs. We’re not making extra trips across fields, and that leads to fuel-cost saving.

“Another benefit is less labor. With our strips, if we got into a field in the spring and half of it was fit and half of it was not, which we ran into a lot this year, we’re able to pull out of the field and come back later since we were on our strips. We didn’t have to worry about a field cultivator running.

“When we started this in 2001, we did a lot of trial and error. By 2003, 2004, we committed ourselves. We updated our guidance systems, and that made it very enjoyable. Your strips are there, and you’re set.

“Some of the things we’ve noticed with our soil structure is in wetter conditions like this spring, we didn’t rut it up as much as we used to. Obviously, there were some tracks there, but it held up the sprayer or whatever we were doing.

“We also noted less erosion when the gully-washing rains came. Everything kind of held together.”

Myers added the corn and soybean yields are competitive to previous practices.