- Soil health has been underestimated as a contributor to the overall health and yield potential of a crop, but it’s one of the most critical components to ensure plants get the valuable nutrients they need to grow, especially early in the season.
- Best management practices to improve soil health include reduced tillage, increasing organic matter, introducing organic amendments, utilizing cover crops and increasing oxygen availability.
- The new Poncho®/VOTiVO® 2.0* seed treatment system provides early-season protection from above- and below-ground insects and nematodes and enriches the soil environment around the root, for healthier plants and higher yield potential.
What started as a desire to cut his crop input costs turned into a quest for greater soil health – and higher yield potential – for Denny Winterboer.
“I was tired of what tillage was costing me in terms of diesel fuel,” said Winterboer, a corn and soybean grower from Milford, Iowa, who has been farming for 45 years. “Turns out there were a lot of other costs related to soil health that I hadn’t even considered.”
A variety of factors motivated Winterboer to take a serious look at soil health more than a decade ago, including an informational brochure from the local USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) office and a 10-acre pasture that Winterboer purchased in 2004.
“The organic matter in the pasture was 7.5 percent,” Winterboer said. “When I started row-cropping those acres, I produced 320-bushel corn the first year, compared to 220-bushel corn in my other fields. I had to figure out what was going on.”
“Soil isn’t just an inert growing medium; it’s a complex ecosystem teeming with life.”
Soil health was a key part of the puzzle. Soil isn’t just an inert growing medium; it’s a complex ecosystem teeming with life. Billions of organisms live in the soil, including bacteria, fungi, nematodes and earthworms. In fact, one tablespoon of soil has more organisms in it than there are people on Earth, according to the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). Soil that is healthy continues to function as a vital living ecosystem and will sustain plants, animals and humans for generations to come.
Viewing soil as a living ecosystem reflects a fundamental shift in the way farmers care for the land, said Nick Goeser, Ph.D., Director of the Soil Health Partnership.
“A growing number of farmers are incredibly interested in soil health,” said Goeser, who also directs the Soil Health Partnership administered by the NCGA. “They want to learn more about what they can do to improve soil health and optimize crop yields.”
For the past several years, the Soil Heath Partnership has been working with more than 100 farmers in 11 states, mainly in the upper Midwest, to conduct replicated, random strip trials. This on-farm research studies the effects of cover crops, reduced tillage and other practices on soil health. The group is sharing the results, including the economic and environmental benefits of progressive soil health management, through social media, field days and more.
“Farmers are raising their hands to participate in these trials,” Goeser said. “More growers see soil health as a vital component of crop productivity and want to implement proven practices that fit their operation.”
TOP TIPS FOR BUILDING SOIL HEALTH
There are a number of proven soil health practices that fit a wide variety of farming operations.
Reduced tillage means less erosion and runoff, which helps hold nutrients in place for crops to access.
“Less tillage was a big change for me, because I grew up with the plow,” said Winterboer, who can remember when leaving crop residue on the soil was frowned upon by many farmers. “I thought tillage increased water infiltration, but I was dead wrong.”
Winterboer has used a zone tillage system for more than 10 years to improve soil structure, water infiltration and more. Similar to strip-till, tillage occurs only in the area where the seed is planted.
“Not only has less tillage saved me money through less fuel usage, but it creates an environment that’s good for microbes and earthworms,” he said.
Earthworms consume last year’s crop residue, aerate the soil via their tunnels and benefit the growing crop by helping in the formation and stability of aggregated soil particles, which improves water-holding capacity and reduces runoff and erosion.
Healthy soil created by less tillage can also help buffer the crop against weather extremes, from drought to flooding, while offering an extra layer of protection from a variety of other stresses. This helps the crop maximize its genetic potential. Practices such as reduced tillage that can improve soil health also have the potential to improve water quality, according to Iowa State University Extension.
Building organic matter
Organic matter levels are critical to successful crop production. Dead plant material is the largest component of organic matter, followed by living plant tissue and soil-inhabiting microbes, animals and insects. Organic matter improves soil tilth, aids in reducing compaction and surface crusting and increases water infiltration into the soil.
Organic matter behaves much like a sponge and has the ability to absorb and hold up to 90 percent of its weight in water, which is then made readily available to plants.
“My soils can handle about six inches of rain per hour, while a conventional-till field can only take about a half an inch per hour,” Winterboer said.
Cover crops, especially plants with fibrous root systems, offer a way to help build organic matter. Each additional percentage point of organic matter in the soil releases 20 to 30 pounds of nitrogen, 4.5 to 6.6 pounds of phosphorus and 2 to 3 pounds of sulfur per year.
“You have to measure it to manage it,” Winterboer pointed out. And through reduced tillage and other practices, he has been able to build his average soil organic matter from 33 to 52 percent across 2,400 acres during the period from 2004–2016.
More organic matter in the soil benefits soil microbes, which are nature’s invisible workforce. Harnessing the power of these beneficial microbes is one of the biggest innovations in seed treatment technology today.
“Learning how to enhance beneficial microbes is the next frontier of higher yields,” said Jennifer Riggs, product development manager with Bayer SeedGrowth™. “Biologicals that deliver benefits in agriculture exist today, but with new tools and technologies, the science behind the biologic effects are more readily understood than in the past. I see the biological landscape changing in agriculture when we can deliver a biological product with similar consistency in performance to traditional products and when we have the means to bring them to the right place at the right time.”
Biologicals (including bacteria and fungi) help optimize crops’ early-season growth, minimize stress, protect against pests and diseases and maintain yield potential at a high level.
“As we learn more about biological communities, it’s clear that beneficial microbes contribute to soil health and plant productivity,” Goeser said.
Biologicals contribute to soil health by enhancing organic matter decomposition and nutrient cycling. This process helps improve soil structure, which limits soil erosion, increases water availability and helps plants withstand challenging weather conditions more successfully.
PUT BIOLOGICALS TO WORK FOR YOU
Modern technology is unlocking the secrets of microbial growth and survival. This is leading to new solutions for growers, including the Poncho/ VOTiVO 2.0 seed treatment system, a next generation corn seed treatment from Bayer.
“Poncho/VOTiVO 2.0 is unlike any other seed treatment.”
“Poncho/VOTiVO 2.0 is unlike any other seed treatment,” said Jennifer Riggs, product development manager with Bayer SeedGrowth™. “It still brings all the advantages of the original Poncho/VOTiVO, plus the proven benefits from increased microbial activity.”
Poncho/VOTiVO 2.0 helps plants get off to a great start in the critical, early-season growing period.
“Most of corn’s yield potential is determined within the first four to six weeks after planting,” says Greg Ginisty, product manager for corn SeedGrowth products at Bayer. “Poncho/VOTiVO 2.0 protects seedlings when they are most vulnerable to pests and helps corn plants thrive to their full genetic potential.”
The seed treatment provides broad-spectrum insect and nematode protection while boosting the root-soil environment for higher corn yield potential. A series of trials across the U.S. corn-growing regions has shown an average yield advantage of 14 bu./A with Poncho/VOTiVO 2.0, compared to a commercial fungicide seed treatment package.
Unlocking these secrets to soil health is the key to maximizing productivity and profitability.
“It’s exciting to be able to impact the roots’ soil environment with a seed treatment like Poncho/VOTiVO 2.0,” Riggs says. “It’s almost magical how something so tiny like a bacteria can enhance the microbial activity in the soil boosting the nutrient cycling and possibly lead to greater yields.”