Recently an Ole Friend spoke of 4 Supporting Principles that Boosts Soil Health

Long time friend in the business of we who are called “dirt daubers”, “badgers of soil survey”, “two legged moles” – Frank Gibbs was interviewed (recently) by folks with Strip Till Strategies to give his thoughts on what he saw were driving factors from the strip till world and those growers that practice strip till to improve soil health.  Frank and I have known each other for sometime now and when we get together we enjoy talking how soil science stained our hands and thinking over the years, all in a way that is good folks.  Frank numbered off four specific thoughts; 1) Limiting your soil disturbance in a consistent manner, 2) Find and fight soil compaction, 3) Keep fields green whenever you can, and 4) Support soil biological diversity.

I am not going to repeat or totally focus on what Frank said in his interview and then words on paper.  You ever watch the YouTube videos of Frank smoking the soils, oh you gotta folks.  Frank maybe a 1970’s throw back when long hair was in but man he does have some things to enlighten you regarding earthworms and their incredible importance to the soil profile.  I will touch on that here in a couple inches down on this page.  As a soil scientist essentially since I was 4 when my father gave me a small shovel and allowed me to play in our garden on the farm.  I would bring pockets full in my bib overalls to my mother of worms, and other creepy crawlies that were in the soil to tell her all about what was going on in the garden.  Later in my teen years I got involved in Vo-Ag with Land Judging and told myself I was going to be a soil chemist and study all about worms in college.  Land Judging and later at the University I was on the collegiate soils judging team for all four years – pursuing the perspective of the earthworm so to speak and why soils are so intertwined into the web of life for all who engage in Agriculture and working with soils to grow foodstuffs, fiber products and feed.

Allow me to walk through the same four ideas he presented but from a bit of a different slant.  (Image of Frank Gibbs doing his thing showing the extent of earthworms by sending smoke thru their tunnels)

  1. Limiting your soil disturbance in a consistent manner — As I have learned, used, set and reset our top notch Strip Till implement the Orthman 1tRIPr in the field(s) for our research efforts and farmers all over this globe to grow row crops I see with what we aim to accomplish in the soil is extremely important to crop development.  Minimizing hurricane force disruptance of the soil biological realm but we aim to concentrate action to accelerate root growth, place nutrients in front of the root growth pattern since roots are blind to seeking out nutrients, warm the cold soils uniformly where the early root system will go downward by gravity and following a warming front.  This operation with a strip till tool is once and you have done the tillage, unlike a moldboard plow system integrates multiple passes before the seeder or planter comes to start the incredible plants journey from seed to seed.  We know that pulling the 1tRIPr whether three point mounted or pull type we are keep the tractor from installing nasty compaction.  Subsequent passes of spray equipment, cultivators for those that use that method for weed control or preparing the furrows for gravity flow irrigation, and then harvest we encourage folks to be smart how they follow through the field.  However all of the over-the-soil surface passes and/or hoof action from the previous year we can take care of in a zone approach with the Strip Till tool.
    As Frank Gibbs stated jumping in and out of trafficked patterns and using disks one year, then vertical tillage or even heaven-forbid a moldboard plow – you will never get anywhere in obtaining a healthy and vibrant soil.  I am in agreement with his statement.  Stay consistent even for the guy that raises corn and soybeans which is a limited crop rotation methodology when you consider how biological processes should work in the soil.  Now if there is a real wet fall and you created ruts because the crop still needs to come off and a vertical till tool is used to smooth those ruts (only where they exist) out then so be it.  But folks do not go out and disk the entire field for 6 or 7 rutted spots or just the ends of the field.  As Frank noted, it takes it overtilled soils up to five years before the earthworm population comes back to where they are really doing their jobs.

    Use the strip till tool each year and you will see soil intake rates improve, biological activity can increase, soil permeability improve also, and soil tilth will get better.

  2. Find and fight soil compaction — I have had a focus on soil compaction in my soils career since 1981 and the detrimental effects to roots, water uptake, nutrient uptake, crop health, irrigation water management, soil erosion (wind and water), pollution from soil runoff both in solution and what adheres to soil particles as well as siltation.  I have observed cattail marshes where they should have never been in the arid west but over irrigation, runoff, erosion, siltation has created these marshes in draws and low lying areas once only inhabited by native grasses and shrubs.  Why do I see compaction as a causal agent of such marshy areas?  Where I have lived now for forty years in the semi-arid western United States growers have been blessed with adequate amounts of surface water from snowmelt into ditches and pipelines to water crops of all kinds since the 1870’s and earlier.  First it was garden sized plots that were maximum tilled and prepared to grow potatoes, grain, vegetables then sugar beets came along, corn, dry beans, tomatoes, carrots, turnips, lettuce crops of all kinds, cabbages, snap beans and a dozen more types of crops.  All grown out of the mindset of full blown tillage, raking, smoothing and so on to place the tuber piece or seed in the ground for see-to-soil contact and a harvest in a few months.  Left over crop residue – oh that has been called TRASH, stuff to throw away or bury – nasty stuff.  Yet all through this process the tillage was done with a plow to turn, scrape and smear soils upside down, cross ways and be ready for seed and water.  Unfortunately we did not know enough about the resilience of soils, its biology, loss of organic matter until the 1930’s when soil erosion became a monumental issue for this nation.  I digress, but the damage was done by too much tillage and underneath where the tillage tool stopped it’s penetration – a smear zone was created  and year upon year a thin layer stacked on top of another created a layer of soil compaction.  In the world of soil vernacular we call that platy structure and yes it is nearly always man-made.

    It is vital for all growers to know whether they have compacted layers in their field, if they are at the ends or turn rows, where the harvest machinery parked and multiple passes of heavy trucks and wagons placed huge weights upon the soil and compressed it down.  Now dry soils have some resilient features about resisting compaction but not after multiple times of 30-40 tons of grain and cart go over the same spot.  As they say in Minnesota, Uffda!”  With all of that said we strongly urge growers to see where the compaction is in their fields.  At the ends, in specific rows as where you are controlling traffic, parking areas, wet soil spots, etc.  Then to know where the compacted lens or spot is in the soil profile will determine what is the course of action needed to remedy such a restricting layer.  Using a soil penetrometer offers a great perspective where such a zone can be in the upper section of your soils profiles.  A penetrometer uses a 1/2 or 3/4 inch cone shaped tip to offer a good idea the start and end of compacted layers.  There are other small pocket penetrometers which can do much of the same utilizing a set spring tension to force the 1/4 inch shaft into the soil at different depths.  They are quite accurate and I am a big proponent of using these instruments.  You still have to do some digging of a hole or small trench in the ground to expose a vertical face then push this small tool in the soil face.  They usually measure soil resistance in foot pounds per square foot.  That can be converted to pounds per square inch much like hydraulic pressure of soil resistance.  Now doing this when soils are dry will tell you very little due to soil resistance is always high when dry.  Best time of the year is now in the spring after soils have had some winter moisture and thawed.

    Examing fields for compaction after harvest offers a great look at what not to do and what to do.

    Once you have determined the depth, the thickness, if it is consistent in a lot of your field and how dense the compacted zones may be, then a course of action comes into play.  A yellow flag I pull out is – do not get crazy and think a huge 24 inch ripper needs to come out and rip, snort and tear the dickens out of stuff and pulled to a depth of 20-26 inches.  That is costly, fuel foolish, time wasting and loads of more details besides not good for soil health.  Ask a soil scientist, connect with your agronomy Extension agent, call me, email me or any of my cohorts you can find on this Website under our Contact Us tab.  We are more than happy to visit or even stop in and help guide and visit about such an endeavor.

  3. Keep fields green whenever you can — This usually entails cover crops or just plain focused planting of a small grain right after harvest and before freeze-up in the late part of fall.  Many are looking at early in the growth cycle of you target commodity crop of seeding a mix of grassy crops or broadleaf plants to grow at a reduced seeding rate to put more carbohydrates in the soil via the different roots and sugars, proteins, lipids, hormones and attractants to other fungi and microbes.  Covers are good for erosion protection but mainly to add to the organic matter foodstuffs to microbes, fungi and other miniature microorthopods as well as earthworms.

    Cover crops in furrow irrigated fields is quite tricky but can be done, takes some real deliberate actions and thinking to make all that work.   Frank was upfront about this concept of keeping something green on the field as long as one can in a season.  “You should have a legume to create nitrogen and break down residue,” he says. “Then you need a carbon source — like the grasses. You should also have a reservoir to store the nitrogen over the winter and release it in the spring. Brassicas like radishes and turnips are best for that purpose. Having those three plant types in a cocktail can make a huge difference.”  It is a systems approach folks, do not just slap oats in a spinner and drive out over the field in late June and expect this seeding to be the answer.  Consider the natural balance of nitrogen to carbon ratio of what your doing, will the cover aid my mycorrhizal fungi or set it back?  Will it take too much water away from my intended crop, ie: corn?  The cost factor is always part of this.

  4. Supporting and promoting soil biologic diversity — this thought process is not all that clearly understood until you as a farmer know for certain who lives out there in my soils and have I done some damage to their population in the past with insecticides, herbicides and tillage operations.   Grasses, legumes, fat root growing crops/plants, they all release different hormones, acids, sweetners, carbohydrates, proteins, fats and thusly attract different families of microbes to live on their epidermis and accomplish different facets of the soil ecological system.  There are those that fight off diseases, and there are good guys that infect nematodes and kill the parasitic nematodes.  There are specific fungi that excrete and secrete complex proteins that are a gluing agent to hold soil particles together – a significant factor in stable soil aggregates, a feature of soil health I cannot emphasize enough.  This is a recent advancement and find in the last 15 years of soil biologic and microbiology research.

    The importance of those one celled microbes living on the root epidermis and maintaining life off the sugars and fats the root cells leak into the soil rhizosphere is amazing.  They exist off those by-products from the root leaking but convert carbon materials, then they die and release those nutrients directly to the root and feed the plant.  Millions of these microscopic critters are grazing off the plant stuff, eating carbon materials every hour of the day when the soils have warmed up enough to fully sustain life.  The soil ecosystem is an amazing self perpetuating engine that you as a farmer are harnessing to use to grow a corn, soybean, lettuce, potatoe or sugar beet crop.

    A suggestion I have for all growers is to not only find out if your soils are active and to a degree healthy, but to find out who lives in your soils/fields.  There is nothing cheap about getting soils tested to find out who lives in the upper 12 inches of your soil profiles.  But in your regards to making your fields the healthiest you can – see who lives there, why or why not and how you can improve that population.

    As we gain a more informed concept of what soil health is and what it is not, the discussion will always have a facet of tillage.  Strip Tillage can be a key in changing the soil health condition of your fields to a more positive and improving side of how you grow crops.  Please feel free to contact us at Orthman Manufacturing.  Our contact information is available on this website and we are more than happy to be a resource to your questions.  I personally am right there.  Phone: 1.970.302.1442 or at mpetersen@orthman.com.