Healthy soil takes time to build and to maintain. If you’re a farmland owner or a farmer, you may have taken the time to test your soil for nutrients in the past, but you may not have made practices that support soil health part of your annual farmland negotiation.
It’s fairly simple to pick up a soil test kit from the local hardware store or to send a sample to the local university for analysis. In either case, the idea of building soils may start to feel like a chemist’s pursuit, but there are simple, concrete steps you can take as a farmer or landowner to maintain your soil and improve your farmland’s yield.
1. Establish a shared understanding of what makes for “healthy soil”
To build healthy soil, you first need to build a consensus. Talk to your farmer or your landlord to establish a common understanding of what exactly “healthy soil” is and how to maintain it.
This an important conversation to have because soil health is not synonymous with fertility. Healthy soil may not produce the highest possible yield next year, but it will be able to retain moisture, host a robust microbiome and produce seasons of healthy crops for years to come.
Before you sign your next farmland cash rental lease, include soil maintenance in your discussion about the land and make sure both parties are invested in long-term sustainable farming practices.
2. Decide what tillage practices are best for your farm
Not every farm is the same, and it’s important to consider soil types, slopes and elevations when determining the best tillage practices for your land. For example, while farms with excessive slope and erosion-prone soils benefit from no-till and strip-till practices, low-lying farms that tend to see silt build-up perform better with some tillage.
Study the soils and slopes on your farmland to determine which tillage practices will support your farmland in the long term. Make sure you include these best practices in your written lease to protect your farm and keep everyone on the same page.
3. Establish or diversify your crop rotation
If you’re planting crop after crop of corn, you’re neglecting your soil’s health. Establish a crop rotation to head off crop-specific pests that may establish themselves in your soil. This is a great strategy for reducing your use of pesticides and herbicides. Varying your crop rotation helps support a diverse microbiome and suppress weeds.
Whatever crops you choose, you’re likely to see improved water management and less erosion, as different crops have different root architectures that improve soil stability.
4. Use cover crops that maintain living roots year-round
Speaking of soil stability, if you’re not using cover crops to maintain your soil’s health when there aren’t cash crops in the ground, you should strongly consider starting after your harvest this year. If it’s your first time around, you may want to begin by planting just one area while you determine which is the right cover crop for your soil’s needs.
There are a few different types of cover crops that can help support your soil’s health, but the goal is to keep living roots in the ground year-round to cut down on the number of herbicide applications you use. As a bonus: most cover crops suppress weeds and don’t need to be removed before planting.
You can also strategically use cover crops to diversify your crop rotation that naturally adds nutrients back into the soil. For example, planting legumes is a popular way to replace nitrogen cash crops to pull from the soil. Ultimately, the crops you choose to plant will depend on your soil’s acidity and needs.
5. Manage your soil’s nutrition
In addition to planting cash crops, you may want to build your soil by adding fertilizer, mulch or minerals to your acres to improve your soil’s health. Before you make any investments, you should test your soil, whether that’s with a soil test kit or by consulting an expert, to find out what it needs to produce healthy crops next growing season and the year after that.
We help farmland owners who rent their land through test their soil once every three years, but you may want to test it more frequently depending on your yields and local weather events.
Soil management is a great topic to address in your annual farmland negotiation. For example, if you know your farm will need an application of lime this year, determine who will pay for investment in the land’s health before signing your lease. It’s always a good idea to be proactive in communicating your expectations around building soils before an application is necessary.
Soil health is built over time
Soil health is built over time, and it may take patience to bring an acidic field back into balance. If a farmland owner and their farmer are both invested in maintaining healthy soil while getting a great yield, you’ll both be well-positioned to get what you want from your growing season.
Farmers and farmland owners have no control over the soil’s natural composition, how many sunny days there will be during the growing season next year or what the microbes under the soil are up to. But that doesn’t mean you can’t take care of your soil to help improve its yields.
When it’s time to renegotiate your next cash rent lease, be sure to talk about soil health and write it into your lease.
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