Organic growers have historically had to rely on the surrounding soil and ecosystem biology to support their crops since the chemistry of pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers were unavailable. But every farm can benefit from improved soil health and reduced costs. Several technologies that were initiated as organic strategies can easily be transferred to any operation.
Soil health is dependent on several key concepts, all based on the idea that soil is a complex material made up of a physical component, a chemical component and a biological component. It is only when all three of these components are in balance that the soil can function in a dynamic state of health.
Most farmers have some idea what state their soil is in from a physical perspective and maybe even a chemical perspective. It is the biological component that often remains a mystery meaning it also offers the greatest opportunity for improvement. The life forms that make up this biological component are mostly microscopic in size, complex in nature and dynamic. But, when it comes down to it, they are like any form of livestock on the farm. They have the same needs as any other living creature: food, water, and an environment conducive to their wellbeing.
In other words, as farmers we need to create an environment in the soil where water can flow freely (not too wet, not too dry), where diverse food sources are available and where disturbance is minimized (as in reduced tillage). We don’t need to be microbiologists to put some simple tools to work to help insure our soils are on the path towards improved health.
One of the greatest tools we have to promote soil health is cover cropping. By simply covering the ground with something green and growing as close to 365 days a year as possible, any farmer can build soil health and improve the biological, chemical and physical characteristics of their soil all at the same time. Cover crops can fit into any farming system whether agronomic, horticultural or livestock-based.
The most efficient and effective ways to utilize cover crops in a production system is to plant winter annuals after the fall harvesting of a cash crop. Legumes like crimson clover or hairy vetch can be planted alone or in mixes with grains like rye, wheat or oats to protect the soil through the winter. These ground covers will work throughout the off-season to reduce water runoff, prevent erosion, fix nitrogen, help to recycle phosphorus, reduce compaction, build organic matter, break pest cycles and suppress weeds.
New technologies now allow farmers to utilize cover crops without the need for more tillage or additional chemicals. Using organic no-till techniques that rely on a roller-crimper to terminate the cover crop can actually reduce costs by eliminating the need for costly chemicals or primary tillage. A front-mounted cover crop roller-crimper knocks down a weed-suppressing mat that can be planted through an all-in-one quick pass.
If we can agree that soil that is healthy is teeming with life, most of it microscopic, then we should be able to agree that we need to feed that life. Composted organic matter or manure is the best food source for these microbes. Good compost should have a rich brown color and can be made from almost any organic material. You should aim for a carbon-to-nitrogen ratio of 30:1 and moisture content of 65 percent.
Once the compost has cooled down and is finished it’s ready to apply to soil. An application rate of 10 tons per acre every few years is enough to feed the soil life, help cycle nutrients and support the soil’s health.
Integrated Pest Management (IPM)
All farms can benefit from scouting for insects, diseases or weeds before applying chemicals be they conventional or organic in nature. By understanding the pest cycles, interrupting them with biological strategies, or using mechanical controls, chemical applications can often be reduced or eliminated altogether. By learning more about the system in which you farm and looking for the least disruptive solutions, you’ll be more in control of the many variable costs of production.
A healthy ecosystem is one that contains a rich biodiversity. Consider both above- and below-ground diversity along with the diversity across the landscape in farmed areas and areas adjacent to agricultural lands. More birds can mean less insect pests, more crops in a rotation can mean less disease pressure, and more root interactions can mean fewer fertilizers.
There are many production and management tools any farmer can put to work to improve his or her farm operation and soil health. These are not necessarily “organic” strategies although they have been utilized extensively on organic farms. By learning more about the complex biology of the soil and working closely with the environment in which your crops and livestock grow you’ll be able to reduce your costs and build resilience into your system that can also improve your bottom line.
Dr. Gladis Zinati
Interim Research Director
Pennsylvania Farm Link, Inc.
Division Chief for Economic Development
PA Department of Agriculture