The Secret to Healthy Soil:

Unveiling the 2023 Fall Project Findings

Farmers today face a constant balancing act – juggling the need to be profitable with the responsibility to protect the environment. They’re under pressure to reduce erosion, increase carbon capture and improve crop yields – all while using fewer inputs. There are no easy solutions to these growing demands, but there is a common factor that can help: a renewed focus on soil health.

Soil health is a rapidly evolving field, and it can be overwhelming to figure out which tests, practices and methods are most relevant to your specific needs. At AgSource, we’re committed to providing our growers with the knowledge and tools they need to unlock the potential of their land.

Our Mission: Connecting Data with In-Field Practices

In the Fall of 2023, AgSource set out on a journey to bridge the gap between soil health data and in-field practices. Partnering with dairy and crop farms across the Midwest, we collected and analyzed 68 soil health samples. These samples underwent various tests to assess soil fertility, texture, carbon and nitrogen levels, organic matter content and CO2 respiration rates.

Our initiative didn’t stop there. We delved deeper, gathering management data encompassing cropping histories, tillage practices, cover crop integration, manure applications and irrigation strategies. This holistic approach allowed us to paint a comprehensive picture of each farm’s soil health profile, equipping them with a unique insights report and project summary to benchmark their performance against peers.

Key Findings

The initiative yielded invaluable insights, shedding light on the intricate interplay between physical, biological and chemical aspects of soil health. Here are 3 key takeaways from the project.

Physical Characteristics Matter

The physical makeup of soil has a profound influence on its health and productivity. Our analysis confirmed that soil texture plays a pivotal role in determining plant-available water. Coarse-textured soils, prevalent in many of the samples, pose challenges in moisture retention. However, strategies such as cover cropping or reduced tillage can enhance soil organic matter and bolster water-holding capacity, offering a ray of hope for farmers grappling with dry conditions.

Soil Health Goes Beyond Chemical Fertility

Even if soils are higher in traditional chemical fertility metrics, that does not always align with soil health indicators. The key lies in understanding how much of each key nutrient is biologically available to plants. Water-soluble analysis emerges as a great tool for assessing nutrient accessibility. This is why AgSource differentiates between water soluble C:N, representing the nutrients readily available, and combustible C:N, which is a complete breakdown of elemental C and N. Incorporating cover crops can elevate water-soluble C:N ratios, fueling microbial activity and nutrient cycling.

Soil Biology Needs Nurturing Too

Just as plants rely on nutrients for growth, so too do the microorganisms inhabiting the soil. Carbon and nitrogen ratios are crucial factors in sustaining the soil microbiome, with carbon serving as an energy source and nitrogen facilitating protein synthesis. Our assessment of CO2 respiration rates underscores the importance of fostering robust microbial communities. The set of samples in this study fell into the medium rate of microbiological activity, with manure applications correlating with heightened activity levels.

Soil Health Requires a Balanced Approach

Overall, our study emphasizes the importance of synergy in enhancing soil health. Farms adopting a balanced approach – integrating cover crops, implementing reduced tillage practices and applying manure – sort themselves out as frontrunners in soil health performance.

The beauty of soil health is that there are approaches each operation can utilize that fit their cropping strategy to improve soil biology, reducing compaction and increasing yields.

Want To Be a Part of Moving Soil Health Research Forward?

We’re eager to continue our efforts in empowering farmers with the tools they need for success while furthering soil health research. Curious about how your practices impact your land and soil health? Want to gain valuable insights specific to your farm? Join us on this journey!Complete the form below to express your interest, and our dedicated team will be in touch to guide you through the next steps.

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