A fighter pilot strategy for soil health

What do farmers and fighter pilots have in common?  

Each must operate complex machinery, adapt to unpredictable situations and make quality decisions. Most importantly, both rely on data. Operating without data is like flying blind – especially when it comes to soil health and fertility.  

Improving soil health takes time and knowledge, but testing soil health gives us data to inform fertility programs, tillage practices, cover crops and even carbon markets. 

Just as the Air Force leverages a four-step strategy loop, called OODA, designed to help pilots make rapid decisions, you too can use this to make data-driven decisions for soil health.

1. Observe
2. Orient

3. Decide
4. Act

For soil health this loop begins at each soil sampling cycle.  

The OODA Loop for Soil Health

Step 1: Observe

Operating effectively means understanding your surroundings. If you want to improve your soil’s quality, dig deeper into and observe these three main categories:

  • Chemical – macronutrients (NPK), micronutrients, organic matter, soil pH and soil carbon.  
  • Physical – compaction, soil texture and water-holding capacity.  
  • Biological – living elements in the soil such as macro- and microorganisms like earthworms and beneficial microbes, respectively.  

Historically, soil testing focused on the chemical and fertility components of soil health. Today, we measure chemicalbiological and physical functions, giving you more data to understand soil quality. 

VAS AGON LAB Ellsworth_ IA-3752
Step 2: Orient

Take an unbiased look at a real-time snapshot of your soil health to orient yourself on the status of soil fertility and soil health in your fields. This means sampling – specifically, conducting a soil health test alongside your standard fertility soil sample to manage soil health. Unlike traditional grid sampling, which is used for precision fertilizer applications, you only need one or two composite samples representing different areas of a field for a soil health measurement.

Sampling Procedure 
For the chemical and biological components of soil health testing, use a similar sampling procedure as a traditional soil sample, utilizing a standard 6-inch soil probe. Note the physical components and carbon stock measurement require a soil sample from a larger core.

Soil health tests provide measurements such as: 

  • CO2 respiration to measure microbial activity in the soil 
  • Carbon-to-nitrogen ratio to evaluate nutrient availability  
  • Physical components – soil compaction, particle size, water holding capacity 
  • Water-soluble extractions to review the forms of nutrients most easily utilized by plants 
  • Orthophosphate P – the water-soluble form of phosphorus 

AgSource recommends collecting your sample in the fall after harvest or in the spring before planting. Whichever timing you choose, staying consistent each year is important for best results. 

Carbon Benefit
Soil health testing can also be useful if you are interested in participating in carbon markets. The test provides data to show carbon sequestration in your fields.

AgSource is committed to helping you collect the right data so that when you join a carbon program, you can prove your carbon stock.

Step 3: Decide

Once you’ve collected your samples and had them analyzed, it’s time to review the results. Knowing the actionable steps you take from those results – from tillage to fertility to liming – are important.

For example, your test may reveal low organic matter. Adding a cover crop to your rotation can improve organic matter over time. As soil organic matter increases, so does its water-holding capacity and the overall durability of the soil.

Work with your local agronomist or lab, leveraging your results, to make decisions and fine-tune your plans.

Step 4: Act

This is where the rubber meets the road for your decision-making. After you take action, you get to see the outcomes of your decisions. From there, it is time to start the OODA Loop again for next season.

Improvement doesn’t happen overnight, but by consistently benchmarking through soil health testing, you’ll be able to evaluate the improvements you’re making.

How to get started

We recommend starting with a field that has room for improvement and compare it to a field or location that you know is more productive. If there’s an opportunity to compare to the corner of a pivot or a fencerow, somewhere that isn’t cultivated, you can get a more accurate assessment of what’s possible. 

Ready to get started? Learn about AgSource’s soil health testing services, or reach out to one of our experts to implement a testing program on your operation! 

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