By Dusty Sonnenberg, CCA, Field Leader, a project of the Ohio Soybean Council and Soybean Check-off.
In his years studying soils, Adam Daugherty, NRCS District Conservationist, Coffee County Tennessee, has come to the conclusion that soils have latent potential just waiting to be developed and manifest. “We don’t just want to conserve our soils when we can restore and help improve them,” said Daugherty. “The rejuvenation of your soil does not start with the implementation of principles, but rather the commitment to understanding ecological functions. You need to know why before how. The ingredients include the sun, soil, plants, and you.”
Daugherty believes that while no-till production is a good step, the implementation of no-till practices alone will not rejuvenate the soil. “Biologically, no-till was bacteria dominated. That biology is presently out of balance, and in many places the overall ecosystem functions are low,” said Daugherty. “Minus a lot of erosion and a little diesel, no-till production has mirrored conventional tillage. In the bigger picture, the logistics of soil rejuvenation and feeding the global population are not going to be met with a 15’ no-till drill.”
“There is the potential in a rejuvenated, healthy, functioning soil health management system to make money, clean the water, and restore resources,” said Daugherty.
The potential of the soil resource and its resiliency depend on five things, including moisture, temperature, pests, structure and the organic nutrient pool. To help reach that potential, Daugherty suggests keeping the soil covered. He likens it to a house that must be protected. He also suggests having living plants capturing sunlight and driving soil functions. “Having plant diversity creates synergistic collaborations within the soil biology,” said Daugherty. “It takes moisture to manage moisture. We cannot manage precipitation, only evaporation. There are more days with the potential to lose moisture than there are to gain moisture. Keeping the soil covered helps to manage moisture.”
Living crops allow for the management of moisture. “Why would we pray for rain if we have not prepared a place for it to fall,” asked Daugherty. “Fallow ground does not mimic any natural principle.” Having a growing crop breaks up rain drops as they fall, both slowing the speed and allowing the smaller droplets to infiltrate rather than run off. Plants also capture energy from sunlight and shade the soil to reduce evaporation and erosion.
“Bare soil creates energy imbalances,” said Daugherty. “We waste money in the space between plants. Plant biomass shades the soil and helps moderate the soil temperature. Soil temperature is important to microbial life.”
“The sun is the energy source that is captured by the plants. To rejuvenate the soil we need a diversity of plants.”
“Soil health is not complicated. Anytime there is not a living plant, the soil is degrading. We need to capture the energy from the sun to drive the system,” said Daugherty. “Nature wants to stabilize the carbon to nitrogen ratio in the soil. We farm in a high C:N ratio. The soil is naturally designed for consumption and the flow of energy.”