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How Does Soil Health Increase Resilience to Drought and Extreme Rainfall?

Extreme weather events, such as extended drought and heavy precipitation, are out of landowners’ and growers’ control; but through effective soil health management systems they can better manage how they prepare for and react to these circumstances.

Healthy soil allows more water to infiltrate and retains more moisture, enabling it to effectively absorb extreme rainfall as well as support crops during droughts. Adopting soil health systems before extreme events hit can save farmers significant time and money in the long run and preserve the vitality of their soils for many years to come.

Employing soil health systems by using practices such as no-till and cover crops, can help stabilize yields, improve agricultural productivity, and build resiliency through increased soil organic carbon content and soil water storage. These practices also benefit the environment, reducing nutrients lost through run-off, replenishing aquifers, and also acting as a natural filter for our waterways.

How exactly does soil retain water?

All soils have different amounts of sand, silt, and clay partilces and this affects water infiltration and soil water storage. While the proportion of these particles can’t be changed, farmers can increase the soil organic carbon in any soil and this optimizes their fields’ performance.

Soil organic carbon has two important functions for drought resilience: it can store up to 10 times its weight in water, and it is used as a source of food for soil microorganisms (bacteria, fungi, and other soil life) that build soil structure. This also creates habitat for the macrofauna, like earthworms, that make larger soil pores for water to drain so that it doesn’t pond on the surface and run-off, causing erosion and harming aquatic life. These two functions of soil organic carbon, water storage and drainage, work together to provide water to plants when they need it, while also allowing soils to drain so they don’t get waterlogged or erode.

What can farmers do to increase soil moisture levels?

Implementing soil health systems helps manage water, nutrients, and beneficial organisms in the soil year-round, helping  farms be prepared and resilient during unexpected events such as drought and extreme rainfall. The principles of soil health management (the foundation for regenerative agriculture)can be explored in further detail here.

Continuous living cover

When compared to healthy soils, bare soils are less absorbent and often compacted. The amount of run-off, nutrient loss, and soil erosion are significantly higher. In contrast, year-round cover provides more protection and shade, reducing evaporation loss. As a result, fields that have cover crops require less supplemental irrigation and can rely on stored soil water.

Studies have also shown that deep-rooted crops and perennials improved infiltration and the absorption of water in heavy rainstorms.

Lastly, roots of plants and plant residue on the soil surface aid in returning organic carbon to the soil and providing energy for soil microorganisms to carry out the vital functions that these creatures provide.

Implementing no-till systems

Tillage destroys soil structure, breaking down soil aggregates, and the effects can be felt for a number of growing seasons. When these break down, so do the pores between them, and the soil compacts and crusts further. As a result, the soil is less porous, leading to increased run-off and downstream flooding, further decreasing the amount of water stored in the soil for future times of need.

Considering a management change?

Adopting new management practices can bring challenges. Some farmers report it took them 2-3 years to learn how to use their new practices. Most start out small and then adopt more and more gradually over time. However, one thing is for sure - our environment is already changing. With the increasing severity and frequency of drought, heavy rain, elevated temperatures, market fluctuations, and many other factors outside of a farmer’s control, it makes sense to adjust management practices to help meet those challenges.

Managing to improve soil health brings many benefits, including drought resilience, increased nutrient availability, reduced input costs, and recent research also shows increased farm income. More and more resources are becoming available to help farmers transition to a soil health management system. Good places to start include your local cooperative extension office, NRCS, conservation district, and especially visiting with another local farmer who has already transitioned to a soil health management system. The Soil Health Institute will assist in any way we can.

Attendees of the Cotton Farmer Showcase Are Reaping Big Benefits

We’re half-way through the eight-part Healthy Soils for Sustainable Cotton Farmer Showcase, featuring cotton producers and soil health specialists across the United States discussing the challenges and successes they have encountered on their journey to improve soil health. Attendees of these virtual webinars included cotton producers, consultants, and others in the field, and based on the feedback we’ve received, this program is off to a very strong start!

A consultant who participated in the webinar on Feb. 16 about soil health in Arkansas loved that the information was accessible and shared by real farmers: “The Zoom (session) of the Arkansas farmer and questions was fantastic! Best Zoom-type meeting ever. Finally hearing from the core of people who had put into practice academia’s proposals. These gentlemen — the farmers — were awesome!”

Across the other states, participants had similar sentiments. In Mississippi, for example, an attendee shared these comments: “This was excellent because we heard from a farmer how he implements soil health and makes it work. Sledge (a farmer in Como, Miss.) hit the nail on the head with the challenge being the ‘mindset.’ I really appreciate this interview that y’all gave. Thank you!”

From a participant in Texas, not only did he find value in the content, he wants more of it. “Including the farmers in this session was awesome. It is so great to hear from their perspective. Could we have sessions from other types of products, such as corn or cattle?”

Designed as a way to continue the Soil Health Institute’s ongoing programs of training and education during the pandemic, the Cotton Farmer Showcase features eight live-streamed sessions on the topic of enhancing and safeguarding the vitality and productivity of soils used in cotton farming. Each session is tailored to the specific needs of farmers in different cotton-producing states; eight states in all are being covered.

The program is produced in partnership with the Walmart Foundation, Wrangler® Jeans, and the VF Foundation as part of the Healthy Soils for Sustainable Cotton project.

In the live-streamed sessions, participants hear directly from Soil Health Institute scientists, local soil health technical specialists, and farmer mentors who have implemented soil health management systems. The scientists and specialists provide an update on the latest research on the four “must-do” practices of soil health — no-till, strip-till, conservation crop rotation, cover crops, and nutrient and pest management — and local farmers experienced in using these practices share their perspective. Each session also includes a chance to submit questions to the experts.

In February, sessions were held for farmers in Mississippi, Texas, Arkansas, and California.

In March, sessions will be held for farmers in Georgia, North Carolina/Virginia, and the Carolinas (North and South), and a final episode on March 23 will discuss why soil health is important to the future of U.S. cotton. Each episode takes place on Tuesday at 2 p.m. Eastern Standard Time.

Attendance for the first three live-streamed events totaled 384, with farmers accounting for nearly 30 percent of total participants. Replay views for the first three events also have been strong, with nearly 1,000 viewers so far accessing the recorded sessions.

“Soil health is one of the hottest topics in all of farming right now,” says David Lamm, project manager and trainer for the Soil Health Institute. “Today’s consumers want to know their food and fiber products are sustainably grown, and the cotton industry is listening. Consumers are also increasingly interested in regenerative agriculture, and soil health is the very foundation for regenerative agriculture.”

“Cotton farmers, manufacturers, and retailers alike are collaborating to deliver cotton in a way that increases soil organic carbon, as well as reduces greenhouse gas emissions, soil loss, and water use,” Lamm adds. “They are realizing the many environmental and economic benefits that can be gained from managing soils to improve their health.”

Based on the success of the Healthy Soils for Sustainable Cotton Farmer Showcase, the Soil Health Institute will be looking for more opportunities to bring this type of high-value programming to the field. Additional sessions focused on cotton are being considered, as well as sessions relating to other crops and locations.

For more information or to sign up for any of the remaining webinars, click here.

Mr. David Lamm: Healthy Soils for Sustainable Cotton Program

Today’s consumers want to know their food and fiber products are sustainably grown and the cotton industry is listening. Cotton farmers, manufacturers and retailers are collaborating to deliver cotton in a way that increases soil organic carbon as well as reduces greenhouse gas emissions, soil loss, and water use.

In partnership with the Walmart Foundation, Wrangler® Jeans and the VF Foundation, the Soil Health Institute is working with cotton producers to increase soil health management system adoption. The Healthy Soils for Sustainable Cotton project offers farmer-focused education and training events delivered by Soil Health Institute scientists, partnering soil health technical specialists and farmer mentors who produce cotton using soil health-promoting practices. Healthy Soils for Sustainable Cotton farmer mentors and soil health technical specialists provide producer guidance and technical assistance throughout the term of the project as part of a farmer-to-farmer network.

For more information see our video below:

Dr. Dianna Bagnall: A New Tool for Farmers to Build Drought Resilience through Soil Health

Farmers know that soil health-promoting practices increase soil organic carbon, drought resilience, and farm profitability. Despite this, equations provided in soil science literature have not shown this relationship. As a result, farmers have not had a tool that estimates how a management practice will change their farm’s drought resilience.

New data from the North American Project to Evaluate Soil Health has allowed scientists at the Soil Health Institute to create new equations. These equations capture the link between soil organic carbon and plant-available water. The newly collected data include the effects of soil health-promoting practices and soil structure.

Using the new equations, Colorado State University, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Natural Resources Conservation Service, and the Soil Health Institute have developed a decision support tool that will be freely available as a part of the online CarbOn Management and Emissions Tool (COMET-Farm). The decision support tool, currently in beta version, will allow farmers to explore how to build soil carbon and improve drought resilience. Farmers and their advisers can calculate changes in plant-available water that are driven by soil health management practices, such as no-till or cover crops. This significant advancement provides a powerful incentive to drive the adoption of soil health management practices and enhance on-farm profitability.

For more information see our video below:

Dr. Archie Flanders: Identifying Costs and Benefits of Soil Health Management Systems

Research indicates that soil health management systems (SHMS), which include reduced tillage and incorporating cover crops with production of cash crops, decreases soil erosion, improves water infiltration, increases soil carbon, and reduces inputs that can have potentially adverse environmental impact. Encouraging production practices that improve soil health includes demonstrating that individual farm profitability is increased by adoption of SHMS.

Partial budget analysis is a farm management analytical method in which comparative financial returns are determined by quantifying the net effect of only specific proposed changes in production.

For example, converting from conventional tillage without cover crops to no-till production with cover crops will eliminate field activities that impact associated costs. A partial budget analysis will account for the cost of cover crop seeds and costs associated with planting and terminating the cover crop, all of which are specific to the change of adding cover crops to the management system.

The partial budget methodology presented demonstrates procedures for quantifying changes in production costs associated with adoption of SHMS. The Soil Health Institute has ongoing projects applying partial budget analysis to research plot trial data as well as case study farm data, Dr. Flanders said.

For more information see our video below:

Ms. Katie Harrigan: Federal and State Level Soil Health Legislation

Ms. Katie Harrigan of Tufts University provided an update on both U.S. federal and state soil health legislation during the Policy session of the Soil Health Institute’s 2020 Annual Meeting in her talk “Federal and State Level Soil Health Legislation.”

The 2018 Farm Bill (Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018) includes approximately 60 federal-level provisions that include soil health. Almost every provision is active by 2020. Provisions to land stewardship programs such as the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) encourage soil health planning, resource-conserving crop rotation planning, soil tests and soil remediation through increased incentive payments. Other provisions for land retirement programs, like the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), enhance end of contract considerations in favor of conservation efforts and form a new Soil Health and Income Protection Program (SHIPP). These and other policy and program provisions will help buffer some of the investment costs as farmers and ranchers change the landscape of soil health.

For more information see our video below:

Dr. Cristine Morgan: North American Project to Evaluate Soil Health Measurements

The Soil Health Institute is leading the North American Project to Evaluate Soil Health Measurements (NAPESHM) with the goal of identifying the most effective indicators of soil health by measuring more than 30 indicators across 124 long-term research sites in Mexico, the United States of America and Canada. The Soil Health Institute coordinated a panel of scientists to help select appropriate measurement methods, and long-term research sites were selected from a list volunteered by scientists across North America. More specific details regarding the indicators selected, the methods used, and the sites selected can be found on the Soil Health Institute’s website and in a paper published in Agronomy Journal, Norris et al. (2020).

All sites were successfully sampled in 2019, with more than 97% of sampling being completed in the spring before planting. Soil sample analyses and associated quality control checks of data were completed in spring 2020, except a few carbon samples that needed re-testing (delayed because of COVID-19 closures). All management data from the sites have been collected, catalogued and verified. The eight scientists working on the project are in the process of preparing peer-reviewed manuscripts and reports that analyze and synthesize results. Those manuscripts will be submitted for publication in fall of 2020, and the Soil Health Institute anticipates providing a recommendation of a soil health measurement framework in the fall of 2020.

The Soil Health Institute acknowledges the many Partnering Scientists that have contributed their research sites, helped in sampling and offered data analysis ideas to the project. The project is funded by the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research, General Mills and The Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation.

For more information see our video below:

Dr. G. Mac Bean: Effects of Soil Health Practices on Soil Water Characteristics

Soil structure and aggregate stability regulate the capacity of the soil to capture, transmit, store and release water. Damaging these soil properties can result in greater soil water runoff and erosion. Therefore, determining how agricultural management practices such as tillage, cover crops, and organic amendments affect soil water cycling is important for regenerative agriculture.

There are several soil measurements related to soil water cycling, including bulk density, saturated hydraulic conductivity and available water holding capacity (AWHC). These measurements were included as part of the Soil Health Institute’s North American Project to Evaluate Soil Health Measurements and were collected at more than 120 long-term agricultural research sites. The measurements at each site represented a business-as-usual practice as well as comparison treatment with soil health management practices. The measurement differences between the treatments were compared to evaluate the sensitivity of each measurement to soil health practices such as reduced tillage, cover cropping, crop rotation, and organic amendments.

Preliminary results show that bulk density and saturated hydraulic conductivity were both responsive to changes in tillage intensity. However, AWHC, measured using intact soil cores, was responsive to changes in both tillage intensity and cover crops with increases in AWHC by 7% and 6%, respectively. No measurement was sensitive to the addition of organic amendments. Overall, AWHC was the most sensitive measurement for determining the effects of management on soil water cycling.

For more information see our video below:

Dr. Kelsey L. H. Greub: Aggregate Stability as an Indicator of Soil Health for North American Soils

Aggregate stability is defined as the ability of a soil to maintain its physical structure and withstand external forces. Aggregate stability is related to physical, chemical, and biological soil properties, and is sensitive to changes in soil management, which makes it a useful indicator of soil health.

Several methods for quantifying aggregate stability exist; however, the methods differ greatly in the amount and type of external force applied, size and weight of aggregates used, output unit and scale used to quantify aggregate stability, and cost of each analysis. These differences make comparing aggregate stability values for soil health management difficult and raise the need for a universal method for quantifying aggregate stability.

For the North American Project to Evaluate Soil Health Measurements (NAPESHM), scientists at the Soil Health Institute compared four aggregate stability methods, including the Cornell Rainfall Simulator, Wet Sieve Procedure, SLAKES smartphone application, and Soil Stability Index. Each method was evaluated for sensitivity to inherent soil properties, sensitivity to management, and overall utility for stakeholders.

Overall, the methods showed minimal sensitivity to soil organic carbon, as soil organic carbon was poorly correlated with aggregate stability. All methods were sensitive to changes in tillage, with significant increases in aggregate stability when tillage intensity decreased. The Cornell Rainfall Simulator and SLAKES methods also responded significantly to the implementation of cover crops, as well as the removal of crop residue. Based on the results from this study, the SLAKES method is recommended for evaluating aggregate stability due to its high sensitivity to changes in management, low cost, and fast turnaround time for results.

For more information see our video below:

Dr. Charlotte Norris: Evaluating a Biological Measurement of Soil Health in Agricultural Ecosystems Across North America

What is the phospholipid fatty acid (PLFA) procedure for soils? What do you want to think about when comparing PLFA lab reports? Dr. Charlotte Norris addressed these questions within an agricultural context.

Dr. Norris, Forest Soils Research Scientist with Natural Resources Canada, presented on “Evaluation a Biological Measurement of Soil Health in Agricultural Ecosystems.” In her presentation, Dr. Norris introduced the phospholipid fatty acid (PLFA) procedure and how soil scientists use it to identify the soil microbial community.

Dr. Norris suggested the measure needs some further work to be a universal tool in reporting microbial diversity, and she mentioned other things to consider when comparing across lab reports. She concluded with initial results showing how the tool could be used to assess local environmental conditions for soil microbial health.

For more information see our video below: