Everyone is talking about soil health, so we thought we should too. We chat a bit about what exactly is soil health with Jamie Patton of UW-Madison’s Nutrient and Pest Management program and Brendon Blank, a farmer and Byron Seeds rep from Ixonia, WI, and most importantly, how do you measure progress?
Will Fulwider 0:01
Well, what’s the joke for today Jamie?
Jamie Patton 0:06
Well, Will this is a real soil nerdy joke. So, why did the A horizon and B horizon not have any children?
Will Fulwider 0:14
I don’t know.
Jamie Patton 0:16
Because they weren’t parent material.
Michael Geissinger 0:22
Love the soil nerdiness starting already.
Will Fulwider 0:33
Welcome to Field Notes. My name is Will Fulwider, and I’m joined by my co host, Michael Geissinger. We are to Regional Crops Educators with UW Madison Extension in Wisconsin. Combining our skills, knowledge and experience to help farmers and agronomists develop research based solutions to issues facing agriculture in Wisconsin.
Michael Geissinger 0:52
Without further ado, or another cheesy joke from Jamie, I’ll introduce our topic and guests for this episode of Field Notes. Today, we’re talking about practical approaches to evaluating soil health. We’re joined by Jamie Patton, a Soil Pit Aficionado and Outreach Specialist in Northeast Wisconsin with the University of Wisconsin’s Nutrient and Pest Management Program and Brendon Blank, a farmer in Ixonia, Wisconsin and Byron Seeds Rep. We’re really excited to have these guests sharing their expertise with us today. Jamie and Brendon, thanks for talking with us. If you could just introduce yourselves briefly, that would be great!
Jamie Patton 1:32
Sure. Thank you, Michael. So as you said, I’m Jamie Patton, I work for the Nutrient Pest Management Program. So I get the joy of traveling around the state standing in soil pits showing everybody the cool facts and features of soils that are beneath our feet, as well as during the winter months such as these helping farmers develop nutrient management plans. So looking at how we can effectively use nutrients to improve crop yields, while trying to maintain environmental quality.
Brendon Blank 1:58
And I’m Brendon Blank, I’m kind of down in southeast part of the state. With my dad’s family here we run a farm, it’s been a dairy farm. Cows left just few years ago, but we’ve got some beef cows on pasture and still run cash grain and hay on the rest of the farm. I’ve also worked with Byron Seeds, I’ve been with them for about 15 years, and soil health has become a much bigger part of that business, of that role. And previous career, I worked for NRCS and was kind of involved in the soil health stuff there. And I kind of went out on my own now. And soil health has become a big focus and something I really enjoy working with. I mean, we’ve been no till and implementing cover crops and do a lot of kind of consulting and advising with other people in the area here too. Something I really enjoy, and it’s It’s a lot of fun. And the amount of stuff we’re learning on it is just exciting.
Brendon Blank 2:16
So speaking on the topic of soil health, can you tell us what exactly it is that we’re talking about when we talk about soil health, Jamie?
Jamie Patton 3:02
That’s a great question Will. So actually, I copied down two definitions. So most of us are familiar with the NRCS definition. And I’m just going to read it. Soil health is defined as the continued capacity of the soil to function as a vital living ecosystem that sustains plants, animals, and humans. So I don’t know about you, but when I’m listening, and to that definition, it’s really hard for me to grasp everything that’s going on. But I think the key words are vital, living, ecosystem. So in all reality, I’m a soil scientist, like I said, and I spent a lot of time in soil pits, and really thinking about soils and Brendon, I will talk about this when we talk about assessing soil health. Every soil is different, and we should have different expectations for every soil. So I much prefer and Brendon can chime in. I much prefer this definition. Soil health is a state of a soil meeting its range of functions as appropriate to its environment. So what might a soil do? A soil cycles nutrients, it stores carbon, it maintains water quality and holds water for plants. It maintains those plant and microbial habitats. So in all reality, I like that definition better soil health is the ability of a soil to meet its functions appropriate to its environment. I don’t know what do you think Brendon?
Brendon Blank 4:22
I like that a lot. And the one word that I like in there probably the most is function. And it basically adds action to what soil is doing. It’s a verb. And I when I think of soil health, I think what is your soil doing for you is your soil performing work? I mean everything else that farmers do is based around work. You have a tractor because it works, you have everything you have is there to perform work and most of the time our soil is just thought of as more of a noun versus a verb just It’s a, it’s something that’s a static thing that’s there to hold the nutrients that we put into it to then grow a crop. And it’s much, much more dynamic than that. It’s when your soil is working, when you have healthy soil, you got biology in your soil that’s helping break nutrients down, that’s mobilizing more nutrients that’s growing nutrients through the biology and the microbes that are there. And it allows your soil to work for you, and just be more productive and more efficient.
Jamie Patton 5:34
I agree with you, Brendon, that word function is really important, it also gets back to the fact that it’s alive, right? It’s doing something. So anytime we can get people to appreciate soil is not just the dirt that’s laying on the ground, but has this really cool environment that is very, very much alive. And it’s sustaining our own health and vitality. It’s really important to me. So Will, it’s a long answer to a very simple question of what is soil health, but it’s the ability of it to function and do what it’s supposed to do.
Brendon Blank 6:08
Do what it’s capable of doing. I mean, a lot of us, I think we’re not reaching the capability of our soils, because we’re not, we’re disrupting the process that are needed that allows that soil to function and perform work for us. And you know, sometimes the best thing is just getting out of its way and letting it do what it wants to do.
Jamie Patton 6:31
Isn’t that true for all of Mother Nature?
Michael Geissinger 6:34
Yeah, absolutely. So we’ve kind of established now this, the soil is alive. And well, when I look at it, it doesn’t really look alive. It’s not moving, per se. So maybe on a practical level, how can a farmer or a consultant evaluate the state of their soils as being healthy or unhealthy? And more specifically, what are some of those physical tools that someone might need to evaluate soil health?
Brendon Blank 7:05
So evaluating soil health and this will kind of go back to Jamie’s thing as far as a her definition of what is soil health and how that can kind of vary from place to place. I mean, from her being in Northern Wisconsin and me being Southern, we’re going to look at things a little bit differently. One of the things that I think one of the most important tools for evaluating soil health, and it’s something you can’t leave home without, which is kind of handy is your eyeballs. When you’re walking out in your fields, it’s looking at that soil looking at the ground. I mean, when you’re out in a cornfield, you want to look at the corn. That’s important. That’s good, too. But look at the ground look for, look at your soil surface, is it cracked and dry? Or is it more porous and loose? Is there some residue on the surface from last year’s crop? Because you’re not tilling it all under? Do you have earthworm activity, do you have lots of nightcrawler castings and stuff on the soil, that those are really good indicators of life in your soil? Now you get up by Jamie, you get farther north, you get a little bit less of that earthworm and nightcrawler. So you got to evaluate things a little bit differently from a visual standpoint. And even soil texture, that’s gonna change a little bit, but but there’s a lot that you can see that you can learn to look at. And that’s fun to walk out in the field with a farmer and just show him. Look at everything that’s going on here. I mean, it’s not uncommon, if you got corn, you get to the end of season corn leaves start dropping down, as soon as they hit the soil nightcrawlers will be grabbing those corn leaves and pulling them down into their burrows. And when you show farms, hey, look at this corn leaf that’s got itself buried down in the soil, going whoa, it’s a pretty cool thing to see. And it’s easy to see. Probably the other tool that’s probably the most important is a shovel. Just get out there and and dig, see what’s under there. Do you have worms that you’re finding? And that’s what do you see when you peel it off? Is it a nice loose crumbly kind of cottage cheese type texture? Or is it blocky? Is it firm? Is it platey? Jamie can expand a whole lot more on that aspect of evaluating. She does a tremendous job but I mean, two really simple things. You can go beyond that. But I think for most people just kind of getting started. That’s a great way to to learn it and sometimes that takes going out there in the field with somebody that knows what they’re looking at and finding those other people in your area that are local and can help you with that to kind of learn those basic things to look for.
Jamie Patton 10:04
I think that’s perfect Brendon. So I always go back to the saying, you only see what you know. And so that getting out there with someone who knows what they should be looking for, is really important as we start our soil health journey and start that assessment, because I’m going to see things differently than Brendon who’s going to see them differently than Michael and Will, and we’re all gonna see something a little bit different. So training your eye and training your brain to see all those little details, because that’s what it really is, when we get to soil health. It’s about the details. And I agree, Brendon, I think you nailed it, that eyes, just look at it. Right. And so it comes back to also watching that soil when we think about the first scientists that you know, human scientists, they observed. And that is a really, really powerful tool is observing and to understand. And so watching our soil, so is it functioning? Is it working? As Brendon put, is it working like it’s supposed to? Do we see those nutrient deficiencies showing up in season? Do we see water infiltrating into that soil or running off? Do we see the dark color of the soil? Is it starting to, you know, with our management practices, starting to not only change color, but also is that structure? So how those sand, silt and clay grains are coming together? Do we have as Brendon said, more of that? That cookie crumb structure that chocolate cake structure, the cottage cheese structure? Gotta love soil scientists, we describe everything as food, right? Do we have those nice, small round balls of soil? And that’s what we want to see? Or do we have these big chunky blocks or plates? So I agree, also getting out and feeling it? So are those those peds? Are those aggregates? Are they soft? Can you break them apart easily? And that’s oftentimes when Brendon and I, when we’re talking in a soil pit, you know, we take out a piece of soil, and we try and break it apart. And so obviously, the ability to break it apart is going to be based upon moisture content. But if that soil is decently moist, does it take a lot of strength to break that aggregate apart? Or does it just crumble apart? You know, if you’re imagining yourself as an earthworm, or you’re imagining yourself as a root, you know, and trying to move down through that soil, you want that soil, the word we use this frail, but you want it to be soft and able to crumble apart easily. And if you don’t have that, then we may be looking at some compaction and looking at different management practices to improve that soil health.
So yeah, and I also agree with you, Brendon, that shovel. So that’s where I’m sitting here. And I wish you could see this, I know this is radio, so y’all can’t see it. But I was out in the field Brendon up in Northern Wisconsin. So you would have enjoyed this, right? So I was trying to put a shovel into the ground, and I jumped on it, and I leaned back, and the soil was so compact, I broke the shovel in half. So I ended up on the ground with half of a shovel. And the other half was still in the ground said I had been cut on my hands. So obviously not soil health. So I could have used my eyes to figure that out. But I used my shovel to see just how bad that compaction was. And low and behold, it was terrible. So I always point that out, because Brendon would of just laughed, very hard to watch me ride that shovel handle right to the ground.
Will Fulwider 13:20
So we’re talking about what, you know, what do we see out in the field, but as far as soil health, but what influences that, you know, what are the practices that you see farmers doing that, over time, you do see a difference, kind of in the way that the soil changes out in their fields there, you know, from both your experience standpoint, and also kind of what you know about how soils operate? What are the management strategies that people can put into place that change the health of their soils.
Brendon Blank 13:51
There’s a lot of different procedures to improve soil health. Probably the first and most common one that people are familiar with is is reducing disturbance, reducing tillage. With soil health I mean, we’re talking about creating a living environment, in the soil, that’s ideal for the organisms and stuff that are there. And that’s what we’re after and we’re there to take advantage of those organisms and such. And if we go in and are with tillage, and are constantly disturbing, and tearing apart the homes that they work. So we talked about our soil working, well our soils working because these organisms are working. And they have to put in effort and work to build their home, their environment that they want to live in. And I mean, just like you or I if we have if we have a comfortable, productive home, we’re going to be more productive outside the home because we’re going to invest energy and work there. And well if we’re constantly destroying the homes of these organisms, they’re gonna put all their work into rebuilding that, and then we don’t get to take advantage of the work that they can perform for us and they don’t multiply. And so, it’s maintaining an environment, a habitat, in the soil where these bugs can live. So reducing tillage reducing that disturbance is important. And the crazy thing is we reduce tillage, your soil becomes more stable, it becomes less prone to compaction. And getting kind of the weird thing there is I mean, we talk about evaluating your soil health with a shovel and compaction and stuff not in there, you think that your soil is hard? Well, which it is, but once your soil has been no till for a long period of time, it will become more firm, more stable on the surface to tolerate traffic. But it also is at the same time as more porous underneath to allow roots and water and air and everything to move through. So it logic tells you it shouldn’t happen that way. But that’s what does happen. And other thing that kind of increase soil health, I mean, is having a living root in your soil all the time, then cover crops are a big, big, big part of that. Around 50% of the sugar that a plant produces. So I mean, when you’re growing a corn plant, that corn plant loads the stalk up with sugar, that late in the season, it then converts the sugar into starch up in the grain. So there’s a lot of sugar in that stalk that then gets turned into starch. But all plants in general, around 50% of the sugar that they produce, goes through the roots and is exuded out into the soil with the purpose of feeding soil biology. And we want to keep that soil biology alive as much as possible. And as long as possible. And in order to do that, we have to have living roots there. So that’s where the cover crops come in. Because I mean most of our cash crops, your corn and beans, most of the year, those roots are not alive. They’re not working for us, they’re just kind of dead, they’re not doing anything. And it’s kind of like in the wintertime, you go to start your diesel tractor. It’s kind of hard to start them. And it takes a while for them to get warm to be able to get up to the point where they’re going to function to their potential. So you go you start the tractor, you let it sit there for a few minutes to warm up before it can get to the point where reaches potential. And if we have cover crops in the soil, it’s kind of the equivalent of having that having that tractor plugged into the block heater you turn it on and it’s ready to go. If we have those cover crops there, they keep your soil warm, they keep it alive, they keep it ready to go. So when you want to plant into it next spring, boom, it’s ready to go. It’s waiting for you versus you planting and now you’re more dependent on your fertilizer and whatnot and waiting for that soil biology to come to life. So we can now start growing your crop.
Jamie Patton 18:07
Sorry, Brendon, we’re gonna make sure that your quote, cover crops are like a block heater. So that is that is impressive. That is impressive. I’ve never heard that before. That’s fantastic.
Brendon Blank 18:18
Just kind of came out of nowhere.
Jamie Patton 18:24
But I think yeah, that’s that is definitely when we think about that. And Brendon talked about traffic ability and soil resiliency. So when I think about practices to improve soil health, you know, I oftentimes and y’all have heard me chat. I’m in love with soil aggregates, I love to see how sand, silt and clay grains bring themselves together and what are the shapes? What are the sizes, you know, how stable are those soil aggregates because, and why I’m so in love with them is that not only provides the fabric that creates that soil media for plants to grow and us to, walk on and build on so on and so forth, but also creates that pore space that allows for water to move in and air to move in, creates an empty space for those microbes to live in, as well as roots to grow through. So I oftentimes focus on those soil aggregates and as Brendon discussed, you know, reducing disturbance and keeping a living group increasing diversity, we all know those, you know, and we could go on with the five soil health principles. But I think Brendon and I both are really passionate about keeping that living root in the system because those roots are not only creating the mechanism and the the food source for those micro organisms that are so key to soil health, but those roots are also acting as a physical binding agents so they’re, they’re growing out there in the soil and there’s root hairs are bringing in mycorrhizal fungi they’re bringing in other organisms. And what that symbiotic relationship between those organisms and roots do is they help to bring those sand, silt and clay grains together, create those soil aggregates that I’m so in love with, by bringing them physically together, they produce the glues that then help hold those aggregates together. And to me, that’s the impotence of all soil life is making sure that we have that empty space, that pore space that allows that soil to function. So the fact that we have living roots out there all year round is really important to me when we talk about soil health. So that may be, as Brendon talked about, when we think about cash crop systems, that is cover crops, we can also think about changing crop rotations. So we spent a lot of time talking about, you know, is there a possibility put a small grain in a rotation, which then gives me that, for example, it’s winter wheat, gives me living roots all winter long with that winter wheat, but also opens up a large window after that wheat is harvested to get a cover crop in so thereby increasing opportunities for roots to grow throughout the season. It also includes, you know, perennial crops. And so for those of us who have livestock, so can we look at rotational grazing systems? Can we look at opportunities to get perennials on the landscape? And if it’s not on a large scale, such as pastures? Could it be strips of prairie strips? Could it be buffers? Could it be other opportunities to get perennials in spots on the landscape that may not be so productive? So working with Pheasants Forever, they have a great program, looking at, you know, what is the return on investment on a particular area of field? And if we’re just seeing an area is not all that profitable, is there an opportunity to switch out a land use so that we can put it into something that has some using big words here, ecosystem services, you know, can it help us, you know, filter water, store water? Can it help us with beneficial insects, pollinators? Can it help us store carbon? So on and so forth. So that’s what’s exciting about soil health, and I’m going to retire before Brendon does, but he’s got a long career of coming up with new and innovative ways to bring soil health to our agricultural landscapes, because the opportunities out there are endless. It’s just we’re limited by our creativity. So planting green and intercropping, and so on or so forth. The the world of soil health and soil health practices is pretty exciting. We’re learning as Brendon said, before, we’re learning something new every day.
Will Fulwider 22:29
I want to jump in and circle back a little bit about your your number one love of soil aggregates, and aggregate stability. And you mentioned a little bit about the cheesecake, cottage cheese, texture of soils. And I think that’s one way of looking at it. But can you talk a little bit about how else you can evaluate that?
Jamie Patton 22:49
So when we look at assessing soil aggregates, and this is where as Brendon talked about having that shovel, just digging down through the soil, and just making those observations as to how large those aggregates are, we typically want smaller, you know, large aggregates that break into smaller aggregates creating that large as well as small pore space, we want them to be mostly spherical in shape. So because as we know, balls or spheres don’t pack very well together, creating that pore space as compared to blocks or plates. So there’s just that general observation. We can also and I know Brennan and I have been out with various farmers. Oftentimes, we look at not necessarily the properties, the aggregation, but how that soil functions. How does it do work? And the oftentimes the work that we think of that’s associated with aggregation is water infiltration, right? Can water move into the soil, so many of us travel around the countryside with these rings, right, these infiltration rings to it’s not a test. So it’s more of a demonstration. That’s what I was wanting to point out. We’re not generating scientifically valid numbers, but it gives us an idea if we pound that ring in here. And we pound that ring in on a different land management practice, you know, and we pour in that water, and we see how fast it infiltrates water. Soil that has better aggregation has more connected pores, larger pores, that water is going to infiltrate a lot more quickly. And it’s going to be able to infiltrate more water than soils that have less aggregation or poorly connected aggregates or less stable aggregates. So there’s those kinds of observational, intentional observational practices of looking at the infiltration. How did those aggregates work? Or I know it’s the wrong time of year but after a rainfall, right, so the snow isn’t infiltrating right today. So but the rainfall just looking at those different parts of the landscape. Where does water soak in where does water not? So that’s gives us an idea of aggregation. If we’re a person who likes more quantitative evaluations, many of our soil health testing labs are looking at a test called wet aggregate stability. So what that does is it measures the ability of that that aggregate to withstand a wetting and drying cycle, does it stay together as an aggregate? Or does it fall apart, and we want our our aggregates to be stable, we want them to be able to keep their shape and their function as they go through wet and dry, wet and dry, wet and dry, because that’s gonna maintain that pore space. Brendon you use a lot, I know you do this a lot, the slump and the slight test, can you describe those, those are two other ways that we can evaluate aggregation in the field using very simple tools such as a solo cup and a screen from the dollar store.
Brendon Blank 25:37
Yeah, so it’s, basically, you go out there with a shovel, you take a small piece of dirt, maybe the size of smaller than a golf ball or something like that, you know, basically a dip in a cup of water, and just let it sit there without moving it and see what happens. And what’s eye opening is, alright, you go from one of your crop fields and you do that, and then you go over into the fence line or something like that, that’s never been worked, you grab a chunk of soil there and do it, then you can see the difference. And you can see the difference before you put it in. And that’s a good way to evaluate what is the potential of your soil, what does it want to be? If we weren’t disturbing it now we’re not going to get there, we’re not going to exactly match it because we are disturbing it. And that’s inevitable. But the the heavily disturbed soils that don’t have the biological life, they’re just dissolve in water really, really fast, you can just watch them fall apart. Whereas your more healthy soils that have the biological glues and the fungus and everything holding those soils together, they stay intact. And that water stays clear, it doesn’t get cloudy and milky from the soil particles dissolving and just completely going into solution. And it’s again, a super easy tool to show you what happens when my soil gets wet. Does it dissolve and fall apart? Or does it sit there and maintain its structure and keep those pore spaces open? Because if your soil dissolves, all those dissolve particles very rapidly plug up the pores in your soil. And that’s when you start getting the runoff. So yeah, real kind of simple physical ways to evaluate the biological activity that’s happening in your soil.
Jamie Patton 27:29
And if you’ve never seen that, so there’s plenty of YouTube videos out there on the slake test. So slake is basically how well does a soil aggregate and typically it’s air dried aggregate, how well does it hold together when introduced into water. And the slump test is basically then take, once you’re done and your soil is sitting in that basically sink drain screen, flip it out and see and flip it onto a piece of paper or flip it out onto the table. And in that motion of further disturbance does that aggregate still stay together? So slake and slump tests are excellent ways to look at soil aggregation across the field. And so realize it’s not I think oftentimes we think of that many of these properties are homogeneous across the field, they’re always the same. And that’s not true. We know that not only from soil type, but how we manage those lands, we’re going to see a wide variability in how these soils function across a given field.
Brendon Blank 28:29
That slump test kind of a good way just for people to visualize, a good healthy soil is going to more resemble if you kind of compare it to concrete, concrete that’s maybe half set up or not half but that’s thick, that’s a low slump concrete something that’s just going to kind of sit there versus something concrete that’s got a bunch of water in it that’s just going to flatten out and flow. So kind of just different visual analogy there to help understand that.
Jamie Patton 28:57
We got to use food Brendon so it should be you know, a good soil.
Brendon Blank 29:01
I like concrete and block heaters.
Jamie Patton 29:03
I know. I go with food, so obviously we’re going with some chocolate cake, you know crumbles if it’s holding together and then just chocolate pudding just that smooth pudding if it’s not holding together so we’re gonna end up with a good poke cake here with some cake and pudding. We’ll just get some whipped cream and there we go. Soil aggregation and cooking all in the same podcast.
Will Fulwider 29:26
Feast away. So one thing before we move on that I want to talk about just briefly is, if you want to take the next step, or if it is the next step, what are the soil health tests that you send it out the lab and they give you back a bunch of numbers. Where does that stand in your eyes as a way of evaluating soil health?
Brendon Blank 29:55
I think it’s a valuable tool. It’s up and coming, where there’s, I guess in the beginning, we’ve got a lot to learn about soil health, we’ve got a lot to learn about the soil health lab tests, it is valuable, it can tell you a lot of information, you need to learning how to use the test, and when to take the test has almost as much influence on the result has almost as much influence as what the result on the test is. Because we’re testing a living organism, and you want to take it when your soil is and your soil activity and your soil life, I mean, it varies throughout the season. And when your soils cold, there’s not much growing everything that’s in the soil there is cold blooded. And when your soil is warm, you’re gonna have more activity there. So encounter, what are you looking for. If you’re looking to use it as a nitrogen management tool on your corn, I like to take them close to, basically when you’d be side dressing your corn when that soil is warm. If you’re looking to have basically kind of a yearly benchmark to see am I making progress, I’m going to test this field every year to see if it’s improving with the cover crops and the what not I’m putting on there, you’re going to want to make sure you take it at the same time every year, whether that’s in spring, or in fall, but you always you want your soil to be alive and working when you do that. So basically having soil temperatures in that 55 degrees or so. But if you want to evaluate and kind of track your progress over time, that’s different than, alright, I want to do a test right now to see kind of like a PSNT type test for corn. But consistency in the timing of your collection is very important to having usable, practical information come back from this.
Jamie Patton 32:12
I agree with you 100% Brendon. So I don’t think we quite understand, you know, the temporal. So how these tests change over time how they change over growing season, as well spatially over a given field. And so I’m going to come back to the definition right of soil. Remember, it was soil health, the state of soil meeting its range of ecosystems functions as appropriate to its environment. And I think that’s where the challenge is, for us in Wisconsin is we don’t have we can’t calibrated these tests for our different soils for our different regions. So if I would send a test off and get an analysis, whatever analysis it might be, I don’t know how to interpret that for my given soil or my given management practice. So while I can generate the number, I’m not necessarily sure if that number is good, bad or ugly, or how it compares across. So I always think of these tests as relative assessments. And I agree with Brendon. So I’m going to look at, for example, if I’m switching over a field, right, I’m gonna go from conventional tillage into no till. And I want to see how that impacts soil health, I’m going to pick a spot, I’m going to GPS it and I’m going to take that soil sample, I agree with Brendon, in probably that Juneish area. And we don’t really know. But I like that pre sidedress Nitrogen test time, soils warm and things are active. So I’m going to go out to a GPS location, I’m going to take that soil, I’m going to handle it appropriately. So I end up talking to the lab, wanting to know do they want it refrigerated? Do they want it frozen? Do they want to overnight shipped, so on or so forth, because these microbial analyses are very sensitive to that temperature. And I’ll get those numbers back. And then I’ll come back a year, three years later, and then compare and come back to that exact same spot and take that soil test again, handle the soil again, and then look at that change. So it’s about that relativeness. How does the soil perform now? And later? How does this soil in this field with this soil type perform against my fence row that has the exact same soil type. So it’s not necessarily looking at the absolute value of those numbers and taking interpretation from that. But rather looking at the relativeness yet, across my field. So even, you know, because I’m can take a soil test up here, sitting up near Green Bay, and it’s not going to look anything like potentially the soils down by Brendon. So my numbers may be great for me in my sand, but really bad numbers for Brendon and his finer textured soils. So we just don’t have those interpretations developed yet. So they’re valuable tools. We just have to use them with caution. As we said, this is where Brendon’s much younger he’ll have this all figured out by the time he retires. So it’s gonna take another 10, 15, 20, 30 years or more to really come up with a refined way to measure soil health. We’re getting there, but we’re probably not quite there yet.
Michael Geissinger 35:17
I kind of want to build on that concept and start synthesizing all of these ideas together into our final question here, which is, what is the connection between soil health and environmental quality? And we’ll have Jamie kick us off for that.
Jamie Patton 35:33
So we want to, we want to have that direct tie, right? So we want to have that direct tie between my soil health promoting practices, my improvement in soil, and that direct link to improve water quality. But when we try and make those direct links, we know that we’re having benefits, right? So we know that we’re reducing erosion, so on or so forth. But we shouldn’t be too ambitious, right? And when we come to some of these interpretations, because we don’t understand these systems, and for example, what I’m trying to say is depending upon what cover crops I put out there, right, so oftentimes, if I put winter killed, cover crops out there, and Brendon and I had this discussion at our last field day, if those cover crops freeze, and those tissues break open, they can start to release nutrients at the surface. And when we get these thaws in the mid winter, we can actually see increased nutrient runoff potentially, in some areas from a winter killed cover crop versus one that’s not. So there’s these complexities. When we think about this as an entire system, right? It’s not just as simple as we want it to be, the changes in biology that are coming, the changes in nutrient cycling, that are coming with these enhanced systems, these changes in water dynamics. So while we know we are doing good, we don’t know, we’re unable to quantify that. So that shouldn’t be a deterrent to soil health, whenever we have the opportunity to as we talked about the soil health principles, you know, increased diversity, reduce tillage, and reduce disturbance or so forth, we need to be doing that we know in general, overall, they have a huge benefit to the environment. But when we start to drill down to the individual specifics, we need to be cautious in our interpretations, right? So one of the another example of that would be when we think about carbon storage, right, so carbon is a really, really hot topic at the moment. And as soil scientists, we know that we need to look at carbon dynamics from the surface to probably at least down to a meter. So more than three feet, because our systems are having an influence on carbon at the surface as well as carbon at depth, I can make clear in improving carbon at the surface, but decreasing carbon at depth. And what does that net overall change in carbon? So I think we get arrogant is what was the word I was looking for. I think we get arrogant in what we think we know. And in all reality, Mother Nature’s much smarter than we are. And we may be over interpreting. But in general, like I said, and this is where I don’t ever want that, to deter us from moving on to improved cropping systems. We know we’re having an impact, potentially, when we have that improved living cover, or that cover on the soil you’re on. We know we’re improving soil erosion rates, we know that over time, we’re improving aggregation in some of these systems, we know that we are changing nutrient dynamics, hopefully for the better so but when we really drill down into the details, we need to be cautious, because there are different ways to look at the state and in particular and various landscapes. So again, not being arrogant, trying to generalize information to every system. Because each location, each system is very much its own individual and it’s going to react differently. Brendon, sell that better.
Brendon Blank 39:17
Well, I mean, one thing I kind of like to talk about me in you touch on carbon, and I think I talked on, I mean how plants, they like to put sugar in the soil. And I mean, what makes plants kind of so amazing is the photosynthesis process that they go through that basically takes sunlight and turns it into solid organic material. And it’s pulling sunlight, it’s collecting sunlight, it’s collecting energy. It’s basically functioning as a solar panel collecting energy that is then turning into organic matter that is essentially a battery there to store that energy in our soil. So and we can have it back next year. Or the following year to grow our corn. So it’s pulling sunlight, it’s pulling CO2, it’s pulling carbon out of the air. And again, putting that in the soil is kind of to be that battery to store energy that we can then have to grow our crops. And it’s getting all of that energy. That sunlight that heat, that carbon, the nitrogen that it pulls out of the atmosphere, that’s all stuff that we can get for free, when we’ve got a crop growing, and I want every farmer out there to collect as much free stuff as possible. I think every farmer wants to collect as much free stuff as possible. Everybody if there’s something for free, it’s you want to you want that. And, and so the cover crops, they have something growing. I mean, you could get cereal rye and some of these cool seasons, we live in Wisconsin, we have a lot of cool season, growing environment here. Majority of our acres are covered with warm season crops. I mean, corn starts growing well, around June 1. And it’s done, mostly done with the photosynthesizing around the beginning of September. And so that leaves us a hole I mean, shoot, even if you’re putting a cover crop after corn grain in the fall, it’s not going to do much, but it’ll start growing in March. And you can collect there’s a lot of solar energy. I mean, that stuff was growing, if it’s above 32 degrees, that plant is alive. And it’s collecting that free stuff, it’s pulling that CO2 out of the air and burying it in the soil. And it’s at the same time is stimulating that biology and getting that primed and ready to go get it warmed up. And at the same time it’s creating residue on the surface that protects I mean, why did we build machine sheds to protect our equipment from the weather, and the sun, and the UV rays that deteriorate everything. But yet our soil is a bigger asset than most of our equipment. We leave it to bake in the sun and get beat on by the weather. If we can have residue on the surface, it acts like that machine shed roof that protects it from the sun from the rain. And so I think there’s a lot of value there that comes from having cover crops and residue. And I mean, we get that residue on the surface. It’s not only nutrients, it’s reducing runoff from immensely, especially when you’ve got and that’s part of the strategy of building the right cover crop mix. I mean, if you got in having diversity and multiple species out there and I like to see a mix of things where some stuff is dying in the fall, but you still got some stuff alive, that you’re going to plant into green in the spring and having a mix of things, some roots that are gonna go deep, some that are gonna stay shallow. They’re gonna pull different nutrients, they’re gonna stimulate different biology. It’s kind of like a, you look at a mechanic’s toolbox you can fix a lot of stuff with a hammer and a screwdriver. But you got a big mechanic’s tool set, there’s a whole lot more things you can fix. And you can be a whole lot more productive. And just kind of putting all those different tools together just increases your capabilities immensely.
Jamie Patton 43:33
I think cropping systems is just like anything else in life. And I always hated my last job always talked about continuous quality improvement. That was what we always focused on continuous quality improvement. So whether it would be our cropping systems, whether it be our life, whether it would be creating podcasts, right? We always should strive for better, right? Continuous quality improvement. What can I tweak today, to make my system better? What can I tweak tomorrow to make it even better? So I think Brendon, you I think you’ll agree with me the the benefits of soil health come with stacking of practices. It’s not just one thing. It is a combination of all sorts of tweaks and enhancements and improvements that get us to our goal of soil health that get us to our goal of environmental quality, of resiliency, of sustainability. And I’m talking when I talk about this, it’s not only environmental sustainability, but economic sustainability and social sustainability. So it’s about stacking. It’s always about thinking about what can I do better tomorrow?
Brendon Blank 44:42
You know, I think that’s one of the very unique things about soil health is there’s a lot of things that farmers are asked to do from an environmental standpoint that farmers see as simply a burden. Alright, I can’t do this, I can’t do that, and so on. And it’s a nuisance, and they don’t see it as economically beneficial to them. Soil health is so economically beneficial as far as the efficiencies that it brings. So it’s economically and efficiently beneficial to the farmer, as well as beneficial to the environment. And to have both of those things together is just, it’s just cool. And it can work so well, for everybody involved.
Will Fulwider 45:35
Well, Jamie and Brendan, thanks for the great conversation. I didn’t realize that we’re going to be dealing in two different sets of analogies today. The food analogies and the industrial analogies from Brendon. Two competing sets, who will win out in the end only the listeners can decide. But thank you very much for your time.
Jamie Patton 45:59
Thank you so much Will and Michael.
Will Fulwider 46:04
Thanks for listening. This has been Field Notes from UW Madison Extension. My name is Will Fulwider, Regional Crops Educator for Dane and Dodge Counties, and I was joined by my co host, Michael Geissinger, Crops Educator for St. Croix, Barron, Polk and Pierce Counties. A big thank you to Joe Ryan for creating our theme music and Abby Wilkymacky for our logo. If you have questions about anything you’ve heard today, or about your farming practices in general, reach out to the Extension Agriculture Educators serving your region. Listen to Field Notes here, or wherever you get your podcasts.