Not only are there environmental benefits to improved soil biology, but there are economic incentives as well, says a farmer from Ohio who spoke about cover crops and a systems approach to microbiology at the SoilSmart conference in Waterloo, Ont., in late January.

Jeff Rasawehr joined Bernard Tobin to discuss six steps for establishing healthy soil, which he says result in lower fertilizer, herbicide and fungicide costs (watch video above):

1. Always keep it green.

“Not only do I cover crop in the fall, I also enhance in the spring if I need to stimulate the microbiology. I’m even accentuating the microbiology in the summer, adding a little bit of annual rye at leaf stage six. The exudation from annual rye is a superfood for the microbiology,” says Rasawehr.

2. Mitigating toxicity.

He avoids using anhydrous ammonia and fungicides that might have unintended consequences: “I always look at any input that I’m going to pay for and ask ‘what’s it going to affect in the big picture?’”

3. Use appropriate soil amendments.

“What is the soil actually deficient on? Our soil is often not short on phosphorous or even potash, and can be made to not be short on nitrogen. It does need some lime. It may need some gypsum, and those are viable soil amendments that can make a difference,” says Rasawehr.

4. Never till.

“You never want to till,” he says. “I made the mistake of doing a little tillage this year. It cost me 47 bushels an acre. The problem was we had some big rains and it cost me protection for my microbiology.”

5. Use viable biology enhancements.

“I’m very apt to look at the soybean biologicals and some of the wheat biologicals,” he notes. “There’s some good stuff out there.”

6. A misstep is not a step backwards. It’s a quantum leap.

Any break in the systems approach to fostering microbiology can have a major impact, says Rasawehr. For example, not planting a cover crop in fall can be detrimental for living organisms in the soil: “There’s nothing to eat. When there’s nothing to eat coming from the roots, they’re going to cannabalize and damage the balance of the microbiology.”

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