Follow a practical path to improving soil health

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Sweat the details and practice, practice, practice. It may sound like gridiron football strategy but it will also make farmers winners in the battle to improve soil health, says North Dakota-based independent agronomist and crop consultant Lee Briese.

When it comes to improving soil health there are plenty of fixes — from reducing tillage to plant diversity and maintaining living roots with cover crops — but farmers have to find the right fix for their farm and do it well, says Briese.

In this interview, recorded at the Ontario Agricultural Conference at Waterloo, Ont., Briese shares his strategy for improving soil health. For starters, he tells farmers to focus on their toughest acres rather than trying to get higher yields on better areas of the farm.

After properly identifying a soil problem —whether it’s wind erosion, water, weeds, or residue-related — it’s time to set goals, chose a solution that fits the problem, and make an action plan. “You need to write out what you think can work, what can happen, what can help, what you can do and what you can accomplish,” says Briese.”Do you have the equipment? Do you have the labour? Do you have the time to do these types of things?” he asks.

Considering these details is critical for success, says Briese. If your solution “doesn’t fit your cropping system, doesn’t fit your labour requirements, then it doesn’t fit your problem and you shouldn’t be surprised if it doesn’t help or doesn’t work.” (Story continues after the video.)

Briese says residue management is a prime example where details can confound the best laid plans, especially if farmers are looking for better residue management to allow them to reduce tillage. But that’s not what happens if the combine is working with a 40-foot head on the front but only spreading residue in a 20-foot width out the back.

“Something’s not right. It’s streaky and stripy — it shouldn’t look like that,” says Briese. “When you come back with the planter, it’s never going to line up with those strips. So you’re never going to be able to adjust your planter for that different amount of residue.”

Briese also stresses the need for practice when it comes to managing soil health. Just like a football player, farmers don’t become all stars after running a new play for the first time. “Do it right, set yourself up, plan ahead, practice it,” he stresses. “Don’t be surprised when it doesn’t quite work the first time or the second time. Every time you learn how to do it better, then you’ll get better as you go.”

 

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