The nine-step planning process utilized by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to develop and implement conservation plans is a useful framework for many planning efforts. Here, we’ll briefly discuss one approach to the process that can help you improve your soil health.
For more details, watch this segment from our seminar, "Soil Health 101: Demystifying Soil Health"
1. Identify problems and opportunities.
Take the big-picture look at your operation, and identify trouble spots; therein lie opportunities for improvement. What problem areas are you looking to improve, and how are they connected to the health of your soil? Examples include
- Areas in your fields that are difficult to plant or produce a lower yield
- Problems with rotations (or lack of rotation)
- Economic concerns, such as low cash flow or profitability or a high debt load
- Issues with inputs, such as over- or under-use of synthetic or organic fertilizers
In connection with the problems you’ve identified, consider opportunities that may be available For example,
- The United States is currently importing a very large percentage of organic soybeans to meet the quickly growing demand. This may present an opportunity to transition to an organic system to capture premium prices.
- Industrial hemp is becoming an intriguing option for producers in many states. This high biomass crop has an extensive root mass that could provide substantial benefits on sloping ground.
Might these opportunities benefit your operation? What others can you identify that could address issues on your farm?
2. Determine your objectives.
Take the time to articulate your soil health goals. What do you hope to accomplish by improving soil health? Your specific goals will help you clarify which solutions will best help you to achieve them.
- Are you approaching soil health from a nutrient cycling and environmental stewardship standpoint to better manage your inputs?
- Are you concerned about increasing carbon in the atmosphere?
- Are you trying to set yourself up to someday get paid for the carbon you’re storing on your farm?
Being clear and specific about what you hope to accomplish best enables you to determine what actions will be most effective.
3. Inventory your resources.
One of the best ways to use a soil health assessment is to benchmark where you are today and track it moving forward (however, this shouldn’t be done as frequently as standard soil testing). As the old adage on efficiency goes; if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it. Completing this step allows you to track the impact your management decisions are having over time. Some of the soil health metrics you should benchmark include
- Soil organic matter (particularly carbon)
- Active soil carbon (water extractable or permanganate extractable)
- Soil respiration
- Soil proteins
- Soil microbial pools
- Enzyme activities
Contact the good folks at SoilRight for a deeper discussion of how to get started with this process.
4. Analyze resource data.
Once you get your soil health numbers back, work with an independent soil consultant like SoilRight to make sense of the values. Certain thresholds should be reached, and if they are not, those should become focus areas for your management moving forward. It is important, however, not to focus too much on any single measure by itself; you need to look at these results as a whole. Just as your doctor doesn’t only look at your body temperature to assess your physical health, you shouldn’t look at just a single metric to assess the health of your soil.
5. Formulate alternatives.
After you gather your soil health metrics and interpret what they might mean for your current situation, a pivot in your management approach may in order. Create a list of alternatives for reaching your goals, solving the problems you’ve identified, and taking advantages of relevant opportunities. (In some cases, making no change is also an alternative to consider.) For example,
- Maybe you have access to a manure source that you haven’t used before.
- Perhaps a gypsum or dolomitic lime application will attain a better balance of macronutrients, enhancing your soil’s physical structure and aggregation.
- Maybe it’s time to invest in drainage tile.
6. Evaluate the alternatives.
Unless everything is going in the right direction, it is time to switch gears. Look at your list of alternative options and evaluate them based on how they align with your soil health goals. Obviously, logistics and economics are going to be the major players in evaluating your options, but these must be weighed against anticipated soil health outcomes.
7. Make decisions.
Analysis paralysis can often get in the way of making a decision. Sometimes we continue to do things the way we’ve always done them—because that is how dad did it or how grandpa did it. Making a science-based decision to change doesn’t mean that dad or grandpa did things wrong. It just means we have access to more information than they did, which can enable us to do things a little better. Conversations with an experienced consultant might help you get over this hurdle. Don’t let information overload stop you from making necessary adjustments.
8. Implement the plan.
This is a pretty obvious step. It is also one that we may jump to before we’ve gathered the appropriate information and considered the alternatives. The rubber must meet the road at some point, but be sure that you’re setting your operation up for the long-term benefits of healthy soil.
9. Evaluate the plan.
Improving soil health is a cyclical goal. It may seem as if you’re going after a moving target at times. Persistence is vital here. You need to consistently evaluate what you are doing and be willing to ramp up what is working on your farm and walk away from what is not.