Soil School: Defining soil health and its role in fertilizer and nutrient management

Soil health has certainly gained more attention and become a higher priority when it comes to farming practices, but it remains a very personal idea, depending on who you talk to and where you are.

While the results and practices may look similar, the definition of success when it comes to soil health can differ from one field to another field across the road, says Keith Byerly, Mosaic’s sustainability lead for North America and guest for this Soil School episode.

“One grower’s success in soil health might be their ability to eliminate or really minimize the impacts of wind erosion, for instance, and they do that through a green cover crop. And the next grower 20 miles up the road or across the fence is thinking about being able to get through longer dry spells that we have as rain patterns are a little different than they were 20 years ago,” he notes. “So they might be using cover crops to build those channels in their soil and reducing the tillage and all of those exact same things that go across the fences, but they’re coming at it from two completely different avenues. Two different end goals in mind, but the same set of practices to get there.”

In addition to reducing wind erosion or increasing drought tolerance, other examples of outcomes or goals associated with “soil health” could include increasing soil organic matter, improved water infiltration, increasing biodiversity, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, preserving soil productivity for future generations, reducing compaction, and so on — there’s a long list. But as Byerly notes, these outcomes often go hand-in-hand with each other.

Working for a fertilizer company like Mosaic, Byerly sees a shift toward managing nutrition for crops from a system-wide approach.

“One of the things that’s going to become more and more familiar for growers is not the idea that all nutrition is crop nutrition, but the idea that we are working on a system nutrition aspect. The fertilizer application is not just for the cash crop but also how ‘how do those nutrients work and get recycled by the cover crop? How do the recycled nutrients through the cover crop feed back into the next cash crop?’ And that’s where the local resources, the trusted advisor that the grower has, become incredibly important because those local trusted advisors are the ones that understand the weather systems, they understand what adding a new variety of crop into a grower’s rotation might mean, for that demand on the system from a nutritional standpoint.”

While it might mean using less fertilizer, it will certainly mean increasing the efficiency of inputs used to produce a crop, says Byerly. “A lot of people automatically assume that soil health and this whole idea is going to be something that leads to nutrient reduction, that we’re going to put on less fertilizer than we have in the past. I think that there’s a component of that, that’s absolutely proper thinking, but at the same point in time, it’s equally likely that we’re going to go ahead and improve our use efficiencies…that’s a win as well.”

Check out this latest Soil School episode with Keith Byerly, sustainability lead for Mosaic, discussing the many different and personal priorities under the “soil health” banner, what it means for fertilizer use in the future, and what private and government incentives or programs, such as carbon credits, mean for growers when it comes to farming practices:

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