. . . generally, the type of soil management that gives the greatest immediate return leads to a deterioration of soil productivity, whereas the type that provides the highest income over the period of a generation leads to the maintenance or improvement of productivity.
—CHARLES KELLOGG, 1936
In this chapter, we’ll provide some guidance on promoting high-quality soils through practices that maintain or increase organic matter, develop and maintain optimal physical and biological conditions, and promote top-notch nutrient management. In part 3, we discussed many different ways to manage soils, crops, and residues, but we looked at each one as a separate strategy. In the real world, you need to combine a number of these approaches and use them together. In fact, each practice is related to, or affects, other practices that promote soil health. The key is to modify and combine them in ways that make sense for your farm.
We hope that you don’t feel as confused as the person on the left in figure 23.1. If the thought of making changes on your farm is overwhelming, you can start with only one or two practices that improve soil health. Not all of the suggestions in this book are meant to be used on every farm. Also, a learning period is probably needed to make new management practices work on your farm. Experiment on one or two selected fields and permit yourself to make a few mistakes.
Decisions on the farm need to support the economic bottom line. Research shows that the practices that improve soil health generally also improve the economics of the farm, in some cases dramatically. Higher soil health tends to provide higher yields and more yield stability, while allowing for reduced crop inputs. However, you need to consider the fact that the increased returns may not be immediate. After you implement new practices, soil health may improve slowly, and it may take a few years to see improved yields or changes in the soil itself.
The bottom line also may not improve immediately. Changing management practices may involve an investment in new equipment; for example, changing tillage systems requires new tillage tools and planters. For many farmers, these short-term limitations may keep them from making changes, even though they are hurting the long-term viability of the farm. Big changes are probably best implemented at strategic times. For example, when you are ready to buy a new planter, consider a whole new approach to tillage as well. Also, take advantage of flush times—for example, when you receive high prices for products—to invest in new management approaches. However, don’t wait until that time to make decisions. Plan ahead, so you are ready to make the move at the right time. Remember that soil health management is a long-term commitment. There are no silver bullets or snake oils that will work to build soil health; it requires an integration of the concepts of physical, biological, and chemical processes we have discussed in this book.