More farmers, ranchers and others who rely on the land are taking action to improve the health of their soil.

More farmers, ranchers and others who rely on the land are taking action to improve the health of their soil. Many farmers are actually building the soil. How? By using soil health management systems that include cover crops, divers rotations and no-till. When they’re building the soil they’re doing something else – they’re also building the land’s production potential over the long term.

But how do landowners know if they are doing everything they need to do to make and keep their soil healthy? Barry Fisher, an Indiana farmer and nationally recognized soil health specialist with the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, recommends that landowners ask these five questions.

#1 Do you build organic matter in the soil? Organic matter (carbon) may be the most important indicator of a farm’s productivity. The amount of soil organic matter determines they price farmers will pay to rent or buy land.

#2 Do you test the soil at least once every 4 years? Fisher says maintaining fertility and pH levels are important to your farm’s productivity. Regular soil testing can give an indication of trends in soil fertility, pH and organic matter levels in each field. These tests will determine the amount of fertilizer each field needs.

#3 Do you use no-till practices? “No-till farming utilizes the crop residue to blanket the soil surface to protect it from the forces of intense rainfall and summer heat. This protective blanket will conserve moisture for the crop and prevent loss of soil from wind erosion, water erosion and carbon that could be burned off by summer heat.”

#4 Do you use cover crops? “Like no-till, cover crops provide a green, protective blanket through the winter months or fallow times. The green-growing cover is collecting solar energy, putting down roots and providing habitat when the soil would otherwise be lifeless and barren,” said Fisher. This habitat provides food and shelter for a broad population of wildlife above ground and beneficial organisms below ground. As the new life emerges, cover crops hold onto the nutrients left from the previous crop and in turn releases them to the next crop. The solar rays these plants collect are powering photosynthesis, taking in carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to produce food for the plant and the organisms living in the root zone. This same process also releases clean oxygen to the air and builds nutrient rich organic matter in the soil.

#5 What can landowners do to improve soil health on their land? “Farmers can actually build the production capacity and resiliency of their soil, but it may take several years to realize the full benefits of doing so,” Fisher said. If you lease your land to a tenant, Fisher recommends longer tenures to give both the landowner and the tenant more opportunity to improve soil health and realize the resulting longer-term production and profitability gains through sustainable conservation practices.

“Improving soil health can provide long-term, stable dividends for you, your family and your farming partner,” Fisher said. “Improving soil health also can decrease the effect of flooding, make food production more resilient to weather extremes, and improve the health of water and wildlife, as well,” he added. Landowners can learn more about the benefits of soil health by visiting the “Unlocking the Secrets in the Soil” section of the NRCS website at www.nrcs.usda.gov where the information for this article was found.