Let’s begin with a pop quiz

Two similar fields are on either side of a rural road in Any County, USA. One field has been conventionally farmed for years, with two fall-tillage passes, followed by one in the spring prior to planting. The other field has been no-tilled for two decades. The farmer began planting diverse blends of cover crops four years ago and recently began grazing cattle on those cover crops. Which field will produce more grain?

The answer? It depends. With normal rainfall and without adverse weather conditions, the odds are good that both fields will yield similarly.

In a year of weather extremes – too little or too much rain, high temperatures or low – odds are good that the no-till and cover-cropped field will produce more consistent yields. The reason is resiliency. After all, that’s what soil health is all about.

The Trend

Farm trends come and go, but perhaps nothing has gathered momentum like the subject of soil health. The United Nations General Assembly even declared 2015 the International Year of Soils. Unlike most trends, though, soil health has staying power. That’s because farmers and landowners find that adopting sound soil health practices boosts soil biology and increases soil organic matter. This, in turn, improves the soil’s ability to consistently produce a crop regardless of weather extremes.

Mother Nature has built soil communities over thousands of years. Soil teems with life. A handful of soil contains more living creatures than the world has people.

These soil creatures eat plant residues and turn them into a healthy, vibrant community of soil aggregates. Breaking down this stuff releases nutrients into the soil, which can be taken up by cash crops. Provided the soil is undisturbed, soil organic matter increases, availing even more nutrients to plants. Soil aggregates stabilize, and air and water percolate through the soil profile. The soil profile is capable of storing more water, banking it for future needs. Crop residues and living roots feed soil bacteria, microbes, fungi, and earthworms – the biology that helps create organic plant foods.

In short, adopting soil health practices boosts soil productivity and, thus, profitability, says Ray Archuleta, conservation agronomist with USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) in Greensboro, North Carolina.

“We’ve known since the 1930s that tillage is destructive to the soil,” he says. “If you want to make money, you must mimic Mother Nature.”

Soil health value extends way beyond agronomics. What if the soil’s improved resiliency (which helps boost yields in tough environments) adds financial value to your land? You could make the case with lenders that that’s exactly what’s happening. The economic value of soil health should not be overlooked.

Defining Soil Health Is Not Easy

“Everyone understands the concept of health as it relates to human health, but in soils, it is vague,” says Harold Van Es, professor of soil and water management at Cornell University. “It’s really about making the soil better for the things you want the soil to do. For farmers, that means better crop production.”

Healthy soils feature aggregates with large pore spaces, which mimic the transportation and utility infrastructure in a large city. The living organisms in the soil are the people who build houses and office buildings in the city, says Bianca Moebius-Clune, director of the Soil Health Division of USDA’s NRCS.

These work together to build resilience. In times of too much water, healthy soils not only hold excess precipitation – but also store it for later use.

“Healthy soil is like a sponge. We want the water to go to the deep root zone and recharge groundwater,” she explains.

What Does Tillage Do?

Tillage operations destroy that infrastructure and disrupt the lives of the living organisms in the soil. Think back to a time before native prairies were ever plowed under. These lands were rich and fertile, full of different species of grasses and forbs. Plants constantly covered the soil, providing an armor of protection against the elements. In less than 200 years of cultivation, these soils have been beaten down. They’re worn out and not functioning properly.

“It takes time for soils to degrade, so it will take time to build them up again,” Van Es says. “Crop prices may be depressed right now, but that may not be the case five years from now. That’s unknown.

“What is known, however, is that when you make an investment, there are rewards. If you can make the soil system function better, there will be rewards for the farmer,” he says.

The first step to healthy soils is to reduce tillage, but other steps are necessary, too.

Adding cover crops is essential, says Archuleta, because they produce roots that penetrate the soil layers. Earthworms and other soil creatures create similar nutrient-rich channels. Cash crops take the path of least resistance and follow these pathways deep into the soil profile.

Adding livestock to the system helps cycle nutrients. All this action boosts soil organic matter, generating pores and aggregates, which creates healthier soils. It’s all part of the natural ecosystem, just like when bison used to roam the prairie, Archuleta points out.

Does it Apply to Farmland?

It should. Farmland buyers typically consider location, soil type, and soil class. Appraisers seldom place a value on soil health, as there are no easy tests to determine the health of your soil.

Still, soil health is valuable, Cornell University’s Van Es says. “If you buy a farm that is a fixer-upper, it can be improved, but it costs money,” he says. “If the soil is in good shape, you don’t need to make that investment. It’s capable of higher productivity right from the start.”

Building Assets

Erosion control, improved soil organic matter and better resiliency to withstand tough growing conditions are all reasons farmers invest in soil health practices. There is more, though. Adopting soil no-till and cover crops also boosts farmland values, reckons Dan Gillespie, who farms 720 acres of corn and soybeans near Norfolk, Nebraska. Two years ago, Gillespie’s landlords sold land that he had no-tilled since 1991 and had grown cover crops in between cash crops since 2005. In the decade since adopting cover crops, organic matter improved 1 percent. When the landlord sold the land, a neighboring farmer bought the property for $7,300 per acre, $300 per acre more than market value in Madison County.

“The farmer who bought the property told me the reason he paid more for that land was because I had farmed it. He recognized the benefits of increased organic matter and good soil health,” Gillespie says.

In any major purchase, a well-maintained property is worth more money. Let’s say you are choosing to buy one of two houses. One features new siding, freshly painted interior walls, and new carpeting. It touts a new kitchen and picture-perfect landscaping. In short, the owners invested back into the property.

Meanwhile, the other house has dirty carpets and a mildewy shower. The exterior paint is peeling and the grass needs to be mowed. If the asking price for both properties was the same, which would you buy? That’s an easy decision. “When you make improvements to a house, it adds value,” says Cornell University’s Van Es. The same is true for your soil.

What 1% Does

Gillespie tests his Nebraska soil organic matter levels each year. In one decade, combining no-till with cover crops added to his corn-soybean rotation, increasing soil organic matter by 1 percent.

“That means 1 acre can hold ¾ inch more water per foot of soil,” he says. “Not only will it help capture that water, but also it will store that much more for a cash crop.”

1% = 10,000

Want more? One percent more organic matter adds 10,000 pounds of soil carbon, translating to 1,000 pounds more nitrogen (N) per acre.

“Not all of that nitrogen is available right away, but the biological systems in the soil will mineralize that nitrogen,” Gillespie says. “I’ve cut back commercial nitrogen application by 20 to 30 pounds per acre as a result.”

Plant tissue tests and postseason stalk nitrate tests confirm he has not lost any yield.

“It takes time for soils to degrade, so it will take time to build them up again.”

Gillespie’s experience is not uncommon. Dave Brandt, who farms 1,100 acres of corn, wheat, and soybeans near Carrollton, Ohio, began adding nitrogen-fixing cover crops to his rotation more than 35 years ago. Now, annual fertilizer expenses have been slashed almost 80 percent due to the cover crops and improved organic matter. “I could reduce nutrients because the soil has more there than I thought,” Brandt says.

Making Assets Out of Soil Eyesores

With enough time and money, even poor soils can be built back. It takes decades to create new soil; years to build or improve organic matter.

So it makes sense to protect the soil already in place and to build its soil heath, says Ray Ward, soil scientist at Ward Laboratories in Kearney, Nebraska. “Think about the amount of money you’ll spend to build that soil back, compared with the money you’ve invested on the land you’ve worked to improve. It’s a matter of how big the pocketbook is.”

A New Health Test for Soils

To gauge human health, a simple blood test can help doctors detect high cholesterol, organ function, heart disease, and other health factors. Soil health tests have only been recently developed, but there are no national standards.

“In soil health, there’s no easy way to say, âHere’s the problem, and now here’s the solution,’ ” says Cornell University’s Van Es.

That’s changing. The new Soil Health Division of USDA’s NRCS is developing standardized soil health assessments, soil health training, and field personnel to help growers with an interest in improving soil health.

Rollout of pilot tests should begin this year. “We know it’s not going to be a perfect process, but we will adapt and revise the system,” says Moebius-Clune of USDA’s NRCS.

The Soil Health Test is based on the Cornell Soil Health Test, which expands the chemical tests of a traditional soil test but adds procedures to gauge subsoil compaction, aggregate stability, and carbon. The test will recommend management plans to producers to boost soil health, Van Es explains.

“Done right and combined with soil health practices with other changes in management, farmers will make great strides in improving their soils and improving productivity,” he says.

The Soil Health Division plans to pilot-test soil health assessments for at least a year. Producers are invited to consult their local NRCS offices to participate in the pilot tests.

The division is funded through NRCS and has support from the USDA secretary and the White House, Moebius-Clune says. That support is critical, as boosting soil health is a long-term process.

The Price of Health

When grain prices were higher than they are right now, embracing soil health practices was easy. Enough margin existed after other input costs were paid that adding another $20 to $40 per acre in cover crop seed and planting didn’t seem like such a big deal. What a difference a year makes.

Many ag economists predict corn and soybean growers will lose money in 2016. So why should you even spend more money planting cover crops? It’s easy. Healthy soils more capably handle weather extremes (such as drought or flooding) than those that are not healthy. Moebius-Clune of USDA’s NRCS expects healthy soils to solve water quantity and quality challenges.

In many parts, weather changes are documented. Jerry Hatfield, director of the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS) National Laboratory for Agriculture and the Environment at Ames, Iowa, examined central Iowa spring precipitation over two time frames. Workable field days in April through mid-May decreased 3.5 days in 1995 to 2010, compared with a 1979-to-1994 time frame. Besides a narrower fieldwork window, sopping wet soils raise havoc with seed emergence and seedling establishment.

Farmers and ranchers across the nation who have stopped tillage and adopted cover crops generally see a dramatic improvement in organic matter, which boosts water-holding capacity. Wind and water erosion are reduced, keeping valuable topsoil in place. Most importantly, crop residues and living roots feed soil bacteria, microbes, fungi, and earthworms.

“If we can manage for healthy soils, we can solve a lot of problems,” Moebius-Clune says.

Who Pays for Soil Health?

One hurdle of implementing soil health practices is who pays for it. While cover crops are great as part of a long-term system to improve water-holding capacity and to reduce erosion, they don’t come without expense.

Because cover crops improve farmland value, landowners should have some skin in the game, says Steve Bruere, president of Peoples Company, an Iowa-based land management and real estate firm.

900 Million Reasons To Protect 230 Billion Ones

Using conservative figures, Bruere estimates the proceeds from cash rent are about 4 percent the value of farmland in the Corn Belt. Land appreciates at a rate of about 7 percent each year. Landowners need to put money back into their investment, he says.

“There are about 30 million crop acres in Iowa, representing $230 billion in assets. If you put cover crops on 30 million acres, that would cost about $900 million each year. That doesn’t seem like a large investment,” he says. “That’s why landowners need to be proactive on the farm. They have the most to lose.”

Through its land-management arm, Peoples Company is making soil health a priority with landowners. Many farmers sign a one-year cash-rent lease, which often doesn’t provide any incentive for soil health initiatives. In that case, landowners should invest in their asset, Bruere says. “When you expect farmers to pay top-dollar cash rent and you’re not leaving any money on the table for sustainability and conservation, the landowner needs to step up.”

30 Dump Trucks

Ever wonder what soil erosion costs your farm? Bruere does. Using satellite imagery from Agren (a precision conservation company), he estimates more than 30 dump trucks of soil were lost from his family’s 160-acre farm in Clarke County, Iowa, under conventional-tillage practices. Along with the soil itself, tons of nutrients were lost, too. Implementing no-till and cover crops, just five truckloads were lost from the farm.

“I can’t put a value on cover crops. If I had to bring 30 dump trucks of soil and nutrients onto my farm, it would be an astronomical figure,” he says.

The Value of Organic Matter

A benefit of applying soil health practices is that soil organic matter increases at a fairly rapid rate. Norfolk, Nebraska, farmer Gillespie has seen organic matter values increase 1 percent every 10 years. When practices such as no-till and cover cropping are implemented, two things happen. First, soil erosion decreases, keeping valuable topsoil on the field surface. Second, all the organic material from roots, cash crop residue, and cover crop residue break down into soil organic matter.

According to the Noble Foundation, 10 pounds of organic material will decompose to 1 pound of organic matter. At least 200,000 pounds of organic material will break down to 20,000 pounds of organic matter. On 1 acre of soil, measured to 6 inches deep, that would be 1 percent soil organic matter in ideal conditions.