Living Roots

Living Roots


There is no doubt in my mind that having living roots growing in the soil for extended periods of time is a key component to improving soil health. This is also the most challenging aspect of improving soil health in our semi-arid environment.

As more and more producers move from a conventional winter wheat/summer fallow cropping rotation to a continuous no-till crop production system we are moving towards healthier soil. No-till crop production systems that include continuous diverse crop rotations adopt many of the key principles in improving soil health. This type of production system has minimal soil disturbance, residues on the soil surface and more living roots growing in the soil for extended periods of time compared to winter wheat/summer fallow.

The problem we are facing on our farm is how to move beyond the continuous diverse no-till cropping system to continue improving soil health. How do we diversify and prolong living roots in our cash cropping system?

I have no doubt that we could really improve soil health over time if we simply planted diverse cover crops on our land for extended periods of time, say several years. The problem is I need to make money producing crops. I need to find a balance between improving soil health and continuing profitability in our farming operation.

Recent University of Nebraska research has shown that growing a cover crop as a green fallow prior to winter wheat seeding may be detrimental to winter wheat yields. The cover crops deplete soil moisture while they are growing which isn't available for the winter wheat crop.

I would think the residues from the cover crop would slow soil moisture evaporation which may offset some of the soil moisture used to produce the cover crop. There is also some expense in planting and terminating the green fallow cover crop. I don't see this as a viable alternative for our operation. I think growing a field pea crop for grain gives me most of the agronomical advantages of the cover crop and is more profitable than growing a cover crop.

I also see severe limitations in trying to produce a cover crop following winter wheat harvest. With our lack of precipitation during the late summer months I just don't see cover crops thriving in this type of environment.

All this leads me back to my dilemma of trying to extend the amount of time I have a living root growing in the soil in my continuous no-till cropping system. I know there are many benefits to improving the soil health on our farm. I just don't know how to adopt these principles into our system profitably.

I think the answer to improving soil health lies in changing our cropping system. Thus far we haven't been able to implement the changes necessary to take us further down the path to improved soil health beyond our no-till cropping practices.

I really think forages planted for livestock grazing is going to be the key to improving the health of the soil on our farm. This adoption of forages would require us to also bring livestock, specifically cattle, back into our farming operation. We haven't had cattle in our operation for over 50 years. This lack of knowledge about cattle has been a real hurdle in adopting forages as part of our cropping system.

Implementing forages for cattle grazing has proven to be a viable and economical practice to adding living roots into the soil for extended periods of time. The soil health benefits of adopting these forages have been well documented by producers who have moved to this type of production model.

I have no doubt that adopting forages for cattle grazing would be very beneficial to our operation. What I am also realizing is this system is difficult to adopt when you are a generation removed from having livestock as part of your operation.