INDIANAPOLIS — Improving the resiliency of farmland is the
top conservation challenge in Indiana, said Jane Hardisty, state conservationist
with the Natural Resources Conservation Service.
Resiliency, she said, is the ability of farms to remain
profitable through dry and wet periods and to bounce back after drought,
flooding or other natural catastrophe. The key to improving farmland resiliency
is soil health.
“A healthier soil — one that can absorb more water and
retain nitrogen for plants to use — will help farmers bend, but not break when
Mother Nature sends the too-much-rain or the not-enough-rain curveball,”
One way to improve soil health is by building organic matter
in the soil, which improves both production and the natural resources, ensuring
farms will continue to produce food and fiber for generations to come.
“It truly is a win-win,” Hardisty said.
Barry Fisher, Indiana’s soil health specialist, said one of
the top things farmers can do to improve cropland soil health is to adopt
no-till. Long-term no-till has been shown to significantly increase the organic
matter level in the soil.
“Tillage is incredibly destructive to the soil structure and
to the soil ecosystem,” Fisher said. “In healthy soil, you have 50 percent air
and water (which is made possible by the pore space in the soil) and 50 percent
mineral and organic matter. But tillage collapses and destroys that structure,
making the soil vulnerable to erosion and compaction.”
“Additionally, studies have shown that each tillage pass can
release a half an inch of soil moisture from each acre. In short, tillage tends
to limit the availability of water in the soil,” he added. “And that could prove
very costly during those long, summer dry spells.”
Fisher explained that using a diverse rotation of crops that
produce lots of residue also will boost organic matter levels, as well as
planting cover crops. Keeping live roots in the soil as long as possible each
year will help support micro-organisms in the soils.
Not only does additional organic matter and living roots
improve soil’s health, they protect it from the erosive and hammering energy of
raindrops. The additional pore space increases infiltration capacity so water
can move more quickly into the ground, reducing flooding downstream.