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,” Hardisty said.

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.