Jean Eells (left) talks about differences in soil structure with womenlandowners during the Women Caring for the Land meeting. Eells explained that soil health includes chemistry, physical structure and biology. If a field has a residue problem, Eells said, there is a biology problem. “It means the soil biology is not able to break down the stalks,” she explained.
Jean Eells (left) talks about differences in soil structure with womenlandowners during the Women Caring for the Land meeting. Eells explained that soil health includes chemistry, physical structure and biology. If a field has a residue problem, Eells said, there is a biology problem. “It means the soil biology is not able to break down the stalks,” she explained.
WOODSTOCK, Ill. — Using cover crops to improve soil health is a global topic.

“Our mission today is to talk about soil health,” said Carol Schutte, program assistant for the Women, Food and Agriculture Network. “We are talking with women because women own more than half of the land in some states.”

Schutte, who spoke during the Women Caring for the Land meeting, said it was important for women who own farmland to meet with conservation professionals so they know who to talk to about available programs or possible changes to their land.

“WFAN has been around for 16 years and we’ve found over the last eight years during these learning circle meetings, each one of you is a resource person,” Schutte said. “You might be just the person that a lady wants to talk to about how you did something on your land.”

There are opportunities for conservation improvements on any type of land management, said Schutte during the event sponsored by the American Farmland Trust in partnership with the network, the McHenry/Lake County Soil and Water Conservation District, McHenry County Farm Bureau, University of Illinois Extension and The Land Conservancy of McHenry County.

“Whether you have an organic farm, a five-acre community-supported agriculture farm, or 10,000 acres of corn and soybeans — in each situation there’s room for improvement to try to get the soil as healthy as it can be,” Schutte stressed.

“Soil health is a topic I’m really excited about because it is the first place where we can bring all kinds of farming together and have a discussion about moving toward better soil health,” said Jean Eells, with E Resources Group.

Three Keys

Eells explained there are three aspects of soil health — chemistry, physical structure and biology.

“When we talk about what the plants need it is almost always about the chemistry — nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium,” Eells said.

“When you compare soil structure, compacted soil will be real fine and better soil will be like grape nuts or chocolate cake,” Schutte said. “They are both black dirt so you can’t tell just by looking or from a chemistry test.”

Eells used a test to compare the rate that water moved through soil with poor and good soil structure.

“The good soil holds onto plant available moisture that your crops need,” she said. “The other soil didn’t hold onto as much water because it doesn’t have as much organic matter.”

Soil with good structure will buffer crops at the most critical time period, Eells said.

“A good soil will win every time from August to early September,” she added. “You can see it from the air — crops that don’t have enough available moisture will show in a pattern across the field.”

Plants have leaky roots, Eells said.

“The plants leak sugars out, and the soil bacteria live on those sugars,” she explained. “The bacteria live, poop and die and the bigger microbes live on the bacteria that make a soup that is the ideal condition for your plants to grow.”

It is important to have all kinds of healthy soil bacteria

“Soil fungi look like threads, and they live in conjunction with the plant roots,” Eells said. “They bring phosphorus and moisture to the roots, and they are necessary in the system.”

Worms are another important aspect of healthy soil.

“Earthworms come up at night, grab onto residue and pull it down into their burrows,” Eells said. “They leave channels where nutrients are processed and ready for the plant.”

If a field has a residue problem, she said, there is a biology problem.

“It means the soil biology is not able to break down the stalks,” she said. “The better your soil biology is functioning, the better you’ll be able to take care of the residue.”

Take Cover

Cover crops can improve soil biology.

“Soil bacteria and fungi love to have roots they live with, so the more of the year you can have living roots in the soil, the happier they will be,” Eells noted. “Cover crops also provide soil erosion protection from wind and rain.”

She explained there are two main categories of cover crops — those that winterkill and others that live through the winter.

“Oats will winterkill and other crops like cereal rye need to be killed in the spring,” she said.

“Cover crops allow you to feed the soil, rebuild the soil and re-glue the soil back together,” she added.

Many different cover crops are available for farmers to use.

“The grass family includes wheat, cereal rye and oats,” Eells said. “These crops are really good at gluing the soil back together.”

The brassica family includes turnips and radishes.

“They are really good at bringing phosphorus to the crops,” Eells said. “The tubers of the tillage radishes are good at helping to break up the compaction layer.”

Legumes such as hairy vetch and clovers help to fix nitrogen.

“Cover crop benefits are huge to the soil for erosion and improvement of the soil structure — you can do more tillage with biology than with a tractor,” Schutte said. “Cover crops grab onto nutrients in your soil, hold it and as they decay in the spring, the nutrients are slowly released right when your crop needs it.”