OSAGE, Iowa — To Wayne Fredericks, it’s obvious that there is a financial benefit to improving soil health on the farm.
Fredericks farms with his wife, Ruth, in southwest Mitchell County in Iowa.
He discussed conservation practices during a webinar sponsored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Soil Health Division.
“I’m what I call an accidental conservationist,” he said. “We were as conventional as could be up until the winter of 1991. We froze up early. We didn’t get our fall plowing done, which was our normal practice ahead of soybeans.
“In late December, I happened to see an article about a young farmer in southwest Minnesota that was no-tilling soybeans. It caught my attention. …We started no-tilling soybeans, and we’ve never looked back.”
The family also strip-tills corn and uses other conservation practices on the farm. They create pollinator habitats, improve waterways, use cover crops and more.
These conservation methods build resiliency on the farm.
“Resiliency matters,” Fredericks said. “There’s more to resiliency than just soil resiliency. There’s also resiliency of the farm operation in total. There are conservation practices we use on the farm to address that.
“If we don’t have resilient practices of other kinds that protect the farm and farmer, I think we’re missing the boat.”
Over time, Fredericks noticed increased organic matter on the farm — amounting to a 2.5% increase over 25 years.
“It’s good information to know, but what’s it worth?,” he asked. “Does it have some value to it? So, I scoured the internet to look for research on the value of organic matter.
“I found a document from NRCS that had the incremental value of 1% of soil organic matter.”
The research showed that increased soil organic matter enhanced water availability and increased the value in mineralizable nitrogen and phosphorous.
“If we look at my farm, where we’ve increased organic matter by 2.5%, that has a value of around $72 per acre,” Fredericks said.
“My farm ought to be worth more than the farm across the fence that has not yet adopted soil health practices. I think that’s an exciting potential future when it comes to marketing farmland.”
Fredericks began using cover crops in 2012. By 2016, 100% of his fields were in cover crops ahead of soybeans.
Cover crop benefits include:
- Increase yields without excess fertilizer.
- Better weed control.
- Reduce soil loss.
- Reduce phosphates in water.
- Help build soil structure.
- Help manage soil moisture.
- Increase air exchange in the soil.
- Rapidly add to soil biology.
- Anchor residue in place.
- Provide a physical barrier between tires and soil.
“Conservation management affects the whole farming system,” Fredericks said. “While it’s easier to measure the value of individual practices, we need to concentrate on measuring the whole system.
“Not all benefits are measured in dollars and cents. I get a lot of personal satisfaction about some of the things we’re doing.
“Soil health definitely pays. We’ve documented that.”