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Your Soil’s Winter Blanket

Corn growing through healthy soil in Southeast, Iowa.

Day in and day out, farmers face issues that they have no control over. Input costs, prices of commodities, government regulation, and equipment breakdowns are just a few of the inevitable problems that farmers have to deal with year round. While these issues cannot be avoided, they can be prepared for, and cultivating healthy soil leads to healthier and more resilient operations. 
Weather is one of the biggest factors that farmers face every day. When it comes to weather, what are you doing on your farm to prepare for it? While it may seem like there’s not much you can do, soil health focused practices help to mitigate risk from weather events. Regenerative agriculture prepares your soil to withstand weather, and here’s how. 
Winter Elements
What happens to your soil microbes in the winter months? It is commonly believed that microbial activity comes to a stand-still as soon as the ground freezes. However, microbes remain active throughout the winter months. If there are no living roots in the soil for the microbes to feed on, they will only feed on the leftover plant material that is in the soil. Adding the living root of a cover crop provides an environment for soil microbes to prosper throughout the winter months with ample food. With a food source from cover crops in the winter months, soil microbes become even more active in when spring comes around, cycling more nutrients to your crops.
Whether you’re dealing with a minor drought, or one that lasts throughout the entire growing season, it takes a great toll on yield and profitability. Improving soil aggregation through the use of cover crops improves water holding capacity of your soil. On top of that, ensuring that your soil is covered and not exposed to the intense heat that we can see during the growing season allows for moisture to stay in the soil for your crops, rather than losing it to evaporation. All of this leads to a more resilient system toward drought. 
What about the times in which we are faced with too much rain? Crops underwater, fields that are too wet for timely in-season applications, and compaction due to heavy rainfall on bare soil are just a few issues that farmers face due to big rain events. On the Hora farm, they have improved their water infiltration from ____ in/min to 7 in/min. Imagine all of the water that your soil could handle with 7 in/min water infiltration! Developing better soil aggregation through utilization of cover crops and no-till practices improves water infiltration by increasing pore space in the soil. Larger pore spaces increase the space available for water to flow through, leading to more water moving down to where it should be, and less water flowing off, bringing valuable topsoil and nutrients with it. 
Wind storms can cause massive amounts of soil erosion. Recently, there have been massive dust storms across the great plains. Pictures and videos of these storms show an eerie similarity of those seen from the 1930s Dust Bowl. How do we keep all of that soil in it’s place? Planting a cover crop and keeping residue on the soil keeps it where its supposed to be. It’s when the soil is left fallow that allows for these massive wind storms to cause erosion. 
I realize that implementing some of these practices mentioned above won’t solve all of your weather related issues. The drought that the west is currently facing is a major factor influencing the recent dust storms. It’s much more difficult for farmers to get a cover crop established if there is very little moisture. There will always be weather events that will affect agriculture, no matter how resilient your soil is. However, continuing to use excessive amounts of tillage and leaving the soil barron between crops will only make these weather related issues worse. 
Healthier soil = more resilient soil = more resilient farms.
Tucker Gibbons
Sales Agronomist // Continuum Ag
(517) 204-7264

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