The Dollars and Cents of Soil Health: A Farmer’s Perspective

Monday, April 9th, 2018

Elizabeth Creech, Natural Resources Conservation Service

Soil and money? Many times we often think of soil in simple terms overlooking its importance. However, soil is a valuable asset in crop production. Soil health is essential to crop production as the health of the soil directly impacts crop yield. Read this excerpt from the USDA blog to learn more about a  farm manager's perspective of soil health below. 

North Carolina farmer Russell Hedrick holding corn
North Carolina farmer Russell Hedrick manages 1,000 acres of row crops in a way that builds the health of his soils while strengthening his bottom line. Photo credit: Russell Hedrick

Last year, the United States lost 2 million acres of land in active crop production. As the global population grows towards a projected 9.8 billion people by 2050, so too does demand for the food, fuel and fiber grown in America. The result? American farmers are looking for sustainable ways to produce high yields year after year.

To support this growing demand, many farmers are incorporating soil health management principles into their operations. Conservation practices such as cover crops and no-till are widely recommended to build soil health over time, but do these practices actually improve crop yields and lead to stable profit margins? To answer this question fully we will rely on universities, private scientists, government researchers and those most directly impacted: farmers themselves.

Meet Russell Hedrick

Russell Hedrick is a first-generation corn, soybean and specialty grains producer in Catawba County, North Carolina. Hedrick started in 2012 with 30 acres of row crops. Since then, he’s expanded to roughly 1,000 acres.

“When we first started, farmers in the area said we needed a 150 horsepower tractor and a 20-foot disk,” says Hedrick. “We started out broke and we couldn’t afford the tillage equipment,” he adds, with a good-natured laugh. “I was lucky to have a fantastic district conservationist who set us in the right direction from the beginning.”

His first year, Hedrick practiced 100 percent no-till and planted cover crops across part of his land. “We tried out a six or seven species cover crop blend,” says Hedrick. “Back then, a lot of people thought we were crazy.”

That initial blend consisted of cereal rye, oats, triticale, legumes, crimson clover and daikon radish. Hedrick compared yields for soybeans grown with cover crops versus those grown without and noticed a significant difference: higher yields for cover cropped beans, and noticeably improved weed suppression.

“We started off our first year seeing yields higher than the county average,” Hedrick says. “That really lit me on fire to keep growing and trying new things to improve the soil health.”

Soil Health Case Studies

Though every farm and every field are different, a recently-completed Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Conservation Innovation Grants project shows promising results for farmers interested in adopting soil health management practices.

Conducted by the National Association of Conservation Districts (NACD) in partnership with Datu Research, the project provides economic case studies focusing on four corn and soybean producers in the Upper Mississippi River Basin. The profiled farms range in size from 25 acres of row crops to 2,300 acres, with three focusing on the economics of cover crop adoption and one specifically focusing on no-till. Of the three farmers focusing on cover crop adoption, two reported average net economic gains over their first four to five years of cover cropping compared to a pre-adoption baseline. The no-till case study showed economic gains for all three years studied.

Read more about soil health here.