Recently I had a chance to chat with David Kleinschmidt at Understanding Ag. After reading the Hutchinson News article about how they are working with General Mills to teach farmers and ranchers how to raise crops with regenerative practices, I wanted to learn more about their approach. In particular, I wanted to hear how they are using AquaSpy soil moisture probes to monitor soil quality indicators and help prove their value prop that regenerative farming can be more profitable than conventional farming.
Six Principles of Soil Health
David said that they apply the six principles of soil health:
- Context (environment, location)
- Do not disturb the soil
- Surface Armor
- Living roots
- Integrating animals
They are educating people around the world who are interested in the idea of no-till, cover crops, bringing animals into the farm, etc. A big change is that this approach is completely different from how they’ve been farming (or ranching) for several generations. This is looking back to the early 1900’s for the idea of diverse crop rotation, letting stuff grow IN soy and corn rows to cover the soil and keep microbes fed, and to bring livestock back into the farm – into the land.
Regenerative is Farming for Averages
Regenerative agriculture is not organic, it is “organic-ish”. Sometimes a grower still needs to fertilize some or spray. But it’s less so there is less residual. The goal, David, says, is “farm for averages”. If you hit averages, then overall you can make MORE money as a farmer.
Over the last 70 to 80 years farming approaches have created unstable soil systems – there is no infiltration and then the soil can’t breed good microbes. We end up selecting for microbes that lead to disease rather than success.
Keeping the Microbes Happy
One of the goals of regenerative farming is, as David says, keeping microbes happy. A healthy soil environment is teeming with soil microorganisms that are an essential part of the carbon cycle. Natural and managed soils are an important source and sink for atmospheric CO2 and, as a result of the activities of soil microorganisms, there is a soil-derived respiratory flux of C02. Soil microbes transfer carbon between environmental compartments. Even small changes in the soil carbon cycle can have large impacts on atmospheric CO2 concentrations.
By applying the six principles of soil heath, more healthy microbes are regenerating and thus performing their role in the carbon cycle. One example of this is when cattle are grazing close to the ground, there are microbes that help cycle their breath back into the soil, creating sugars that feed more microbes.
Soil Quality Indicators
What I was most curious about was how do the AquaSpy soil moisture probes help prove his case for these innovative practices? How does it prove the case for using cover crops? David shared an example of a farmer who gave him back the probe after a long dry spell and insisted it must be wrong; it showed he still had moisture 14 inches down. The probe was working just fine. The cover crops were doing their job and helping the soil retain critical moisture for the crops.
David said that the ability to monitor salinity was a really important soil quality indicator, especially in Hutchinson where there are salt mines. And in the harsh winters of the Midwest, soil temperature can be another important soil quality indicator. By having the probe in the ground, they could see that even when the wind chill was minus 23 degrees, the cover crop was providing the surface armor, keeping the ground at 28 degrees which was warm enough to let the cool season plants germinate.
You can read more about regenerative success at the Understanding Ag blog.
Read the Hutchinson News article, General Mills teaching farmers decades-old agricultural techniques to cultivate healthy soil here.
To find out more about using AquaSpy, contact our sales team or your local ag partner.