So much soil to heal, so little time

After wheat harvest 2018, I carefully appraised my fields. In some, washouts were so deep the combine had trouble crossing. In others, a lack of residue on the ground allowed sunlight to hit bare soil, giving energy to more weeds than I’ve seen in some time.

Within days of completion, those wheat stubble fields were a carpet of green. Golf course superintendents around the Midwest dream of that type of coverage. Instead of Bermuda grass greens, however, these fields were blanketed in pigweeds and other non-desirable species. In short, it was a mess. My soils were telling me something.

Prior to January’s Soil Health U, I was merely dabbling in the practice of rebuilding my soil with no-till and cover crops. Soil Health U, sponsored by High Plains Journal, opened my eyes to what the soil is capable of accomplishing. In short, my soils aren’t doing that.

Soil tests from my friends at Heartland Soil Sampling in Cunningham, Kansas, told me that rebuilding organic matter is a painfully slow process. It remains about half what it was a century ago. Ward Laboratories in Kearney, Nebraska, performed soil health tests on a few of my fields; according to their index, my soils are “moderately healthy.” In other words, soil organic matter is depleted and there is not enough “food” to feed the soil community.

Judicious use of cover crops in fallow periods, adding grazing to the rotation and continuing reduced tillage not only enables the soil to convert atmospheric nitrogen into readily available soil nitrogen, but they combine to keep weeds at bay and thus limit the amount of commercial herbicides we use.

In our book review column a couple of months ago, we featured Soil Health U speaker Dale Strickler’s “Drought Resilient Farm.” In a few months, I’ll write a review for Gabe Brown’s upcoming book, “Dirt to Soil.” Reading these, plus listening to Soil Health U speakers in January, watching the subsequent videos and reading various other articles, has given me a clearer vision of my own farm goals.

Maybe I don’t need to farm as many acres, but instead do a better job with the acres I do farm. Maybe instead of frequently applying herbicide to kill weeds in fallow times, I can use cover crops to compete with weeds and keep them from growing. I reckon its better to plant crops that can help the soil, rather than let weeds grow that do not.

These and other thoughts—some of which are realistic (rotational grazing cover crops?) and some which are not (grazing chickens on no-till fields to concentrate organic manure deposits?)—have led me to two conclusions: one, my soils deserve better, and two, I’m not getting any younger.

Realistically and hopefully, I have 15, maybe 20 years of good health left, during which I can run the family farm.

So this column is my last as editor of High Plains Journal, in hopes that I can spend more time on the farm and implement these practices I’ve studied about.

To all our loyal readers, please continue to support the Journal, as the people who work here want nothing more than for you to have continued success on your farm and ranch. Whether it’s the weekly newspaper, daily updates to, our ever-growing schedule of special events (mark your calendars for Soil Health U 2019, in Salina in January), the HPJ Direct newsletter, or our HPJ Talk podcast, the Journal team stands ready to tell your story, dig into rural issues and help you sell your product. They’re good people, doing good work.

At the end of the day, that’s all we can ask for.

Until we meet again, best wishes.

Bill Spiegel can be reached at 785-587-7796 or [email protected].