Soil health data is crucial to decision making

If knowledge is king, then data is the key advisor. Mitchell Hora spoke at High Plains Journal’s Soil Health U event, held Jan. 22 to 23 in Salina, Kansas, about using soil health data to guide every decision on the farm from fertility to water use.

Hora, a seventh-generation farmer from southeast Iowa, is the founder and CEO of Continuum Ag, a company that uses its software to import soil data and convert it to universal formats. Hora, along with his father, applies regenerative agriculture solutions on 800 acres of corn and soybeans.

“We have to be able to get away from yield as the only driver of success and start looking more at profitability, carbon sequestration, water quality, water use efficiency and nutrient efficiency,” Hora said. “As we are making the transition to being more sustainable and implementing regenerative systems, we can better use data.”

Hora said in the past their cooperative was not making sense when it came to fertility management decisions.

“We were going back and forth, nothing was consistent, we weren’t moving the needle,” he said. “Results weren’t showing up on the soil test and the problem was we were only looking at the chemical components of the soil. The old test was just looking at the soil as a chemical driven system where it’s a linear, one-size-fits-all, dead, static growing medium. It’s easy to manage a system when it’s dead. However, we know with soil health, the soil is not just chemical, the soil is physical and biological. The soil is a living dynamic continuum that is ever changing. We have to be able to create balance in our soils and remember we are not farming that crop. We are farming the microbes and the microbes are farming the crop. The key is using the data to help the microbes.”

Hora’s operation is now in its fourth year using cover crops and is implementing long-term no-till. After understanding the soil data, he has been able to substantially decrease synthetic fertilizer usage. The historic nitrogen use has been about 190 to 230 units of nitrogen with good yields across the operation. This year the Horas were able to cut back by about 50%. Their average synthetic nitrogen use this year was 120 units of nitrogen and with adverse weather, and they still maintained their second best yields ever.

“My whole view is that we need to have some data to be able to back up our sustainability story, connect with the consumer and consumer-facing companies, but we have to be able to improve our operations today,” Hora said. “All of this data that we’re talking about doesn’t matter, unless you’re using your first date collection tool, which is a shovel. You have to go out there and start digging and identify and understand what is happening in your soils. We’re all starting in different places, but we can improve and start to build that structure, sequester carbon and lead into other soil health gains.”

To learn more about Soil Health U, visit

Lacey Newlin can be reached at 620-227-1871 or [email protected].