Integrated approach helps mend soil health

Michael Thompson didn’t like cattle when he grew up on his family’s farm. In fact, he couldn’t stand them. But he’s changed his tune in recent years as they’ve become an integral part of improving his soil health.

Thompson spoke at High Plains Journal’s Soil Health U in January 2020 at Salina, Kansas.

“When I came back to farm I didn’t want to a cow on the place because I didn’t see any need for them,” he said. “They were a heck of a lot of work; by August they were tearing our fences down.”

The Norton County, Kansas, and Furnas County, Nebraska, farmer has been farming for a dozen years after teaching kindergarten. Since switching to no-till, he had to change his thinking about the interactions of the crops and soils, especially since the organic matter in his soil was lacking due to grains taking it all out and making his clay soils tight.

“There’s no veracity to the soil. We don’t have any porosity, and we can’t get any moisture in there,” he said. “That organic matter is feeding microbes and everything.”

To have a successful system with high production, they had to put on a lot of extra fertility—and barely breaking even.

“We’ve come a really, really long ways with knowing how much nitrogen, how much phosphorus, and how much potassium we can put our soils,” Thompson said. “We just know input in, input out, and that’s great for yield, but it’s not so great for the soil because a lot of times—we’ve done a lot of fertilizers and a lot of chemicals to the detriment of our soil.”

Many producers haven’t thought about the soil and what they were doing to it ecologically.

“Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s need but not every man’s greed,” he said. “I think, on our own operations, we can all think about the one time that we tried to stick with one more ear of corn in or we took that extra residue and baled it off, or we kicked the cows out and we got an extra 30 days of grazing on that piece of ground, and it set us back.”

In western Kansas where Thompson is from, it’s called, “next year country” because as Thompson said, “we’ll always get it next year. We’ll get some rain or we’ll do better next year.”

“I really look at it as probably last year’s country, because the way you manage last year is going to be the success for the current year,” he said. “The way you manage before, is how you’re going to succeed for next year. You know if you took too much or you bailed your residue off, you’re probably setting yourself up for failure if you go through a dry spell.”

And if there is water erosion in fields, irrigated or not, if there isn’t any infiltration of the water into the soils, the system is broken right off the bat. Same goes if the soil blows.

“If your soil is blowing you probably need a little bit more microbiological life,” Thompson said.

In his neighborhood, a nearby field was broken out of sod about 10 years ago. In this field, there’s patches of ground where nothing grows and other places are water logged with a lot of topsoil deposited in the watered areas. In situations like this management of the soil really needs to be thoughtfully planned.

“I think we need to protect the soil resource,” he said. “I’m not here because, environmentally, I think it’s the right thing to do, but it is the right thing to do for your pocketbook. As we get a soil functioning, our fertilizer dollars go further. We don’t have to spray that extra fungicide to keep a healthy plant.”

Nature can take care of the farmers, but “we’ve got to work with nature to make that happen.” About half of the fertility you apply probably helps make up for wind and water erosion on the land.

Thompson said every one has their moment when they want to change. One of the biggest changes in his life happened at 18 when his mother sat him down and told him the farm wasn’t profitable, and there wasn’t a place for him. He got his elementary education degree and taught full time for 12 years. On nights and weekends, he found a way to farm.

“I started buying some ground, renting some ground and I just couldn’t give up on that,” he said. “But I knew what we were doing—the conventional till—it wasn’t going to be economically feasible, because it hadn’t worked for dad, wasn’t going to work for us.”

Sign up for HPJ Insights

Our weekly newsletter delivers the latest news straight to your inbox including breaking news, our exclusive columns and much more.

Thompson found along the way that just eliminating the tillage wasn’t going to fix the soil. There were still compaction layers that shed water, and it still had erosion on the side hills.

“I think if you want to make that change, look at your soils more than just a meter,” he said. “Look at it as being your most important resource.”

Thompson said many farmers get hung up with what kind of fertility they put on their fields, what tractor they have or what planter they use.

“None of those things actually make you any profit,” he said. “The soil is here to make a profit. And if it’s a healthy soil, the soil is going to make the profit easier because you’re not going to have to have a lot of those things.”

Treat the soil as if it were your child. You wouldn’t send a child outside without any clothes in the sun and let them get a sunburn.

“But how many times do we take the residue off the top of the soil and let it bake?” he said.

Thompson admitted he’d spent many hours and burned many gallons of diesel fuel killing weeds, but all his work had unintended consequences. And in an area where precipitation is limited, every drop of water is needed to grow a crop.

“Along the way we destroyed the soil health,” he said. “You can’t regulate soil moisture without that cover. There’s a lot more days where you have wind and sun beating down on ground where you can lose moisture. And if you can get that evaporation under control, the transpiration is going to start healing your water cycle.”

He suggests thinking about how the natural systems worked in the environment before farmers began managing them with a plow.

“There was cover on top of our soils, there was a living root quite a bit of the year,” Thompson said. “I think the ruminant animal is a key component of how we’ve been able to recover our farm.”

For more information about Soil Health U visit

Kylene Scott can be reached at 620-227-1804 or [email protected].