Soil health nurtures ground and feeds long-term profitability

Regardless of age, soil health proponents believe that increasing knowledge and putting it to practice nurtures the ground and ensures long-term profitability.

Many people do not realize the interconnectivity between plants, the atmosphere and soil, said Jerry Hatfield. They are all linked and soil maintains and supplies water and nutrients to support plants.

“That really is the dynamic we need to be understanding as we go forward,” Hatfield said. A native Kansan, Hatfield is the retired director of the United States Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service National Laboratory for Agriculture and Environment in Ames, Iowa, and he is continuing his work in retirement to help educate farmers.

Mitchell Hora, 27, works his family’s farm in Washington County in southeast Iowa that has 700 acres. He bought 40 acres of his own in 2017 after graduating from Iowa State University. The farm raises corn, soybeans, cereal rye, winter wheat, malt barley and seed mustard.

His family started no-till operations in 1978, first with corn and eight years later with soybeans. They started using cover crops in 2013 and working with rotations and innovation. Hora is a seventh-generation farmer whose interest in soil health developed at an early age. In 2015 he launched Continuum Ag while he was studying agronomy and ag systems technology at Iowa State. He has been named to the Forbes Under 30 list, the AgGrad 30 Under 30 list and was voted the “Rising Star” by peers in the Amplify Network at Brookside Labs.

Brian Hora, his dad, is accepting of new practices and passionate about soil health and regenerative practices, too.

His dad taught Brian to work with Mother Nature and not against her to drive the bottom line. His dad watches for environmental impacts but, “He is doing these things because he sees where it can help improve the bottom line, where it can pay the bills because we are a small farm,” Mitchell Hora said. “Seven hundred acres in conventional row crop is tough. That is definitely a little bit below average for a lot of the farms around us. We have to be creative and committed to diversifying and finding new ways to manage our inputs and manage our expenses while continuing to drive yields or grow other sources of revenue.”

Soil health importance

Historically soil health has been important to farmers, Hatfield said. As an example, hundreds of years ago farmers used livestock manure as a way to add nutrients to deficient areas in a field.

“Farmers knew that if they put manure on the poorer parts of their field they would improve productivity,” Hatfield said. “They would always put more on those parts of the fields than in other parts of the field.”

Those pioneers relied on observation and judgment, and it worked.

“Over time we’ve lost sight of how important the role of soil is in supplying water, supplying nutrients and supplying support for that plant because we had the attitude that we could overcome everything with increasing our inputs. Now we are realizing maybe we need to readjust our thinking.”

Today’s thought process includes how farmers can become more efficient with water and nutrients while increasing profitability, Hatfield said. He has been a longtime observer. He has worked in California at the University of California-Davis as a bio meteorologist working with different crops before joining USDA-ARS first at the Plant Stress and Conservation Unit in Lubbock, Texas, before moving to Ames. Hatfield has a bachelor’s in agronomy from Kansas State University, a master’s in agronomy from the University of Kentucky and a doctorate in agricultural climatology from Iowa State.

Sage advice

Cropping practice is one of the first steps Hora advises to anyone looking to incorporate additional soil health practices. To describe one of his practices he uses the term relay cropping.

“Relay cropping boils down to plant-plant, harvest-harvest,” he said.

A practical example is planting a cereal rye ahead of soybeans, and cereal rye after corn and ahead of soybeans. The cereal rye might not get that tall in the fall so the producer could plant soybeans directly into the cereal rye in the spring, let the soybeans establish themselves and let the two grow together for as long as possible, then use a herbicide to terminate the cereal rye when it starts to drop pollen.

What has worked successfully in his family’s operation is planting the soybeans into the cereal rye crop and letting them grow together, but instead of terminating the cereal rye he harvests the seed in July over the top of the soybeans, which allows the operation to have cereal rye seed for another cover crop season. The soybeans still are able to produce 70 bushels per acre.

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“It is amazing to see the synergy there between the beans and the rye. It just goes back to the principle of diversity in soil health,” Hora said. “We have done this for the past three years now and continuing to scale up.”

About a third of the soybean acres in the 2021 growing season were a part of that program, he said. This past growing season was drier than normal, yet it worked well. “We had our best soybean yields ever.”

Appreciation of soil

Hatfield believes today’s producers are gaining a greater appreciation of the value of soil health and yearn to learn more. Regardless of the age of the producer or size of the operation, they are asking more questions at soil conferences.

Agriculture has a natural changing dynamic and it intrigues Hatfield when he thinks about what entices farmers to change or ask questions about production practices.

“In agriculture I often say we are data rich and information poor. We have soil maps, yield monitors and precision application equipment,” Hatfield said. “But how do we put it all together so a producer can look at it and so he can improve profitability on your farm and improve your nutrient use efficiency?”

Today, growers are seeing that play out on their fields and they may say, “I’m now changing and I’m seeing this unfold before my own eyes and I should have been doing this earlier.”

The soil health movement has been growing in popularity and Hatfield says it boils down to several core functions and principles.

Soil needs to do three functions:

1. Supply water;

2. Supply nutrients; and

3. Provide support for the plant so it can stand.

The principles then become improving nutrient cycling; improving water storage, availability and infiltration; and creating the soil so the roots will explore and provide support for that plant.

“The functions and principles go hand in hand when you think about all the different things that are playing out. What we are now discovering there is a tremendous amount of interaction between how soil is absorbing water and how nutrients are being cycled,” Hatfield said. “Regenerative agriculture and soil health are pointing to us and saying, ‘you guys can figure this out.’ It is achievable and realizable.”

Year-round process

Keeping soil covered, maintaining a living root, minimizing soil disturbance, integrating livestock or more species and having crop diversity are tenets Hatfield believes in because they are oriented toward feeding the biology within the soil.

The living root is attached to a plant that is constantly photosynthesizing and putting sugars into the soil and those sugars are the food source for the microbes to work, Hatfield said. The longer producers can keep feeding microbes, the more opportunities to change and improve the functionality of the soil. In the end the grower is making soil health principles become realized.

Offensive strategy

Cover crops have to be a considered an offensive practice rather than a defensive strategy, Hora said.

“Cover crops have been branded incorrectly. Cover crops have been branded as a defensive management tool. Defense against erosion. Defense against water quality issues. Cover crops have to be an offensive management tool. A cover crop is my nutrient stabilizer. A cover crop is my herbicide program.”

But the cover crop is also doing many other duties that include keeping the soil healthy, building organic matter and building water infiltration and resiliency, he said.

“All those other offensive parts is what pays the bills,” Hora said.

A well-managed strategy has reduced the use of synthetic fertilizer by 40% and pesticides by 75%. He has not applied lime on his farm in nine years while maintaining a healthy pH level. He can infiltrate an inch of water in six seconds.

“The water is being held in the soil for use later in the year,” he said.

Even in semi-arid areas adopting practices can start to pay dividends in a season, Hatfield said. Every time a grower tills in the spring it puts a half inch of water into the atmosphere, he said.

If a grower adopts a residue practice and he reduces tillage intensity it will cut evaporation. Those changes are immediate and the producer does not have to wait until next season to see results.

“If you change the physical environment, you can change the biological environment and then we begin to change the chemical environment because of all the things going on,” Hatfield said.

Diversity of the crop practices can help change the soil profile. In 140 days, there can be remarkable improvements as the soil aggregate structure changes. He has seen doubling of microbial biomass in two years after switching from a conventional tillage system to a no-till and cover crop system.

Hora’s practice is to continually implement and improve upon the principles of soil health and those tenets can also include a livestock system.

“As long as you are continuing to focus on that and moving the needle believe you are on that regenerative path,” he said.

Producers can capture additional value through a measured process and quantify outcomes, whether reducing a carbon footprint, improving water quality, or mitigating flooding or aquifer problems.

The supply ecosystem and opportunities to boost income are welcome news to him, but Hora also believes in the long-term principle that a producer has to manage his resources and constantly work to improve soil health.

“That’s what we control as farmers,” he said.

Information for this story was from the Soil Solutions podcast with Jessica Gnad, the executive director of Great Plains Regeneration and soil health content consultant for High Plains Journal. Visit to hear the podcasts. Sign up to receive the monthly Soil Health HPJ Direct newsletter and Soil Solutions podcast notifications by visiting and checking Soil Health.

Dave Bergmeier can be reached at 620-227-1822 or [email protected].

Listen to Episodes 1 and 2 of HPJ’s Soil Solutions podcast, hosted by Jessica Gnad.