Integrating soil health with an open attitude pays off, two advocates say

How a farmer or rancher makes soil health improvements starts with his first step.

Two soil health advocates say regardless of what direction a producer goes he needs to make sure he stays profitable and think long term while making improvements each year.

Macauley Kincaid, a Jasper, Missouri, farmer who is married with three children, says that regenerative soil health is the best way to sustain profitability. He farms 880 acres with wheat, corn, soybeans, cover crops and cattle. He also raises nine different cash crops while working with 63 cow-calf pairs. He has added a swine herd and 100 non-certified laying hens that are fed grain cleanings.

He has a full no-till operation and fully implements cover crops. Kincaid said, “If we don’t have a cash crop going we have a cover crop growing and we can graze every single farm but one. We also custom graze 150 to 200 cow-calf pairs a year and that is about a third of our income on our farm.”

To get to that stage of success took time. Kincaid started just before he was 18 as a conventional producer on rented ground. Kincaid is a self motivated and an avid reader with a drive to self-educate. He focused on traditional fungicides, herbicides and insecticides on his wheat, corn and soybean crops. Long-term sustainability was proving elusive.

“It wasn’t profitable,” he said. “My very first year farming we had a really good year and then after that we went through a four-year stretch that was really tight and we weren’t making any money.”

Then Kincaid met Ray Archuleta and Gabe Brown. He read their material and began to learn more about no-till and cover crops and how they work together. He believes integrating livestock was necessary. Looking at the entire operation in a holistic manner helped him be a better manager. The change in practices helped to improve soil quality and it took several years, he said, but he recommends developing a plan and staying within a budget.

Educating producers and consumers about the importance of soil health is good business, according to Christie Apple, a Michigan-based agronomist, known as “Crop Scout Christie.” She started with traditional crops but expanded her work to include vineyards, orchards and specialty crops. She looks at the impact on soil for every decision made.

“The filter being every path that I went down in a field is either going to help or harm the soil,” Apple said.

She works with farmers with various backgrounds. She strives to help them succeed and to offer them a perspective about the importance of the soil health.

Producers have to address quality and safety challenges while prioritizing soil health and water infiltration, she said.

Soil health is the foundation of Apple’s consulting work.

She has a great appreciation for farmers who have limited moisture in arid climates and provide a challenge and she suggested instead of using a long season cover crop perhaps try multiple short season crops to keep the ground covered year-round. Those challenges are very real in the western High Plains, she said, yet she is not one to back down from the opportunity to help those growers to also have success.

As a general example, a grower could look at a small grain that could be planted in the fall season and does not winter kill and harvest those small grains in spring or as forage and then comeback with planting another crop so the ground is covered and there is crop diversity.

Crop diversity is a pillar of regenerative agriculture, she said. Strategies could include using patches of several hundred acres of different short-season crops instead of planting one type of short-season over thousands of acres.


All crop decisions are made on the basis of improving the soil quality each year, Kincaid said. He conducts Haney soil tests, he said. That test determines soil nutrients and microbes.

“This past year we only applied phosphorus on 50 acres on our whole farm,” Kincaid said. “That was all that it was called for. I’m not against potash or phosphorus I just don’t think that we really needed it.”

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He also conducts a nutrient digestion analysis to look at the top level of the soil. He likens it to a bank balance for soil. He is looking at the organic levels of nitrogen, organic phosphorus and potash in the top 12 inches of soil. Oftentimes it is not a deficiency of organic materials but the biology to cycle the nutrients.

After a cash crop is harvested that first year Kincaid likes to plant a cover crop early and he has used oats that he can use as part of his grazing strategy. As the cattle graze across the land, he likes to keep them in tight and narrow paddocks so the manure and urine is sequestered into the soil and in turn builds respiration of the soil. Kincaid says his management strategy includes checking and moving the cattle in the field. Besides improving the soil quality it also boosts earthworms as their diets have higher protein levels, he said.

When producers ask Apple for her help she literally starts by drawing a pyramid on a white board. She asks the producers to categorize farm decision clusters. It includes fuel needs, equipment purchases and maintenance and seed selection purchases.

She will then ask the producer to prioritize the clusters based on his operation and expectations for the current year and beyond. “They are important asks.”

If the goal is rebuilding and maintaining healthy soil and addressing water infiltration those are specific items she can help the grower. Water infiltration and retention is a response she often gets first from a producer. She said the choice is to either let the water get away or save it to where it needs to be.

Focusing on water infiltration is a primary strategy she stresses and advises producers there is no one-size-fits-all approach. Having a big board allows her and the producer to erase and rewrite ideas and strategies while striving to reach overall farm goals. She measures water infiltration and shares the impact of crop residue, soil structure and what water is actually captured.

Systems approach

Even one change such as nutrient take up or nutrient run-off, can impact the overall dynamic in the field, which is why she emphasizes the role of water infiltration.

Apple believes that when consumers hear that water is being used as efficiently as possible in growing food and fiber it buys goodwill toward farmers as today’s consumers are environmentally conscious and appreciate good stewardship. All of that benefits producers who need to have profitable yields and field performance.

Kincaid reiterates the importance of cattle in a successful program.

Cattle have wrongly been associated with creating compaction because of the way they walk, Kincaid said. As you observe cattle walking after that first rain the compaction levels are less than half what they were before the rain. Soil needs rain and when the moisture hits it the biological cycle ramps up.

The hoof is designed so it spreads out and he believes the animal, as it walks, is pulsating the soil and causing the soil to stimulate, he said. The cattle’s manure is healthy for the soil in a 150-day grazing schedule.

Also, if plants are given more time to rest they will take in more carbon from the atmosphere and in turn put more carbon into the soil. He added that applies well to cover crops and perennial plants.

He likes sorghum sudangrass and also had good luck with sunflower fields.

While he prefers cattle, he believes that pigs, sheep or poultry can also be used in the livestock rotation.

Forage analysis is important as is plant tissue tests to help guide him and he uses them to complement the Haney test to see how nutrients are performing and monitoring nitrogen levels. Fungal bacteria ratio is important and he uses it as a baseline.

Although it is subjective, he likes the eye test. He can tell if the soil has good structure.

“It doesn’t matter if it has good organic matter, if you don’t have aggregate stability down deep. You can’t buy soil health,” Kincaid 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].