Do you really understand what soil health is about? 

Josh Lofton, Oklahoma State University assistant professor and cropping systems specialist, spoke at the recent Sorghum U Wheat U event in Wichita, Kansas, about promoting soil health in sorghum crops. (Journal photo by Lacey Vilhauer.)

Josh Lofton, Oklahoma State University assistant professor and cropping systems specialist, spoke at the recent Sorghum U Wheat U event in Wichita, Kansas, about defining soil health and its principles. Lofton said over the years the buzzwords associated with what is now referred to as soil health have morphed and can seem confusing. 

Originally, it was referred to as soil conservation, then later the term soil health was used. Most recently, the phrase regenerative agriculture has taken hold. However, Lofton said they are really synonymous with each other. Although soil health is difficult to define, he used a portion of the Natural Resources Conservation Service official definition to better explain the meaning of all three of these terms. 

“They define it as continuing the capacity of our soil and continuing to get it to function the way that we need it to,” Lofton said. “If we can get the soil to work with us and not against us, that’s what we’re focused on. We don’t want to work against Mother Nature because we never win when we go up against her.” 

Lofton said producers can get confused about soil health and soil health practices. He used cover crops as a prime example. According to Lofton, the terms soil health and cover crops are so closely tied together that producers believe you cannot practice soil health principles if you are not planting cover crops. 

“They think you can’t have soil health without cover crops and you can’t have cover crops without soil health,” he said. “But you can. You can use cover crops or you can use other practices.” 

Lofton said when farmers in Oklahoma, Texas, and Kansas were surveyed about the benefits they have seen from soil health practices, the most common answer was decreased erosion—in fact, 25% of farmers gave that response. Two other common answers were suppression of weeds and increased water infiltration. 

“The interesting thing is some of those things that we kind of hallmark as soil health, like the microbial soil chemistry properties, don’t really come up for the majority of people,” he said. “The bulk of them focus more on the physical properties and didn’t really focus on the biological and the chemical.” 

Lofton said when it comes to convincing producers to start adopting soil health practices, the most important incentive is return on investment. 

“Monetary gain is the No. 1 thing growers need from these practices, but the things that we bring, most of the growers want, but they’re the hardest thing to put a monetary value on. For example, how much does one more inch of water going into the ground during the course of the season make you? It’s difficult to define.” 

Lofton said that being realistic about the timeline and returns is a must when talking to others about incorporating soil health practices. The benefits are long-term and do not happen overnight. Farmers who are under the impression they will see measurable results in a short period of time will probably be disappointed. 

“It’s also important to remember, soil health practices are not a one size fits all,” he said. “Yields are variable, we need to be able to hang our hat on something else. When we talk about how these practices impact the soil underneath the crops, the number one thing to look for from a soil health perspective is soil respiration.”

Lacey Vilhauer can be reached at [email protected] or 620-227-1892