Nebraska Won the Soil Lottery
Soil Health and Why it Matters
Soil is a fundamental natural resource in agricultural production across the Midwest. “Nebraska and the Midwest won the soil lottery,” said Andrea Basche, assistant professor in the Department of Agronomy and Horticulture at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. Basche explained how Nebraska is blessed with “a disproportionate amount for our land area of some of the best soils in the world.”
Soil serves as a vital component in cropping systems and is critical to the success of growing a bountiful crop. Basche researches various ways to support resilient cropping systems as well as various inputs that can be utilized in production agriculture, all while protecting the soil of Nebraska and the Midwest.
One input Basche is currently researching is the use of cover crops — crops grown for protection and enrichment of the soil. Cover crops are a useful tool to not only combat weeds and keep the soil healthy, but also serve as a food source for grazing animals.
In addition to her research, Basche’s lab, the Resilient Cropping Systems Lab, investigates ways to make systems more resilient so that they can bounce back from disturbance. Specifically, her team examines the resilience of cropping systems when disturbances like floods or droughts occur and outlines ways cropping systems can be more resilient when responding to change.
Soil is Key in a Cropping System
According to Basche, a cropping system consists of all components of growing crops: soil, seeds, rainfall, sunlight, fertilizer and other inputs. People are also an important piece of cropping systems as they make decisions to produce the highest yield possible. Basche explained how critical soil is in cropping systems. “Soils are the foundation for what plants need to grow and take up nutrients and water,” Basche said.
According to Basche, plants and soil are interconnected and form a feedback loop. “The plants influence the soil, but of course, the soil influences the plants too,” Basche said.
Basche further explained that the soil stores water, a vital resource for plant growth. Water infiltrates the soil and reduces runoff and erosion through a process called soil infiltration. Soil infiltration — the process by which water moves deeper into the soil — makes water available for plants to absorb and complete growth processes.
Ultimately, Basche said that soil is the key piece to help make water and nutrients available for plants. However, some plants also serve as a tool to protect the soil.
Impact of Cover Crops
Basche explained that typically during the off-season when the soil would otherwise be bare, growers sometimes use cover crops as a tool to retain and protect the soil from erosion. Basche said a cover crop is a crop grown for the purpose of protecting the soil without the intention of harvesting for-profit crops like corn and soybeans.
“Cover crops can benefit soil in a variety of ways,” Basche said. Specifically, cover crops hold the soil in place and can improve soil infiltration. They also can reduce the number of weeds that compete for resources. Cover crops can serve as a valuable feeding resource for grazing animals.
“By growing cover crops, the amount of time plant roots are in the soil doubles,” Basche said. “Cover crops provide continuous coverage of the soil. The roots in the soil stimulate microbial activity, improve soil structure and improve water that’s retained in the soil.”
Basche explained that cover crops are oftentimes planted directly after summer annual crops, like corn and soybeans. For example, Nebraska typically plants winter cereals as cover crops, such as winter rye, wheat and triticale.
According to Basche, these plants begin growing in the fall, remain dormant during the winter and continue growing in the spring prior to being removed to prepare for corn or soybean planting. While these crops are not grown directly for profit like corn and soybeans, they provide an opportunity to retain and protect the soil and keep it healthy.
Basche said that many growers believe cover crops are one solution to improving soil. However, there is not an annual reporting method to track the acreage of cover crops in the state. Basche explained that the lack of data makes it difficult to know year to year how much cover crops might be increasing in Nebraska.
“There’s a lot of interest in cover crops among growers,” Basche said. Cover crops are just one method used to enhance agricultural production systems and capitalize on the advantage soil is in the state.
Nebraska’s Soil Advantage
Nebraska’s soil advantage is a unique aspect of the state.
“One of Nebraska’s advantages is definitely that we had great soil to begin with,” Basche said. She described how the soil is blessed with natural resources that make the soil in Nebraska quite rich. However, Basche said Nebraskans must work together to conserve the current state of the soil.
“Growers might consider viewing agricultural production as a whole system to help the soil,” Basche said.
Nebraska has such rich soil today and the goal is to continue to have this healthy soil for years to come. Because soil is integral to the entire cropping system, Basche said it is the responsibility of the people to protect the soil and see that it is conserved for the future generations.