By Edwin Suarez, MS, CCA, Technical Agronomist, Midwestern BioAg

When thinking about soil health, we often start with off-season management practices such as tillage-compaction practices, cover crops, manure, compost amendments and recently, foliar/liquid carbon sources that improve the overall quality of your crops and soil. All of these practices are good for on-farm long-term profitability and for maintaining a sustainable system. But are these practices actually improving soil health and nutrient uptake in your strip management zone?

First, we need to understand that soil health only works as long as it’s a profitable management strategy. All nutrient cycles are biologically dependent, which is crucial since improved soil health is directly related to nutrient use efficiency (NUE). In other words, when soil health is improved, we get more out of every dollar we spend on our farms.  

A key reason why we should manage soil health in the strip is because NUE has a direct positive impact on our return on investment (ROI). Newly rented/purchased ground vs. long-term rented/owned ground, is a separate decision in its own, but every grower knows that getting a return on investment and increasing yield potential is crucial.

Secondly, we must start improving soil health in the strip by reactivating soils, specifically in the application zone. This means feeding the native soil biology that is already present in order to enhance nutrient uptake.

A teaspoon of soil contains 6 billion microorganisms (even in low CEC or low OM sandy soils), and our goal isn’t to inoculate or inject any biological “silver bullets” into that soil. Instead, the best way to start managing strip-till soil health is to add rapidly available carbon, creating a very biologically active zone.

Photo courtesy of: ETS/SoilWarrior

This will result in increased nutrient uptake and enhanced nutrient use efficiency. We must understand that managing soil health in the strip is a two-way street and that we need to eliminate or buffer products and practices that will reduce carbon pools and biological activity. For example, fertilizer selection plays a key role in biological activity.

High salinity, high pH and “hot” fertilizers will have a negative impact on macro and micro soil biological communities. Potash, urea, UAN and 10-34-0 are also examples of inputs that will affect soil biology and soil health.

Incorporating rapidly available carbon into the strip improves soil quality and nutrient uptake, which is an example of an input that will positively affect soil health and biology. With the recent launch of new technologies, carbon can be incorporated into current strip till operations without making major changes.

In fact, several new technologies in the market act as “carbon carriers” of quality nutrients, and TerraNu Technology is an example of one. By adding a foliar product like TerraNu Technology to any dry strip-till program, enhanced nutrient uptake and soil health can be greatly improved. For liquid programs, the same result can be achieved through the addition of a liquid carbon fertilizer such as L-CBF branded sugar cane molasses.

Another positive benefit of adding a carbon based fertilizer into strip-till is that the results can be easily calculated in many ways, specifically through ROI. Other ways to measure impact can be through crop development and in-season tissue content testing, which will show enhanced soil biology and increased nutrient uptake — leading to positive yields and improved crop quality.

Long-term responses can be calculated be measuring residual effects year after year, which will show positive effects due to the continuous rise of carbon and biological pools in the strip. Because of this management practices easy adoption and measurement, this should be all strip-till growers first step to improving their soil health.

Strip-Till Farmer's Improving Soil Health in the Zone series is brought to you by Midwestern BioAg.

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Edwin Suarez is a soil scientist who has focused most of his career in soil health. He has experience in academia/extension, industry and now the retail world. He received his bachelor’s degree in Sustainable Agriculture from EARTH University and his master’s degree in Agronomy/Soil Science from Purdue University. His work and research experience has been focused in soil health, soil fertility and plant nutrition. He has diverse experience working with multiple cropping systems, including corn, soybeans, wheat, cover crops, forages and potatoes. He is currently the technical agronomist for Midwestern BioAg.