Playing a pick-up game of basketball this week, I had the unfortunate experience of colliding with a much larger, more athletic opponent. While I only had the wind knocked out of me, those few moments of gasping for air made me appreciate the ability to take a deep breath again.
Of course, none of us really think about the act of inhaling oxygen and exhaling carbon dioxide — but it’s a critical bodily function. The same in-and-out process is necessary to sustaining health soils.
Mazeppa, Minn., strip-tiller Rod Sommerfield draws the analogy in our latest podcast, that healthy soils are similar to a set of lungs. “Healthy soils are exhausting spent biologic gases and taking in fresh oxygen,” he says. “Tillage has always been a short-term fix of oxygen that mineralizes carbon and degrades soil structure. But without new organic matter, soils become unable to breathe.”
Suffocated soils require more tillage to physically create pore space for root development, and for air and water to be held in the soil, Sommerfield adds — and in a sense, soils become addicted to tillage.
Strip-till can breathe new life into soils and increase aerobic microbial activity by creating pathways for air and water to move through, vs. more invasive tillage practices. As Sommerfield notes, if rain cannot infiltrate the soil, cell walls of roots will rupture if they grow into an anaerobic environment where oxygen is less than 10%.
Taking a “regenerative” approach to strengthening the soils on his 200-year-old family farm, Sommerfield has been able to gradually create more favorable growing conditions to achieve his long-term goals. He hopes to produce 300-bushel corn and 100-bushel soybeans with 100% of his nitrogen, and the majority of other nutrients, coming from nature.
Keeping his crops fed and soils “breathing” fresh air are helping reach his objective. He uses another analogy to illustrate the value of increasing soil organic matter (SOM). “When residue is buried and mineralized all at once, it’s like having fresh air to breath and all you can eat from Thanksgiving to Christmas and then having to survive on stale air and little food until the next Thanksgiving.”
How are you breathing new life into your strip-tilled soils? Share your story with me at firstname.lastname@example.org or call me at 262-777-2441.