Farmers need to treat soil as more than a chemistry set — they need to think about biology and ecology.
That’s the message Kansas farmer Michael Thompson shared with those attending the Innovative Farmers Association of Ontario (IFAO) annual conference last week in London, Ont. Thompson does admit, however, that farmers have been successful in using nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium to drive crop yields, but he believes they would be better served to take their chemistry sets to biology class. With that combination, farmers can learn how to create healthier soils and also enhance nutrient efficiency, he says.
At IFAO, Thompson shared how he learned to sequester carbon to feed and regenerate his dry, depleted soils. Today, he focusses on rotationally grazed cattle and continuous cover practices that have increased soil organic matter, water retention, and made his farm more drought resilient.
“If we can get carbon in the system, we can feed that biology and it can make for a more healthy plant that will get us through drier and wetter times,” he adds.
Thompson uses five soil health management principles to regenerate and protect his soil: maintaining soil cover, minimizing disturbance, increasing plant diversity, keeping living roots in the soil, and integrating livestock. He also admits that some tried-and-true soil conservation practices don’t always save the day. No-till, for instance, didn’t work on his farm — even in a reduced tillage situation, depleted soils with poor infiltration can’t effectively feed a crop.
For Thompson, it was the introduction of cover crops and their root systems that turned his soils around. Those cover crops also gave him the ability to integrate livestock into his operation.
“We can change our soils,” says Thompson. “With more carbon, you’re less worried about moisture and when you feed microbiology, it’s money in the bank.”
(Listen to Michael Thompson discuss how carbon has helped regenerate his Kansas farm.)