Soil Matters

Conservation agriculture, sustainable gardening, Farm Bill legislation, and other topics related to soil health.

Steve Reimer: Soil Health Yields Multiple Benefits

Raylene Nickel
Steve Reimer

Farming in Brule County, South Dakota, National Association of Conservation Districts Soil Health Champion and no-till farmer Steve Reimer has seen the elimination of erosion on his farm. He grows corn, soybeans, winter wheat and oats in partnership with his wife, Elaine.

When Steve Reimer started farming on his family’s farm four decades ago, he grew crops using tillage. “We were seeing water running off the fields and taking topsoil with it,” he says. “We wanted instead for the water to stay where it fell.”

Over time, Reimer transitioned into no-till farming, started growing multi-species cover crops and intensified the integration of cattle into the cropping system by grazing cattle on cover crops in the fall. He also practices rotational grazing on grassland throughout the growing season. The management practices have worked together to help the Reimers build soil and save water.

Improved soil health is evident in higher levels of organic matter in the soil. “When we first started, our soils were testing around 2 percent organic matter,” Reimer says. “The organic matter in the soil has now increased to about 4 percent. As the organic matter increases, the number of earthworms and other organisms in the soil is increasing. Along with that, water-infiltration tests done by our local NRCS staff show that the water-holding capacity of the soil is improving.” As a result, soils are more resilient, growing resilient crops that can withstand the summer droughts that are typical of the region. Overall, crop yields are increasing as well.

The improvements come hand in hand with the increasing populations of soil microbes, encompassing visible and microscopic forms of soil life above and below ground. This increasing level of microbial activity in the soil was illustrated by on-farm demonstrations done by Reimer’s Natural Resources Conservation Service district conservationist, Stacy Turgeon.

“On multiple farms we buried white underwear horizontally about three inches deep, though any kind of cotton material would work,” Turgeon says. “We buried the material in mid-June and left it for 10 weeks. Typically, we advise leaving the materials buried for six to eight weeks before digging them up, but we left these longer because the soil was so dry.”

At the end of the period, the material buried in Reimer’s fields showed a high degree of breakdown, illustrating robust microbial activity in the soil. “Fields that have livestock incorporated into their system definitely show more microbial activity than ones that do not,” says Turgeon.

The robust populations of soil microorganisms stabilize soil aggregates and drive the processes of carbon sequestration. They also help to oxidize methane emitted by the cattle. Soil scientist and consultant Kris Nichols says, “Bacteria called methanotrophs are soil microorganisms that are active and prevalent when cattle are grazing. These organisms will decompose some methane. This is nature’s way of making sure that such elements are constantly being cycled, so that they’re not allowed to build up.”

These organisms live in synergy with each other, creating a soil food web that breaks down residue, fixes nitrogen, metabolizes phosphorus into plant-available forms and builds the aggregates that give soil stability and porous structure. The microorganisms in biologically active soil also help to store carbon within aggregates, where it is less likely to decompose and cycle back into the atmosphere.

Reduced erosion, drought-tolerant crops, increased yields, healthier soils, reduced methane pollution and more carbon stored in the soil: The Reimers’ army of microbes provides an impressive array of benefits for them, and for us.

Learn how to test your soil by burying underwear

Raylene Nickel is an author, freelance journalist and farmer who raises cattle near Kief, North Dakota.

Cover photo: Steve Reimer shows his healthy soil.

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