Soil Health is about Function

Soil Health Concepts Leading to On-Farm Prescription, Soil Health is About Function

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This is the second in my series of Soil Health Concepts Leading to On-Farm Prescription. Soil Health is defined as the capacity of soil to function. Recently, Tennessee Association of Conservation Districts (TACD), at their 75th annual convention, passed a resolution. The resolution summarized said that cover crops or any other conservation practice is not soil health, but soil health is the capacity of soil to function. 

I want all potential readers when downloading this article see the importance of soil function. There are five recognized general functions, 1. Productivity and bio-diversity, 2. Handling of water (partitioning water), 3. Nutrient storage and cycling, 4. Filtering and buffering, and 5. Plant support. I am sure you can expand on this list. The bottom line is that soil health is about improving the function of soil. No-till, cover crops, nutrient management, pest management, crop rotations, etc. are tools to achieve better soil health.

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Planting Green

Soil Health Concepts Leading to On-Farm Prescription - Planting Green

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I want to begin a new series of articles called Soil Health Concepts Leading to On-Farm Prescription. No one knows the farm as well as an individual farmer who is farming their own land. We consultants, agronomists, etc. provide the science of soil health and cover crop management. This series will address many topics that hopefully will lead to adoption by farmers prescribing these concepts on their individual farms.

I recently returned from meetings in Iowa, where we held seven round-table discussions across the state with many producers, Conservation District Commissioners, and NRCS. One of the topics that came up in our discussions was planting green. The Tennessee Association of Conservation Districts (TACD) recently hosted Steve Groff (Cover Crop Coach, International Speaker, and Cover Crop Farmer) at three meetings. One of his topics was planting green. I am a subscriber of Cover Crop Innovators ( that many cover croppers and consultants are members of this group. Cover crop innovators has a weekly webinar on cover crop topics. Recently, the group covered the 10 hottest trends in 2018, and the number one on the list was planting green. Prior to beginning this article, I quickly reviewed Planting Green on the internet. Many articles were available. I selected three: John Deere, The Furrow, Warming Up to Planting Green;, 7 keys to Success for Planting into Green Cover Crops; and Penn State Extension, Planting Green - A New Cover Crop Management Technique. The Recent National No-till Farmer's Conference at Indianapolis also had topics on, yes you guessed it, Planting Green. 

I began writing Profiles of Soil Health Heroes in December of 2014. Since then we have accomplished 50 Soil Health Heroes. In many of these, I share the farmers' testimonies that many are planting green. So, this topic is not new for Tennessee, but it is one of the hottest topics in the cover crop conversations.

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Blackberry Farm

A Day with Blackberry Farm, Producing Organic Heirloom Vegetables Without Tilling

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IMG 3141newBlackberry Farm is a 4,200-acre luxury hotel resort located in Walland, Tennessee, near the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Blackberry Farm wasIMG 3150newbuilt in 1939 and has evolved into the luxury resort in Blount County that it is today. My interest in Blackberry Farm began about a year ago in September, 2016. I was asked by Blount County Soil Conservation District's Conservation Director, Erich Henry to join him to work with Michael Washburn, Garden Manager at Blackberry Farm. In 2015, Michael became the garden manager. The garden consists of approximately 3 acres. The garden produces heirloom vegetables that are served at the resort's two kitchens. There is close correlation and team chemistry between the gardeners and the chefs.

I could tell when I first met Michael Washburn that he was a trained agronomist. He also had experience in restaurants, so again you could see a close correlation of producing and preparing the food. The garden produces food organically. They are not organic certified, but they grow food without chemicals and work on improving their most important natural resource, their soil. Some areas and especially one of the lower fields that had been regularly tilled in the past, were of particular interest. Here soil structure was still lacking. Michael had already followed some great conservation practices. They were making their own compost and applying it regularly. Michael had done research on biochar and constructed an outdoor stove to burn wood and collect the char. You can see the black char in the rows of vegetables. Compost is an active carbon source that feed soil biology. Biochar is a stable carbon source. Many of the chemical properties of soil from humus can be improved by adding bio-char. For background, go to Terra preta on Wikipedia, Terra preta is Portuguese for black soils. Michael is emulating Terra preta by adding bio-char.

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Kevin Brown

Kevin Brown, Former NRCS Tennessee State Conservationist, Gardening to Improve Soil Health

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Conservation partners reading this newsroom article are no strangers to Kevin Brown. Kevin, recently retired as Tennessee's NRCS' State Conservationist. Kevin came to Tennessee in 2007 as the State Conservationist. He began with the USDA Soil Conservation Service, later changed to NRCS in June, 1977. He served in many positions over 41.5 years, including State Conservationist in Ohio and Deputy Chief of Management in headquarters. Kevin assisted in writing the 2002 Farm Bill. Because of his passion for Soil Health, he assisted NRCS in setting up the foundation of the current NRCS' National Soil Health Division.

IMG 3947newIn 2013, Kevin provided soil health leadership for Tennessee NRCS and partners. There were three priorities for Tennessee, Soil Health, Soil Health, Soil HealthIMG 3933new. Kevin is responsible for Yours Truly working with TACD as a Soil Health Specialist. At my retirement with NRCS, he asked me to take the position, and he worked with TACD to set up a cooperative agreement to fund my position. With his background, it is not surprising that Kevin practices soil health on his home garden. Kevin has moved 16 times during his 41.5 years. He has always had a garden. He has never tilled a garden. That is a testimony we do not hear very often with home gardeners. As I drive across the state, one area that I still see considerable tillage being practiced is in home gardening. I want to use this news article to say there are ways to improve soil health in gardening. Kevin's way is a way out of many ways to improve soil health. Following the principles of soil health will help gardeners improve soil health. 

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Infiltration Improved by Cover Crops

Infiltration Improved by use of Cover Crops


Infiltration is the process of water entering the soil. Infiltration rate is a measure of how fast water enters the soil. Water entering too slowly may lead to ponding on level fields or to erosion from surface runoff on sloping fields. Reducing erosion and runoff also reduce surface runoff of fertilizers and chemicals such as herbicides. Fertilizers and herbicides are agronomic inputs to assist farmers in producing productive and profitable yields. The objective of applying nutrients and herbicides and other chemicals are to benefit the plant. If the inputs runoff, it is a loss to the farmer and the environment.

Plants need water and sunshine to produce crop yield. Infiltration is dependent on soil type, soil organic matter and aggregate stability or soil structure. As farmers utilize conservation practices that increase soil organic matter, soil health indicators such as soil structure, aggregate stability, and infiltration will also improve.

Rainfall simulators have become quite common in Tennessee. NRCS uses them to demonstrate how cover crops, no-till, and good grazing practices improve infiltration and reduces erosion. Below is an example of rainfall simulator at Milan No-till Experiment Station on Soil Health Plots.

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The five trays used were from five treatments left to right, no-till only, NT wheat only, NT cereal rye and crimson clover, NT five-way mix consisting of cereal rye, wheat, crimson clover, daikon radish, and purple top turnip, and NT cereal rye and vetch. Rainfall simulations were run multiple times totaling 3" of water. All trays had good soil structure due to long-term no-till. As you can see by the back jugs showing infiltration, the 5-way mix infiltrated the best.

In another demonstration, the picture below shows minimum tillage (it is still tillage), no-till, over grazed pasture, conventional tillage tobacco with an excellent cover crop, and good grazing. Note that the good cover crop and the good grazed grass infiltrated and had little runoff compared to other treatments which had high runoff and poor infiltration.

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So, all that is demonstration. Let’s put this to the test to real field conditions and real rainfall. Matt Griggs who is featured as the Number 3 in the Profiles of Soil Health Heroes on and also Matt Griggs update Profiles of Heroes. Matt recently sent me pictures in a rainstorm at his farm, true dedication.

Cover crops add more carbon and increases soil biology that increases better aggregates which results in much greater soil structure, pore space, thus better infiltration rates. Pictures below show long-term no-till with standing water, four years plus of cover crops and no-till with great infiltration, and the bottom picture show where the two plots come together. A picture is worth a thousand words. Cover crops with no disturbances from tillage improve soil function, such as here, infiltration.

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Twenty Years of No-till.                                                                                                                      Two years of multi-species cover crops and no-till.

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                                                                                                          No-till alone on the left and No-till with cover on the right.

 Soil health is improved by not disturbing the soil, keeping a root growing, keeping the soil covered, and diversity. The demonstrations and real farm application show continuous no-till with cover crops improve the soil’s ability to infiltrate water. Better water infiltration means better efficiency of water use and more stable yields. Contact your local NRCS office or Soil Conservation District Office for more information on improving soil health.