I often get asked the question, how do I know soil health practices are working? What should I look for in my fields? This is something where both Caley Gasch, North Dakota State University assistant professor of soil health, and I can share some thoughts. Here are a few things to notice:

Caley Gasch, NDSU assistant professor soil health. (NDSU photo)
Caley Gasch, NDSU assistant professor soil health. (NDSU photo)

  • White ditches this winter. With residue on the surface from either a cash crop or cover crop (or both), there will be less wind erosion this winter and the snow in ditches will stay white. This is a really important indicator, because this means that your topsoil and your fertility are staying in your field. Whether you seeded a full-season cover crop on some prevented planting ground (which may be your first experience with soil health practices) or have been using these practices for a while, take pride in your white ditch snow!
  • Less standing water this spring. One statement right off the bat — this would of course depend on how long you’ve been using soil health building practices, if you have an overwintering cover crop (like cereal rye) and weather. For weather, if it’s wet, it’s generally wet for everyone. However, you may start seeing less standing water in your fields with the adoption of soil health practices compared to other fields where these practices aren’t used. This is a result of improved soil aggregation and more continuous pores along old root channels or worm tracks from the soil surface down into the soil. Aggregation and continuous pores are the key to water movement into the soil and less standing water in a field. The longer you use soil health building practices, the better water movement into the soil gets.
  • Improved trafficability. Again, this is a function of aggregation and roots. There generally are better “building blocks” (aka aggregates) and roots in the soil when reduced tillage and cover crops are adopted. This can keep soil from becoming a soupy mess when wet and help hold up equipment at planting, during spraying or at harvest. If you think your equipment is riding better across the surface, it could be because of the soil health practices you use.
  • More worms. With reducing tillage and adding in more diverse food sources (using crop rotation or cover crops), worms are typically more abundant. Residue on the surface helps regulate, or minimize the highs and lows, for both moisture and temperature. This creates a more inviting place for earthworms to live. Additionally, when you give them more diverse food sources, they tend to be more abundant. If you’re wondering if soil health is working, get a shovel out and go look for worms. Keep in mind that if it’s really wet or really dry, you may not find them at the surface, so don’t get too discouraged if you don’t see them right off the bat.

Soil that holds together and has more worms tends to be healthier — just a couple indicators of soil health. (Abbey Wick / NDSU Extension)
Soil that holds together and has more worms tends to be healthier — just a couple indicators of soil health. (Abbey Wick / NDSU Extension)
The goal is to keep trying new things, and sometimes to do that you need to know if it’s working. These are just a few things you can look for throughout this winter and into next year if you’ve adopted a new soil health practice.

Abbey Wick is an Extension soil health specialist at North Dakota State University. To read more Soil Health Minute columns, click here.