A cake made from scratch has more variations than one made from a packaged mix. Though there is some controversy about why – and when – cake mixes were developed, they are popular and produce a consistent product. (They truly were patented in the 1930s!)
Scientific research is tightly controlled, much like the cake mix. Putting suggestions from greenhouse and field studies into practice on the farm gives up some control. In this sense, farming is similar to baking from scratch rather than baking from a packaged mix.
However, it is critical to learn the outcomes of such farm areas. Do they produce the same results as the research suggests?
This question was addressed by Emily Oldfield and a group of researchers from the upper Midwest. Their findings were just published in the Soil Science Society of America Journal, a publication of the Soil Science Society of America.
The researchers were primarily interested in the association between soil organic matter and grain yields. They gathered information from 170 corn fields on 49 separate farms. The farms were part of a growing network located in Wisconsin and Minnesota.
Organic matter degradation on farms is a huge global problem, adds Oldfield. It is linked to a loss of soil fertility, which promotes crop growth and yields. It has the potential to harm food security, rural livelihoods, and freshwater systems.
Multiple studies have revealed a variety of effective practices that farmers might use in response to these concerns. They range from no-till to crop rotation to soil amendment with manure. All of these techniques can help to enhance the quantity of organic matter in the soil. The research by Oldfield and her colleagues quantifies the effects of these measures on soil organic matter and crop productivity on operating farms.
Scientists may control several variables in researching fields, adds Oldfield. They can build up plots to reduce disparities in soil type and texture (sandy or silty). Temperature and day duration can be precisely regulated in greenhouse investigations.
Farmers, on the other hand, practice in all weather conditions. This is why determining the consequences of various farming strategies on actual farms are critical.
This study found that there is a positive association between soil organic matter and crop production.
The findings on manure application practice were less apparent. This could be because of the timing of manure applications on various farm fields. The addition of manure as a readily available organic source of nutrients is crucial in this rural setting,” Oldfield explains. “It has also been demonstrated to have beneficial effects on soil health. According to our findings, nitrogen from manure, fertilizer, and soil organic matter all have high relationships with agriculture production in this region.
The research also revealed that crop yields and soil organic matter had varying relationships based on crop rotation. Fields planted in continuous corn, for example, had a higher organic matter in the soil concentrations but low production. Corn is grown in a rotation (corn-soy and corn-oat-alfalfa) producing great yields.
The productivity advantages of crop rotation are widely established, explains Oldfield. Numerous studies suggest that increasing crop diversity can result in higher yields. Diversified cropping techniques have been demonstrated to increase maize yields under both normal and bad weather situations. They can also aid in the control of pests and pathogens.
Farmers adopting management decisions based on practice reforms must understand the potential impact of improved soil health on profitability, adds Oldfield. This necessitates an understanding of the link between yield, soil health indicators, and management in the context of inherent variability in soil attributes and climate.
Because our data is sourced from operational farms, it includes relevant variation in techniques that are difficult to incorporate into controlled field research, explains Oldfield. “Our findings imply that raising soil organic matter levels in surface soils, together with increased crop rotational diversity, may result in improved agronomic returns in this regional setting.
This project was done in collaboration with the University of Wisconsin Discovery Farms and the Discovery Farms Minnesota program. This study was supported in part by two USDA NRCS Conservation Innovation Grants (69-3A75-17-11 and 69-3A75-14-270), as well as a SARE Graduate Student grant (GNC17-249). The High Meadows Foundation provided funding for post-doctoral fellowships for the Environmental Defense Fund’s work.