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Soil Health

Written by Dr. Elena Bickell
Published on March 4, 2022
Research Highlights

Soil health management systems provide a range of benefits to farmers and the community, such as drought and flood resilience, stormwater management, and improved water quality.

  • At least 29 U.S. states support an incentive program on soil health and provide technical or financial assistance for implementing agricultural best management practices.
  • Typically, the programs that promote soil health come in the form of supply chain incentives, technical assistance, education, research, incentive payments, grants, cost-sharing, or insurance discounts.
  • Investing and adopting soil health practices and systems may benefit farmers directly if the private benefits (increased profits, ecosystem services) are greater than the cost of implementation.

Executive Summary

Soil health management systems provide a range of benefits to farmers and the community, such as drought and flood resilience, stormwater management, and improved water quality. Common soil health practices include reduced-till farming, planting cover crops, and rotating crops. No-till farming (continuous or rotational no-till) in Missouri covers about 4.6 million acres, while cover crops were planted on an estimated 1 million acres in the fall of 2020 and used on over 6,000 Missouri farms.

Limitations

  • Researchers are still collecting long-term data on the benefits of soil health practices and more data is needed on how to implement the practices for different soil types and crops while reducing the landowners’ private cost.
  • There are multiple barriers that may prevent farmers from adopting soil health practices, such as social barriers, economic barriers, or supply chain limitations.

Research Background

Soil Health Overview and Common Practices

Soil health is “the continued capacity of soil to function as a vital living ecosystem that sustains plants, animals, and humans,”1 and the potential benefits of healthy soil extend to farmers and society.2 Healthy soils work as "natural defenses" because they store and hold back the organic matter of the soil. Good soil structure allows soil to hold more water, preventing floods during heavy rains. Soils that are less disturbed by tillage have a better capacity to biologically produce glues that help keep the pores together and can better take in, store, and deliver water to crops and plants, which is especially important during dry spells.3 Healthy soil can also reduce soil erosion. While healthy soils tend to have an increased nutrient and water holding capacity on the topsoil and improved aeration/infiltration,4 eroded soils are degraded, dry, and compacted. This promotes water runoff and makes farms, roads, and communities vulnerable to drought during dry periods and flood damage during wet periods.

There are four main practices that can help improve soil health:5

  • Minimizing soil disturbance: This can be achieved by practices that emphasize no-till or reduced tillage. Tillage refers to the preparation of land for growing crops and reduced tillage means decreasing the amount and frequency of tillage (either by how deep the bed, field or farm is disturbed or how often).
  • Maximizing continuous living roots: This can be achieved by practices such as cover crops (planting crops with the intent to cover the soil rather than for the purpose of harvest for cash sales) and crop rotation (growing different types of crops in the same area across a sequence of growing seasons).
  • Maximizing biodiversity: Soil health also improves with thriving biodiversity in the soil. In order to maximize biodiversity, one needs to rely on soil's function of providing plant life and can support a diverse community of organisms including the microbial community. This practice is achieved by applying rotational grazing (a system where a large pasture is divided into smaller segments (called paddocks), allowing livestock to be moved between paddocks every day or every few days), agroforestry (where trees or shrubs are grown around or among crops or pastureland) and integrated crop–livestock farming systems (an agricultural system where crop and animal-source food products are integrated in a way that the by-product of one system becomes the input for other).
  • Maximizing soil cover: The health of the soil improves with practices that maximize soil cover. This can be achieved through mulching, residue retention, cover crops, green manures, etc. This practice helps hold soil in place and provides protection from rain, weeds, sun, wind, and water surface flow.
Barriers to Adopting Healthy Soil Practices

According to the 2017 National Agricultural Statistics Service-USDA, U.S. farmers increased no-tillage and cover crops practices on their cropland by more than 50% from 2012 to 2017.3 Although rates of adoption vary across the states, some of the factors affecting adoption are the soil types, cropping systems, economics, and access to appropriate management information and guidance.1,6

Measuring Soil Health

Soil health assessments are generally focused on crop production and are measured by chemical or biological indicators (such as water infiltration, number of earthworms, etc).12 However, there is a lack of effective measuring methods that incorporate more qualitative aspects of soil health (such as its impact to ecosystem services related to climate change mitigation or human health advancement).12 The ability to observe and measure the value of relevant soil health indicators each year could clarify and stabilize soil value assessments.2 Additionally, some costs are not always included in conventional economic assessments of how efficient an agricultural practice is, such as collecting healthy soil data from landowners across the state. If landowners have cheap and readily available ways to collect or assist collect soil data, then aggregating reliable information on soil health is more likely to happen.11

Measuring Economic Impacts

Although soil health and its benefits are generally understood and soil health management practices have existed for millennia, it is often difficult to economically deliver soil health solutions to different soil types and crops. Improving soil health is a procedure that may require high upfront investment and learning costs as a farmer experiments with the practice. Farmers are more likely to invest in soil health practices and systems if the private benefits (increased profits, ecosystem services) are greater than the cost of implementation.6

Some of the costs that farmers have to consider include seed costs and the cost of planting and terminating the cover crop before planting the cash crops. Transaction costs refer to all the transactions that buyers and sellers make with one another, including the time and labor associated with finding the information that they need, transporting goods or commodities across long distances, bargaining, and making a decision.7 Transaction costs in the case of soil health include finding the right information and applying what you know on your field, both of which may be barriers to implementation for the landowner.6,8

Findings from studies that look into the economics of planting cover crops have varied. The largest scale study by the USDA-SARE program used data from several hundred farms, and found farmers generally broke even on cover crops after three years of use. During the first year or two of use, there was a small loss in profit from using cover crops unless the cover crops were grazed or a particular management need was met, such as controlling herbicide-resistant weeds. With four or more years of cover crop use, generally cover crops provided a positive return to net profit.9 Case study analyses of cover crop economics have shown a similar pattern of profitability improving the longer cover crops are used,10 while some smaller scale studies have shown mixed economic returns to cover cropping.

The economics that consider soil health practices need to be dynamic and to adjust to current healthy soils adoption trends.2 One example is that farmers who own their land are more likely to invest in their soil today and expect the rewards in the distant future.2 On the opposite end, farmers who rent may face a disincentive to invest and adopt healthy soil practices, because the land improves over the long-term and they may not farm on that land in the future. This implies that individual farmers may value the same land differently, and consider the trade-offs between today and the future differently as well.

Federal Soil Health Programs

There are several programs and policies that aim to promote healthy soil education and adoption of soil health practices. The Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) are two of the most popular sources for federal cover crop incentive payments. These are administered by the USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) and pay farmers a per-acre incentive rate that varies by state.

In recent years, USDA funding for cover crops has been steadily increasing, whereas funding targeted to no-till has declined, in part due to increasing adoption of no-till by farmers even without payment.8 Recently, USDA Risk Management Agency (RMA) added more flexibility to agricultural producers with crop insurance to hay, graze, or chop their cover crops at any time and still receive 100% of the prevented planting payment as part of a broader effort to encourage producers to follow good farming practices that improve soil health.14

State Soil Health Programs

At least 29 U.S. states (including MO) support some type of incentive program, typically coupled with education with technical assistance, or payment programs within their state in the form of low-interest loans, tax credits, or insurance discounts to farmers who adopt healthy soils practices. Companies such as PepsiCo and Cargill are also collaborating to develop supply chain incentives for cover crop adoption for domestic farmers (e.g., per-acre incentive payments to Iowa Practical Farmers who plant cover crops). General Mills has also established a strong track record of collaborating with NGOs, offering grant money to advance regenerative agriculture practices and has worked with The Nature Conservancy to develop the Soil Health Roadmap, which outlines steps to achieve adoption of soil health systems on 50% of U.S. cropland by 2025.

Missouri Soil Health Programs

Currently in Missouri, the two largest funding initiatives for promoting soil health practices are through the Missouri Soil and Water Conservation Program (MSWCP) and through Missouri NRCS programs. The MSWCP is managed by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources and is funded by a state sales tax. In FY2019, tax revenue to MSWCP amounted to about $40 million. The landowners who receive cover crop payments are required to provide a soil health sample from their farm, which also provides a unique opportunity for the state to collect soil health data across the state. Missouri NRCS also offers a variety of incentive programs and technical assistance related to improving soil health. The funding from MSWCP goes to a variety of conservation practices, although the top funded practice is currently planting cover crops. Other practices funded include nutrient management, terraces, and livestock management. In FY 2019, payments amounted to several million dollars for cover crops.

Additionally, the University of Missouri-Soil Health Assessment Center provides testing of soil health samples from in- and out-of-state farms, while field research on soil health and water quality is done by a number of researchers in Missouri, including scientists with the USDA Agriculture Research Service, Cropping Systems Research Unit.13

Missouri is among the states that have had moderate adoption and growth rates on some of the main healthy soils practices, such as cover crops.14 Cover crops were used on 842,178 acres from over 6,000 Missouri farms in 2017, while no-till accounts for more than 4.6 million acres in the state according to the 2017 Agriculture Census. Other soil health practices are also getting used more widely in Missouri, such as more efficient nutrient management in crop fields and rotational grazing management with pastures. Overall, farmer efforts with soil health in Missouri are being supported by many different organizations, including state commodity groups, Missouri NRCS, university extension, and state agencies (DNR, MDA, and MDC).

Last, the dynamic nature of the soils justifies paying attention to the efficiency of the historical and current soil health policy landscape. For example, healthy soil practices have been promoted with NRCS's cost-sharing (a subsidy) land management practices that promote soil health. Many farmers have already seen the effects of healthy soils through their crop yields and land prices. Therefore, landowners may have additional reasons to invest in healthy soil,15 and providing subsidies over practices that would be implemented anyway may become “an inefficient use of public resources".2

References

  1. Bowman, M., Wallander, S., & Lynch, L. (2016) An economic perspective on soil health. ERS/Farm Foundation workshop, No. 1490-2016-128535.
  2. Stevens, A.W. 2019. Economic Theory Provides Insights for Soil Health Policy. Choices, 2. http://www.choicesmagazine.org/choices-magazine/theme-articles/soil-health-policy-in-the-united-states -and-abroad/economic-theory-provides-insights-for-soil-health-policy
  3. USDA, https://www.usda.gov/media/blog/2015/05/12/hedge-against-drought-why-healthy-soil-water-bank
  4. Claassen, R., M. Bowman, J. McFadden, D. Smith, and S. Wallander (2018) Tillage Intensity and Conservation Cropping in the United States. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service, Economic Information Bulletin, EIB-197.
  5. Weil, R., & Brady, N. (2016) The Nature and Properties of Soils (15TH ed.). Pearson
  6. Bowman, M., & Lynch, L. (2019) Government Programs that Support Farmer Adoption of Soil Health Practices. Choices, 34(2), 1-8.
  7. Williamson, O., & Masten, S. (1999) The economics of transaction costs. Edward Elgar Publishing.
  8. Palm-Forster, L. H., Swinton, S. M., Lupi, F., & Shupp, R. S. (2016) Too burdensome to bid: Transaction costs and pay-for-performance conservation. American Journal of Agricultural Economics, 98(5), 1314-1333.
  9. Myers, R.L., J.A. Weber, and S. Tellatin (2019) Cover Crop Economics. USDA-SARE Bulletin.
  10. Soil Health Institute, 2021. Economics of Soil Health, https://soilhealthinstitute.org/economics/
  11. Idowu, O. J., et. al, (2008). Farmer-oriented assessment of soil quality using field, laboratory, and VNIR spectroscopy methods. Plant and Soil, 307(1), 243-253.
  12. Lehmann, J., Bossio, D. A., Kögel-Knabner, I., & Rillig, M. C. (2020). The concept and future prospects of soil health. Nature Reviews Earth & Environment, 1(10), 544-553.
  13. Myers, R. Census of Agriculture analysis report, 2019, personal communication.
  14. Wallander, S., Smith, D., Bowman, M., & Claassen, R. (2021) Cover Crop Trends, Programs, and Practices in the United States. USDA ERS, Economic Information Bulletin No. (EIB-222).
  15. Miranowski, J.A., and B.D. Hammes (1984) Implicit Prices of Soil Characteristics for Farmland in Iowa. American Journal of Agricultural Economics 66(5): 745–749.
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