Rye cover crop planted in corn field

How Soybean Growers Can Measure Soil Health Progress

August 8, 2023

The concept of regenerative agriculture is not an altogether new idea for soybean producers in South Dakota. Fact is, you probably have many regenerative practices already in place on your operation. And even if you don’t, you’re likely familiar with many of the principles that drive regenerative agriculture.

But organizations like the South Dakota Soil Health Coalition are seeking to support producers in their journey to embrace regenerative practices and reap the benefits of improved soil health.

“Our goal is to improve soil health in South Dakota, and we work on that through education and research,” says Cindy Zenk, who serves as the coordinator for the South Dakota Soil Health Coalition and farms near Webster in Day County. A 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, the Coalition formed in 2015 to advance soil health objectives across the state and conduct valuable research to guide on-farm practices.

The five principles of soil health

Zenk will tell you that at the heart of the regenerative agriculture movement are the five principles of soil health, which can be summarized as follows:

  • maintaining soil cover by keeping crop residue on the surface;

  • limiting disturbance through minimal tillage practices;

  • preserving living roots in the soil;

  • adding diversity to crop rotations; and

  • incorporating livestock into fields

Adhering to these five principles can significantly impact the health of your soil over time, potentially improving overall yield while reducing reliance on certain inputs. Those efforts also contribute to long-term objectives related to legacy and ensuring productive land for generations to come.

“We have to figure out the best way to make the operation a lasting legacy for our children and grandchildren,” says Zenk. “If we're not building [soil], we are losing it. We want to keep that soil as healthy as possible for future generations, too.”

Winter rye cover crop planted between corn stalks.

Measuring the impact of soil management practices

The South Dakota Soil Health Coalition offers a wide range of soil management resources to support producers in that journey, including downloadable guides and handbooks, in-person workshops, farm tours, a mentoring initiative and its companion Growing Connections app — and even a grazing exchange program for row crop farmers wanting to integrate livestock into their soil management efforts.

One of the main areas of focus for the Coalition is providing growers with the tools they need to quantify soil health improvements over time.

To that end, the South Dakota Soil Health Coalition developed a Soil Health Assessment Score Card — also available as a mobile application available in the Apple and Android app stores — that allows producers to evaluate conditions for a particular field and identify opportunities to improve soil health.

[app screen grab/mock-up]

Zenk encourages producers to use the scorecard to measure progress on their own fields, noting that universal benchmarks may not always be helpful. “Each operation will be different — every acre is different,” she explains. “The principles are the same, but how we do them may differ because of where we are, the amount of rain that we get, the kind of soil that we have and so on.”

Measuring and tracking progress can go a long way toward reinforcing the value of soil health practices, according to Zenk.

Get access to soil health resources

There are many different ways for soybean producers to get involved in the South Dakota Soil Health Coalition. For more information on measuring soil health progress or to access the Coalition’s wide range of soil management resources, please visit the South Dakota Soil Health Coalition website or call (605) 280-4190.