Healthy farm ecosystem establishes foundation for successful crop production.

Utilizing nutritional cultural practices can effectively manage a farm’s ecosystem and provide the necessary soil balance for successful crop development, southeast Iowa farmer Michael Vittetoe said during the National Cover Crop Summit last month. 

Vittetoe farms 1,400 acres of corn, soybeans and cereal rye on his family’s multi-generational farm near Washington, which has employed no-till practices for roughly 30 years.

Vittetoe said everything from cover crop implementation to calcium, magnesium, boron, silica and sulfur management help maintain a healthy soil balance for exceptional crop growth.

“I believe in a future where production agriculture operates in sync with nature to create a healthy ecosystem, healthy livestock, healthy food and healthy humans,” Vittetoe said. “Soil balance is kind of the foundation of the whole program.

“The goal of this is to achieve the proper ratio of minerals, humus and pore space in the soil such that microbial life can thrive and function properly. Just because we have soil out there doesn’t mean that we’re going to have these proper ratios.”

Efforts should be geared toward unlocking nutrition tied up in soils to feed the crops, Vittetoe said. The proper ratio of air, water and soil is critical — 50% soil minerals and humus, 25% air and 25% water.

“If we can achieve this ratio, that is the condition that our soil biology is going to not only survive but thrive,” Vittetoe said.

How to get there

Cultural practices used to benefit the soil can include no-till or strip till, seeding cover crops, limiting chemical use, choosing to farm completely organically or balancing soil nutrients.

For example, Vittetoe said making sure calcium and magnesium levels are optimal will benefit crop growth and maintain soil balance.

“Calcium is the trucker of all minerals,” Vittetoe said. “It makes phosphorous and other micronutrients more available in the soil. That’s a big deal. It facilitates the uptake of the majority of the other nutrients that we’re trying to get into our plants.”

Nitrogen loss tends to lead to calcium loss and excess magnesium, which leads to reduced nitrogen efficiency.

“While calcium is the trucker of all minerals, it doesn’t act alone,” Vittetoe said. Boron is the steering wheel, silica is the road, calcium is driving on and sulfur is the key switch, initiating protein production processes, he said.

“Those are four really key nutrients that I don’t think are talked about enough, and they’re all very important in creating a healthy soil and a healthy crop,” Vittetoe said. “We really need to be paying attention to how much calcium and how much magnesium we have out there and then choose our soil amendments accordingly.”

Cover crops

Vittetoe said one of the important cultural practices he employs and has seen success with is cover crops. 

Rye is drill-seeded in November and terminated in the spring. His corn program includes applying liquid swine manure in the fall and adding humic acid to the manure pit as a nitrogen stabilizer.

The cover crops help with soil health while stifling weeds in the spring.

“It helps to suppress weeds by taking up that nitrogen (that triggers weeds) to germinate when there’s excess nitrate,” Vittetoe said. “(Cover crops) eliminate free nitrogen in the soil.

“Cultural practices set you up for how many weeds germinate. There are triggers that either send weed seeds into deep dormancy or bring weed seeds out of deep dormancy in large numbers. A little bit of actively growing plants goes a long way as far as keeping things from germinating out there.”

Vittetoe’s region in southeast Iowa also has seen minor gray leaf spot and tar spot the past few years. While dry weather has helped keep the diseases from becoming more prevalent, certain cultural practices have been deemed beneficial as well.

“I feel like another part of why we’re not seeing the leaf disease that we used to see is … some of the nutritional things we’re doing in the program to make sure that we have enough calcium and boron to increase the cell wall thickness to prevent pathogens from getting inside the plant,” Vittetoe said.