Thirty-four years ago, a challenging harvest led Brian Hora, 57, to no-till farming. “It was an extremely wet fall. Heavy snow fell before we could get everything out. So, we had to finish up harvest in the spring,” explains the sixth-generation Iowa farmer. “We finished harvesting the crop one day and put the new crop in the next. There was no time for tillage.”
The Hora’s have no-till planted soybeans ever since. Over time, they moved 100 percent of their acres to no-till. To continue building their farm’s soil health, they added practices like cover crops and diverse crop rotations.
“Caring for the soil and other sustainable farm practices that allow our family to continue the legacy of farming, is important to us,” explains Mitchell, Brian’s 25-year-old son.
Today Mitchell guides the family’s efforts to build up soil health.
An agronomy and agriculture systems technology graduate of Iowa State University, Mitchell tests practices and products on the Hora’s farm. The goal is to enhance not only its soils’ health, but to build the soil health of farms across the U.S. and world.
“We are looking at more than management practices to get our soils where they need to be. We are also testing products,” explains the founder of Continuum Ag. Mitchell launched the agriculture consulting company as a college junior to support farmers’ soil health building efforts. “Together, products and practices help us drive soil health goals.”
Products like Agnition’s Procure for Corn. Developed to enhance the crop’s ability to capture energy from the sun by enhancing photosynthesis, Continuum Ag’s 2019 field trials show the product maximized yields through increased plant and soil health.
Hora’s corn responded with increased root mass and a 11.7 bushel-per-acre yield bump.
Like many natural processes, a plant’s ability to capture the sun’s energy through photosynthesis depends on soil health. The reason? “Ultimately, healthy soil microbes increase availability of all nutrients to the plant. Procure is a holistic approach to increasing plant health and maximizing yields,” explains Agnition microbiologist Rachel Raths. “Procure takes a biological system already in place and helps make that system work more efficiently for the plant.”
Applied in-furrow at planting or through foliar application later in the season, Procure for Corn utilizes patented Microbial Catalyst technology to deliver a unique, 100 percent available form of nutrients directly to the plant. These nutrients make photosynthesis more efficient by unlocking enzymes required for photosynthesis.
Between 20 percent and 80 percent of soil microbes are in a dormant state. Their dormancy is affected by many factors such as pH, moisture, crop rotation and tillage practices. Agnition’s patented Microbial Catalyst technology increases the populations’ diversity and activity of soil microbes.
“This product is not a microbial inoculum. Instead it is designed to promote an environment that stimulates a more natural and robust microbial/plant interaction with the soil’s native microbiome,” Mitchell explains.
Measuring the impact of practices and products on soil health is fundamental to success, says Mitchell. Utilizing the Haney Soil Health test, developed by U.S. Department of Agriculture soil scientists, Continuum Ag is able to quantify soil health.
“Providing much more data than standard soil sampling, this test allows us to put data behind what we see going on below the soil on our farm and our clients’ farms,” says Mitchell of quantifying soils’ available nutrients, microbial communities and ability to extract carbon from the atmosphere.
“Putting data behind the soil health gives us a metric to work from,” Mitchell says.
Based on what he and the Continuum Ag team of agronomists learn, they are able to prescribe practices or develop variable rate plans for products to enhance current soil health.
“Literature says building soil health takes multiple years. Using data, we can find the right combo of management practices and products to move the needle as quickly as possible,” Mitchell says.
Key to getting the entire system to work, Mitchell explains is, “getting microbes to function efficiently. We have turned the focus from trying to farm plants, to farming the microbes feeding our plants.”
Microbes release enzymes that make nutrients available to the plant. “Soils with healthy microbe communities, allow farmers to really dial back on synthetic fertilizer,” Mitchell says. Speaking from personal experience, as their soil health has improved, the Hora’s fertilizer usage has been reduced. “The soil and natural systems feed our crop better than we could ever hope to with synthetics.”
Focused on helping farmers build soil health quickly, Mitchell is careful to explain, as with any natural process, building soil health does not happen in one season. “We use the data to let us know when it is OK to dial back on fertilizer.”