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Less Means More for Improving Soil Health
Less tillage proves invaluable for one conservationist


Russ & Kathy Zenner.Idaho farmer and conservation enthusiast Russ Zenner personifies the word exemplary when it involves non-traditional tillage methods. "My goal is to eliminate tillage in this region. That's what I want to do,"said Zenner. The regions he references is the Palouse of northwestern Idaho. The Palouse's fertile soils make it attractive for farming, but its hilly, steep slopes make them susceptible to soil erosion. Zenner is adamant about reducing soil erosion through no-till farming. This passion extends beyond his farm, the state of Idaho and the United States; his passion has peaked interest internationally. His commitment to no-till has afforded him the opportunity to travel to Finland and Australia --promoting the importance and benefits of minimum tillage methods.

Zenner and his wife Kathy grow diverse crops on their 3,330-acre operation. Crops include winter and spring wheat, spring barley, garbanzos, lentils, peas, oilseeds and grass seed. Since the early 1970s, Zenner has been on a systematic path towards less tillage and higher residue systems to preserve soil resources. His increased knowledge of soil conservation issues stems from his 12-year stint on the local soil conservation board. "I was convinced we had to reduce soil erosion." Zenner also said that by using no-till, he produced the same yields without spending as much time in the field, and reduced wear and tear on his equipment-- ultimately resulting in increased profits.

Zenner is no stranger to the Natural Resources Conservation Service. Throughout his farming career, he has utilized various conservation cost share programs such as the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) to help attain an exceptional level of resource management on his operation. He has installed a variety of erosion and water control practices such as grass waterways, sediment basins and gully plugs. He follows a nutrient management plan so that his fields receive the proper applications of commercial fertilizer without adversely affecting the water quality. His high regard for conservation ranked him at the highest level of participation for the Conservation Security Program (CSP).

Zenner is more than willing to share information with just about anyone. He visited South Australia to speak at a no-till conference for more than 1,000 attendees. He also spoke to agriculture leaders in Finland when they were at the beginning stage of no-till. Zenner said that it was fun and exciting to be a part of their pilot efforts.

Russ & Kathy Zenner.Zenner actively participates in the larger agricultural community. Organizations that have benefited from his leadership include the USA Dry Pea and Lentil Council Research Committee, the Pacific Northwest Direct Seed Association and the Clearwater Direct Seeders, among others. Zenner received the 1995 Latah County Conservation Farmer of the Year award, and a Merit Award from the Inland Empire Chapter of the Soil and Water Conservation Society in 1990.

As he shifts into even less tillage and more direct seeding, Zenner's primary reasons for doing this and encouraging others are the same as when he started over two decades ago soil conservation and production efficiency. "We need to continue to address the environmental issue of water quality in terms of sedimentation.W Zenner now sees direct seeding as a key to the survival of his and other farms in the region.

"My view is the more residue we leave in the field, the faster we will improve soil quality. We need to find the fine line between leaving as much residue as we can and not creating too much of a problem for direct-seeding the following crop."

For Zenner, the environmental benefits are clear. "I'm talking about water quality, sedimentation, nutrient management, and those types of issues. Any time soil leaves our farms, any herbicides or fertilizers we applied go with its in the long run, I don't think we will have much choice, we will have to make this work."

Written by Dastina Johnson with excerpts from the "Pacific Northwest Extension Publications"/i>