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Take it from Them, Soil Health Matters

A dynamic panel of farmers and technical experts made their case on the value of protecting and improving the health of the soil during a late evening session at Ag Week 2016. 

Ohio farmer Dave Brandt honed in on the personal experiences and transitions that he’s had over the years. In the early 1970s, he began no-tilling his corn, wheat and soybeans. Then in 1978, he added hairy vetch and winter peas as cover crops to his no-till system to get more nitrogen.

He touted just some of his benefits. His soil organic matter (SOM) has increased from .5 percent in 1971 to 8 percent SOM in 2015. In the past two years, he hasn’t applied pesticides on his bean fields and he no longer worries about problem insect species. He has significantly reduced his fertilizer cost and has increased yields. Brandt called on all farmers to recognize their role as “livestock” farmers. Microorganisms are the livestock in the soil and we need to feed them too.

Ryan Shanks of Buckeye Soil Solutions highlighted their uniquely-designed, high-clearance air seeders that allow farmers the ability to plant cover crops into their high standing crops. This seeder allows for early establishment of cover crop for better nutrient uptake and improved soil function.  Jennifer Nelson, technical consultant to the Sussex Conservation District (SCD), spoke about the air seeder that SCD purchased from Buckeye Soil Solutions. Working with Sussex farmers, SCD air seeded 4,020 acres of various cover crop mixes into corn, soybeans, sorghum and vegetables. When surveyed, 16 out of 17 participants said that they would use the air seeder again.

Dr. Moebius-Clune, NRCS Soil Health Division Director, brought up some of the overarching issues that are impacted (directly and indirectly) by the health of the soil. There’s the stark reality: a growing population base coupled with the loss of farmland. Then there are water quality and quantity challenges—do we have enough water? Then she spoke of the science behind the soil: one reason why it can be so resilient if managed correctly is because of the pores, or open spaces. Just like humans cannot live in a house full of bricks, neither can soil organisms thrive in compacted soils. Pore spaces in soil can store water, which is great for drought times and they also increase water infiltration, which can reduce runoff during extremely wet times.

Dr. Moebius-Clune says we have a win-win opportunity to feed ourselves, improve profits and improve the environment by building healthy soils. The best way to achieve healthy soils is following four basic principles: do not disturb the soil; mix it up through crop diversity; keep the soil covered; and keep living roots all year long. Ultimately, Dr. Moebius-Clune says in return for healthy soils, our nation gets vested benefits such as less runoff, erosion and flooding; water storage and availability; pest suppression and much more—all of which leads to sustained reliable productivity.

For more on NRCS Soil Health Management Systems, click here. For more on the air seeder, visit www.sussexconservation.org.