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Soil Health System ‘Links’ Improved Lifestyle with Profitability

By Ron Nichols, NRCS Public Affairs Officer

For Robbie Howard, one of the biggest benefits of soil health is measured in time. Because now he has more of it for his family and for his new found love – golf.

But it was only after he and his son Keith, 52, switched to no-till and cover crop practices on their northeast Louisiana farm that he began to realize both the production and lifestyle benefits of his soil health management system.

Under their conventional farming system it would take the Howards up to two weeks just to till their 2900 acres of farmland. “We don’t do that anymore,” says the 72-year-old Howard. “We plant, spray, harvest and then we plant the cover crop. And in the spring we spray the cover crop and plant our cash crop,” he says.

The resulting improvements in the health of Howard’s soil are also striking.

“We went from an average of half a percent of organic matter to an average of 2.8 percent and in some places I’m up to 3.7 percent,” he says. “In the south, that is huge.”

Another benefit of staying off the tractor is the reduction in fuel, equipment and labor costs. “We’ve reduced our equipment and labor by 30-35 percent. It’s a lot more economical. It’s a lot less work and I enjoy it.”

Howard says working less is something that takes some getting used to, however. “No-till farming is a lifestyle change. A lot of farmers feel guilty if they’re not out on their tractors doing something all the time,” he says.

It was Howard’s son who urged him to make his lifestyle change – to get off the tractor and “stop looking for ways to stay busy and spend money around the farm.”

“He said, ‘Dad, come play golf and enjoy yourself for a change.’ And I did.”

Howard’s soil health transition began in 1994, when he and Keith began looking at no-till to improve their profit margins, attending conservation tillage conferences to learn new farming methods. At one of the conferences the Howards met a farmer from Scotland Neck, North Carolina.

"And I don’t feel guilty about that. I still love farming, but I love it this way now."

-Robbie Howard

“He was doing wheat cover crops and we went and visited his farm,” Howard says. “We were very impressed with what we saw and came home and started that very process. From there we started going to no-till conferences in the Midwest. We went for five straight years to learn their methods and really get tuned in to no-till and adopted about 99 percent of their methods. In the process we started learning about cover crops and integrating them into our operation. And now we’re completely no-till and cover crops every year.”

However, the warm, southern climate offers some unique soil health management challenges that their northern farming counterparts do not face.

“We have a continuing pest problem and weed problem because the freeze doesn’t kill them,” Howard says. “Our situation is unique because we have those challenges. We’ve seen great benefits from our no-till and cover crops, but we still have some issues we’re trying to work through.”

Southern climate challenges notwithstanding, NRCS Water Quality Specialist Steve Nipper says the Howards’ soil health-improving efforts are paying off in terms of significantly improved soil function.

“We recently did some infiltration tests, pouring water into a small ring on the Howards’ land,” Nipper says. “Within seconds, that water went into his soil profile.”

But when they conducted the same test on another nearby farm with similar soil, the results were radically different. “Three hours after pouring the same of amount into the ring,” he says, “the water was still there.”

For farmers like the Howards, that improved water infiltration improves their bottom lines through consistent production, reduced costs for irrigation and reduced plant stress during growing season dry periods.

Through NRCS’ technical and financial assistance programs, the Howards began implementing no-till and cover crop practices years before any of their northeast Louisiana neighbors.

NRCS District Conservationist Eddie Foster describes Howard as “The soil health and cover crop guru of East Carol Parish.”

“We’re learning together,” NRCS’ Foster says, “but I’m learning more from him than he’s learning from me.”

“Every year we’re tweaking the system a little bit,” Howard says. “I’m very encouraged that we’re on the right track, but there’s so much to be learned with cover crops and even with no-till.”

But thanks to the extra time afforded by his soil health farming innovations, Howard can also learn how to perfect his golf swing while he enjoys the company of his grandchildren – who often accompany him on the links.

“And I don’t feel guilty about that,” Howard says with a smile. “I still love farming, but I love it this way now.”