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NRCS Works to Promote Soil Health Among Maryland Landowners

By Cara Newcomer

The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) is working to bring awareness to the benefits of healthy soil to farmers and landowners across the country. In Maryland, NRCS is working directly with landowners and partners to explore the different ways farmers can build healthier soil on their land.

Lewis Smith, a fourth-generation farmer from Easton, Maryland, is exploring the benefits of healthy soil through a five-year cover-crop study on his 340-acre Beaver Dam Farm. “I introduced wheat, crimson clover and hairy vetch to use as cover crop for planting in the spring,” Smith explained. Cover crop is identified as an un-harvested crop grown in rotation with the planned goal of providing conservation benefits to the soil.

Smith’s trial consists of three segments of corn growth, with one area having no cover crop, the second portion having a single cover crop, and the third section having a three-way cover crop mix. This year, with the varying weather conditions, the benefits of cover crops were visually evident in Smith’s study. “You can see a significant difference in the height and color of the corn where there is no cover crop verses where cover crop was used,” Jack King, an NRCS District Conservationist, observed. Smith identified that the plot with a three-way cover-crop mix was much healthier than the others.

Lewis Smith, a fourth-generation farmer from Easton, Maryland, is exploring the benefits of healthy soil through a five-year cover-crop study on his 340-acre Beaver Dam Farm.Maryland NRCS assists with determining the best seed mix for the operation and can provide financial assistance to farmers utilizing this soil health practice. King shared that with cover-crop practices, farmers have the opportunity to increase soil organic matter, which has a lot of benefits. “The soil holds more water, holds more nutrients, and makes the nutrients more stable throughout the year,” King said.

Another major soil health practice is implementing no-till farming, which Smith has applied to his own farm. No-till farming is identified as a way of growing crops without disturbing the soil through tillage. Smith noted how soil health has advanced over the years saying, “One of the biggest events in my lifetime was implementation of no-till farming.”

No-till is a soil health practice that brings many benefits not only to the land, but also landowners farming the land. Smith emphasizes the need to create healthier soils in Maryland saying, “Mission number one is to prevent soil erosion, because it is important to protect our waterways.” Smith shared that the benefits of implementing soil health projects significantly outweigh the costs.

No-till allows the soil microbiology to remain undisturbed; these beneficial soil microbes are essential for growing food, fiber and fuel. No-till also reduces the likelihood of soil runoff, keeping nutrients on the farm and improving water quality. No-till is an economically-sound choice; it saves the time of producers, money on fuel and wear on equipment.

In Maryland, NRCS is working directly with landowners and partners to explore the different ways farmers can build healthier soil on their landKing shared that it can take a long time to see the practices make a difference and encourages farmers to be patient with their efforts. “To identify healthy soil, we look for earth warms and the cavities they leave in the soil,” King said. “That gives evidence of water infiltration, air movement through the soil and easier root penetration.”

NRCS is celebrating “No-Till November” this year to encourage farmers to “keep the stubble” on their harvested crop fields and improve soil health. For more information about soil health conservation practices like no-till and cover crop, visit www.md.nrcs.usda.gov for more or your local USDA NRCS Service Center.