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Fourth Annual Southern Soil Health Conference Encourages Producers to “Keep Your

By Rebecca Gresham, NRCS Planner

“Keep your armor up” was a statement heard repeatedly by over 160 attendees at the Fourth Annual Southern Soil Health Conference recently hosted by Green Cover Seed in Wichita Falls, Texas. The event was attended by over 160 farmers, ranchers and soil health enthusiasts from all over the United States, even as far away as Oregon and Washington.

“Your ground cover is your soil’s armor and keeping that cover is the most important thing,” said Nathan Haile during the opening session. Haile, a State Soil Health Specialist with the USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) in Texas, opened the conference with a simulated rainfall demonstration in the parking lot of the Wellington Convention Center.

Carbonomics

While a healthy economy for our nation is a concern for many, the important economy of our soil is rarely considered. Many in the agriculture industry would say that, like any other economy, all parts need to be working together in order to be successful. Many farmers, ranchers and soil scientists will point out that the fundamentals are the same for both economies, and when any part is taken away the whole system starts to weaken and can eventually fail. A balanced system of biology supply and demand in the soil drives soil health.

“Photosynthesis is the most important exchange in the world,” said Keith Berns, founder of Green Cover Seed with over 25 years of no-till experience and eight years of cover crops.

Berns related to the audience that the sun is the base of the economy and carbon is the currency. He explained how plants must have sunlight to photosynthesize and created carbon feeds the soil and the microbiology within it. Microbiology, such as mycorrhizal fungi, in return will scavenge nutrients in the soil for the plant. Plants also protect the soil from weather extremes and provide roots for water infiltration. In addition to nutrients, soil also provides water storage for the plants and microbiology. In order to capture as much sunlight as possible, soil should have a living cover as many days of the year as possible. Plant diversity is the key to accomplishing this.  

“When everything is in balance soil health benefits. When any part is missing it weakens the system,” Berns said.

 “When we externally provide the plant with everything from the outside, we remove the natural biology and weaken the soil’s economy,” he continued. “We need to allow the system to work the way it was created to work.”

Berns emphasized that implementing soil health practices doesn’t reduce profits, but instead reduces inputs and welfare. Adding outside inputs, such as nitrogen fertilizer, is not only costly, but inhibits the function of the mycorrhizal fungi.

“When you disk your field, you are declaring war on your soil,” said Berns. He went on to explain that disturbance and heat from plowing a field also hinders the mycorrhizal fungi in the soil, limiting the amount of nutrients that the roots can absorb and remove a piece of the economy. 

“A soil system without mycorrhizal fungi is like a farming system without roads, rail lines or ports. Huge potential, but severely limited,” said Berns. “The economy of soil needs to remain stable as much as possible to remain productive. Make the right investments and the return will be carbon in the bank.”

No-Till Seeding Equipment

Paul Jasa, Extension engineer for the University of Nebraska, spoke about the importance of the correct no-till equipment.

“Planting is the most critical step to getting a crop established,” Jasa stated. “If seed is not planted correctly, the germination and survival rate decrease greatly. The implement should be able to properly cut residue and meter seed to allow for correct seed to soil contact and depth, as well as placement of seed.”

“What are you trying to accomplish?” Jasa asked the audience. “Cover crops are planted for different reasons and serve many functions. Depending on the need, how cover crops are managed changes.” 

Jasa stressed that producers should minimize soil disturbance and leave residue to protect their soil. Always keep a cover and living root, plant the day after you harvest or before, Jasa explained, adding, “Good soil aggregates means good soil structure and good infiltration.”

“Last year’s rows have the most soil biology. Leave the residue standing, plant beside it,” said Jasa. “Living cover and living roots are worth a lot. Keep both in the field to feed the biology and improve the soil health.”

Managing for Wildlife

Brett Peshek, sales representative for Green Cover Seed, spoke on how to manage ecosystems to enhance wildlife.

Monocultures produce a lot of energy but only one species to capture the energy, causing a pinch point in the energy flow. “When you remove primary producers - the plants, the forbs, the grasses - for a certain about of time, the primary and secondary consumers get up and leave. Decomposers don’t have that opportunity so they starve out,” said Peshek.  

Limited diversity of primary producers results in a decline in diversity of all consumers he told the audience. Peshek said when this occurs, the consumers, such as wildlife, are no longer staying on the property. If there is not enough food sources to meet the demands for wildlife year round, they won’t be there. Management decisions such as tillage and weed and pest control remove food sources. In turn, Peshek said, there will be a reduced number of wildlife results and a decrease in biodiversity.

Peshek pointed out that one way to combat a decrease in living organisms within a monoculture ecosystem is to incorporate the edge effect. Providing strips of perennial cover of native plants and forbs in a tree line, fence line, or road can increase the amount of wildlife on your property. Areas with an edge effect have an increase of fawn and chick survival rate of 50 percent. Having a healthy ecosystem for wildlife allows a higher number of wildlife in a smaller area. However, it is critical to maintain high quality and quantity of forage and cover, provide sanctuaries, and incorporate a lot of edge.

Wheat Grazeout Alternatives

Jim Johnson, a Noble Research Institute consultant, shared his ideas on how to make graze out wheat more efficient.

“We want to mimic nature. We want to armor the soil,” said Johnson. “Don’t till the land, and don’t kill all the weeds.”

He suggested planting multispecies cover crop and interseeding so there is always an opportunity to capitalize. Adding diversity to a wheat crop can extend the grazing and growing season, as well as spread risk. Not only is there the option to plant warm or cool seasons to extend grazing and increase nutrients for livestock, but they also improve soil health. An increase in diversity of plants will benefit soil nutrient, fertility and structure. 

“Just like we want plant diversity, we want livestock diversity as well,” said Johnson. He pointed out that not all livestock eat the same thing, so what is growing in the field could be utilized better by something other than just cattle. 

“Think outside the box, use your opportunities,” said Johnson. “Plant at different times of the year than usual to help fill the forage gap. Also, be ready for good weather opportunities. If you get extra rainfall during any part of the year, have something in the ground to utilize it.”

Science Behind Soil Health

Willie Durham, NRCS soil health specialist for Texas and Oklahoma, gave a presentation on how management decisions determine soil health.-. He explained how the ecosystem process within the soil is the function of the soil and producers should consider how each practice implemented is going to build carbon and organic matter. Operation and management decisions enhance the carbon, nutrient and mineral cycle. Everything is created by the biology in the soil, so according to Durham, producers should manage for a good functioning soil.

“Our current agroecosystem’s fungal, bacteria ratio is at the successional level to grow weeds,” said Durham. “What grows best in the field correlates with where you are in the ecological succession. If there are a lot of weeds then the land is in an early stage of succession. In a bacteria dominated system, weeds will out compete later successional plants such as corn, cotton, sorghums and grasses.”

Durham explained that when soil is in a later successional stage, beneficial bacteria, protozoa and mycorrhizal fungi will be present. Mycorrhizal fungi can go out and reach the nutrients beyond the dead zone, making it important to have an adequate population in the soil.

“Start building a system that will fit the type of plants you want to have,” said Durham.

Herbicide Considerations

Producers know all too well that when planting cover crops, not only is it important to plant them at the right time, it is also crucial that you terminate them at the correct time as well. The Noble Research Institute’s James Locke shared his expertise about herbicides and termination of crops. 

Locke explained to producers that finding the right chemical to terminate your cover crop can be a challenge, especially if it is a highly diverse mix.

“Read the label, and if your crop isn’t listed then find a species that is close to it,” he shared. “Also, be mindful of the residue that will be left and the affect it might have on your cash crop. Planning ahead is critical to make sure any herbicides that you use doesn’t affect the productivity of the following crop, whether it be for grazing or grain harvest.”

Locke said to accurately analyze what carryover risks a specific herbicide will have on a crop and perform a bioassay in the field to get an estimate. This way, he stated, there won’t be any large scale consequences to the following crop.  

Ley it on the Line

Dale Strickler, with Green Cover Seed, shared information about an ancient management system that is being reconsidered for its benefits.

“Ley farming” has been used since biblical times, he said, but producers are now starting to use this method of crop and sod rotation again as part of their annual cash cropping rotation. This system involves three years of cropping followed by five years of grass. The most improvement in soil health occurs the first few years after putting it back into grass: after that the improvement is slower and more gradual. Strickler told the audience, “When you plant land back to sod, crop disease and nematodes disappear without a host.

“Profit from sod based rotation was four to 27 times more than conventional methods,” said Strickler. “Ground has been broken out for hundreds of years in order to grow crops. There is a mindset that cropland is more profitable and productive than rangeland. Yet, we have range on the worst soil, crops on the best.”

Perennial grass photosynthesizes anytime the temperature is above freezing, capturing the most energy from the sun. Strickler said producers can make more money off pasture because it’s a more efficient vehicle to capture sunlight and cheaper to manage without additional inputs. “Don’t look at how things are, look at how they could be, should be,” said Strickler. “You can make a dramatic improvement to your soil within a few years, without an economic downfall.”

Each day ended with a question and answer session with the speakers. All presentations were recorded by Green Cover Seed and are available for viewing on their Youtube channel

The Southern Soil Health Conference was presented by Green Cover Seed and the Noble Research Institute and was sponsored in part by No-Till on the Plains, Texas NRCS, Southern SARE, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Oklahoma Conservation Commission, the Oklahoma Association of Conservation Districts, and the Sand County Foundation.

Fourth Annual Southern Soil Health Conference Encourages Producers to “Keep Your Armor Up”, Rebecca Gresham, NRCS Planner,(2018, January)