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Farmers and Ranchers Dig In at Soil Health Forums

story by Dee Ann  Littlefield

Over 75 producers and conservationists came to Vernon to learn about soil health.Over 300 farmers and ranchers from across the state of Texas attended Cover Crops and Soil Health Forums hosted on Feb. 18 at 10 locations statewide by the USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and Cooperative Extension offices.

Each forum featured a live-streamed video broadcast of the opening sessions of the National Conference on Cover Crops and Soil Health in Omaha, Neb. Following the broadcast, there was a panel discussion with fellow forum participants how cover cropping can build soil health, improve yields, curb erosion, manage pests, and build resilience into your farming system.

Wilbarger County DC Reggie Quiett moderated the Soil Health Forum held in Vernon.The national broadcast featured Howard G. Buffett from the Howard G. Buffett Foundation, USDA Deputy Secretary Krysta Harden, and Ray Gaesser, American Soybean Association president. There was also a panel discussion among expert producer conservationists Dave Brandt (Ohio), Gabe Brown (North Dakota), Dan DeSutter (Indiana) and Clay Mitchell (Iowa).

The forums were open to anyone interested in learning about and discussing the prospects for cover crops and soil health improvements on American farms and ranches.

The panelists shared how the practices provided environmental, economic, health, and societal benefits. They pointed out the practices save energy by using less fuel for tillage, and maximize nutrient cycling. Another bonus noted was the soil’s ability to reduce disease and pest problems, as well as improve plant health. Overall, soil health practices improve the income sustainability on their farms and ranches.

Producers Rusty Riddle, William Lalk, Delby Darr, Terry McAlister talk about soil health.“The one piece of advice I would give is that there is no recipe card. You can’t follow a recipe, so you have to be willing to experiment, and you can’t be afraid to fail. Make your failures small,” Gabe Brown advised. “I can’t tell producers what they should or shouldn’t do on their own operation. Only they can decide that. But you have to be willing to experiment and try in order to see what is going to be successful on your operation.”

Following the live broadcast, attendees at the local forums in portions of Texas had the opportunity to listen to a panel of producers that have implemented conservation practices that improve soil health. The local producers talked about how their land management techniques also save water and increases drought tolerance by increasing infiltration and water holding capacity as soil organic matter increases.

NRCS employees James Bilbrey and Chance Walker visited about the science behind soil health.“Organic matter is not the $20 bill in your pocket,” Chance Walker, NRCS technology specialist in Weatherford, explained to the crowd of 75 producers attending the forum in Vernon. “Organic matter is your savings account; it’s what you are going to rely on when you need it most.”

Forum attendees could also contribute ideas and comments on cover crops and soil health back to the leadership group at the national conference. These comments were collected by staff at the local sites as part of the local discussion process.

This forum was being jointly funded by the USDA-NIFA Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program and the Howard G. Buffett Foundation. A diverse committee of cover crop and soil health experts planned the program, including representatives of USDA-NRCS staff and the Midwest Cover Crops Council. Logistics for the conference were handled by the Soil and Water Conservation Society.