USDA promotes soil health
More farmers uncover advantage in nationwide education effort
By SEAN ELLIS
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has begun a national effort to show growers how they can improve the health of their soil by changing some of their farming practices.
The USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service will highlight the experiences of farmers across the country who have already seen the results of improved soil health and are leaders in the so-called soil health movement.
NRCS Chief Dave White told the Capital Press that the four main pillars of soil health are:
* Keeping soil covered as much as possible.
* Disturbing the soil as little as possible.
* Keeping plants growing year-round to feed the soil.
* Using cover crops and crop rotation as much as possible.
"The farmers who are doing this are getting some pretty amazing results," said soil ecologist Doug Weatherbee, a microbiologist who works with farmers in the United States, Canada and Mexico.
Farmers who are doing those things have "increased production, are maximizing their inputs and benefiting the environment," White said. "It's really changing the soil."
He said the movement is being driven by scientific advances that have provided microbiologists a better understanding of what happens on a microbial level in the soil.
One of the farmers that will be highlighted by NRCS is George McClelland, owner of Hamanishi Farms, which grows onions, mint, alfalfa and beans on 1,000 acres near Fruitland in southwest Idaho.
McClelland said the movement isn't about extreme environmentalism or going organic. Ninety percent of his farm is dedicated to conventional crops and 10 percent to organic.
But he has found that many of the same practices he uses in organic farming, including no or minimal tilling, composting and the use of multiple cover crops, work great on his conventional fields as well.
McClelland said soil tests this year showed organic matter in his fields was about 1 percent higher than they historically have been.
"We attribute that to farming practices such as crop rotation, less tilling, composting and using cover crops," farm manager Jon Fabricius said.
McClelland said those practices have saved him money, because he has reduced his inputs.
"We're buying significantly less nitrogen, sulfur, trace minerals and very little phosphorus and potassium," he said. "It's money in the bank."
Simply put, soil health is the capacity of soil to function, to infiltrate water and cycle nutrients to support the growth of plants.
The practices that are the backbone of the soil health movement help build the number of microbes in the soil and improve overall organic matter, Weatherbee said.
"The most efficient way of increasing organic matter in the soil is through the use of cover crops," McClelland said. "You have to have something growing on the fields to keep it all working. When you leave a field bare for an extended period of time, that biology stops."
Achieving good soil health, advocates say, is mostly a matter of maintaining suitable habitat for the large number of macroscopic and microscopic workers that comprise the soil food web. This includes disturbing the soil as little as possible, growing as many different species of plants as practical, keeping living plants in the soil as often as possible and keeping the soil covered.
Keeping living plants in the soil is important because soil organisms feed on the sugars that plants release into the soil through their roots, Weatherbee said, and a diversity of plants is necessary to support the wide assortment of microorganisms that live in the soil.
"If you don't have plants in the field, that means the microbes are not getting the food source they need that plants provide," he said.
Tilling or disturbing the soil harms the habitat the organisms that form the complex soil food web need to function, said Marlon Winger, the NRCS' state agronomist in Idaho.
"We're not loosening up the soil. We're destroying the habitat of our microorganisms," he said. "Mother Nature is not trying to till the soil. She's trying to get all these little soil aggregates together."
Even reducing tillage is helpful, he said, and can result in big savings.
"When you can reduce your major tillage operations -- man, that's some big dollar savings and anybody can put a calculator to that," he said.
Winger said farmers who are using these soil health practices are not experiencing reduced production.
"No, we think that through improved soil health, you're increasing that," he said. "If you take care of those soil microbes under there, they'll take care of you.
The Oct. 11 event that kicked off the national effort was held on a 1,250-acre Ohio farm that grows corn, wheat and soybeans. The owner, David Brandt, said he turned to no-till and cover crops in 1978 and the results have been significant.
These practices have helped him reduce the amount of nutrients and fertilizer he has to purchase, and while he averages 2.5 gallons of fuel per acre, his neighbors are using about 25 gallons.
He averages about 120 bushels per acre for dryland corn while other farmers in Fairfield County are getting 40 to 50 bushels.
If the education effort is successful, "it can have a real big impact around the country on improving soil health," Brandt said.
Weatherbee said recent scientific breakthroughs have provided the credence behind the soil health movement.
He said microbiologists can now measure, at an extremely high volume of sequencing, the profiles of thousands of different species of bacteria in soil. This has allowed them to better understand how microbes interact together and do things like suppress diseases.
This better understanding of the soil food web promises even better breakthroughs in the near future, he said.
"We're on the cusp of something pretty amazing," Weatherbee said. "It's a big paradigm shift and it's very exciting."
White said what's still lacking is hard data that shows specifically how much farmers can save by adopting these practices and one of the goals of the national effort is to work with other state and federal agencies and major farm groups to begin compiling that information and getting it to producers.
"We need some hard-nosed economists to gather data, crunch the numbers and have their work peer-reviewed," he said. "I think that will help a lot."
More than 20 farm groups and organizations, including the National Association of Wheat Growers and U.S. Cattlemen's Association, sent a letter to the NRCS in support of the program.
"We stand ready to work with NRCS to help identify the costs and benefits of the various practices in order to assist producers when making decisions about whether to adopt them as conservation practices," the letter stated.
NRCS' soil health awareness effort will include fact sheets, brochures, videos, Internet, radio and social media announcements and local field days. For more information online, visit the agency's Unlock the Secrets in the Soil site at www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/main/national/soils/health