Idaho NRCS sees need for soil program in depleted fields

Nate Matlack, district conservationist with the Pocatello office of the Natural Resources Conservation Service, believes his agency's new Soil Health Initiative has been especially popular in southern and eastern Idaho because of depletion to soils by raising potatoes and sugar beets.

POCATELLO, Idaho — As a Natural Resources Conservation Service district conservationist in potato and sugar beet country, Nate Matlack deals with some of the nation’s most depleted soils.

That’s one of the reasons why Matlack believes his agency’s new Soil Health Initiative has been so popular in Idaho.

The deadline for Idaho growers to apply for Fiscal Year 2014 funding through the Soil Health Initiative is Dec. 20. Idaho offered its first signup for the initiative, operated under the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, last March.

The state initially committed $900,000 toward the initiative in FY 2013. Ultimately, 23 Idaho contracts totaling $1.374 million were awarded.

“We had so many applications we wanted to add a little extra funds to it,” said Ron Brooks, EQIP program manager.

Matlack said growers with crops such as sugar beets and potatoes subject their soils to a high degree of disturbance, which is exacerbated by the sandy soils common in his region of southeast Idaho. Fumigants and pesticides used on the crops also reduce beneficial microorganisms in the soil.

Matlack said the initiative is useful in that it provides a special opportunity for growers to receive EQIP funding for projects intended to benefit soil health, which typically weren’t competitive with irrigation projects and other improvements that scored better in the general EQIP signup. Unlike EQIP, in which applications compete against others in their region of the state, the soil health initiative scores projects on a statewide basis.

Applications question growers specifically about soil health. For example, they must describe their crop rotations and tillage history so the agency’s tillage estimator tool can analyze how many tons of soil may be saved from erosion or blowing by changing practices.

Matlack said the most popular program practice has been using cover crops – crops planted specifically for soil benefits such as erosion control, addition of organic matter or fixing of nitrogen.

State Agronomist Marlon Winger said the initiative highlights four core principles: keep soil covered, minimize soil disturbance, keep plants growing throughout the year to feed soil organisms and diversify through crop rotation and cover crops.

Winger said a challenge for potato and sugar beet growers is that they tend to harvest late in the season and there’s “no cover crop to plant on Oct. 5.”

He said other erosion practices may be worth pursuing in southeast Idaho, such as planting 10-foot-wide grass strips every 150 feet throughout fields to stop blowing sediment. Winger said NRCS hosted 22 workshops throughout the state, reaching 1,200 producers, last season to educate them on soil health in conjunction with the intiative. This season, he’s spoken at a soils conservation meeting and will travel to several counties to speak about soil health throughout January and February.

Brooks said the initiative’s contracts last 2-3 years, and he hopes to obtain at least $900,000 toward the program for FY 2014.

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