Who says soil science can’t be fun?

That appears to be at least part of the thinking behind an exercise the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service organized earlier this year. In the “Soil Your Undies” Challenge, six Eastern Oregon farmers and ranchers “planted” in their fields cotton underwear, which they left in place about four months.

When they dug up the underwear, not much remained. In fact, nearly everything was gone except the elastic bands.

That’s exactly what they wanted to see.

The point of the challenge was simple, if not highly entertaining. The reason the cotton deteriorated into almost nothing was that tiny microbes had dined on it. The more active microbes there were, the less cotton remained.

Massive numbers of microbes live in healthy soil — billions of them per teaspoon. They thrive on carbon — which can be found in organic matter such as cotton underwear. If adequate amounts of organic matter are not available, the microbes go dormant. In no-till soil, microbes tend to be more active than when the soil is tilled.

Because microbial activity is an indicator of healthy soil, the challenge highlighted the fact that the microbes are doing their jobs.

Though it certainly won’t replace soil tests as a way to monitor soil health, the challenge opens the door to an in-depth discussion about how farmers and ranchers can put microbes to work for them. Now that Joe McElligott and Corey Miller of Morrow County and Woody Wolfe, Joe Dawson, Alan Klages and Mark Butterfield of Wallowa County have taken the challenge, NRCS Oregon soil scientist Corey Owens hopes other farmers around the state will plant their underwear, too.

“... It’s a fun way to start thinking about what’s going on in the soil,” Owens said.

He is “challenging” farmers and ranchers to plant their own underwear for at least 60 days, taking “before” and “after” photos. The photos and information about the farm and growing practices should then be sent via email to orinfo@nrcs.usda.gov or taken in person to any NRCS office.

But participants should be aware of a stumbling block one of the previous participants encountered. When he went back to retrieve the underwear, Butterfield couldn’t find where he had planted it. The reason: one of his cows had made off with the marker.

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