No excuses, soil care will improve land, ag image and the bottom line

By Kathy Meidinger, USDA-NRCS
Soil Conservation Technician

  As evidenced by recent snowfall, winter weather is upon us. What better time to plan next year’s crops? It’s exciting to plan for next year’s crops, thinking of those crops growing, of budgets and the possibility of profit.  

Something we probably take for granted every day is just as exciting — the soil. 
The soil is the very first building block for life on earth.  Most of the food produced on earth comes from the soil in one way or another. It’s easy to forget that connection — food, life, and profit are all directly related to the soil.
When you understand your spouse, life is generally better, right? The same can be said for understanding the soil.
All soil has as its core an aquatic microbial population. This soil function remains the same across all land use — farmland, native range, forestland, or the African plain. In the same way, nature is more collaborative than competitive.  For instance, native rangeland hosts many species of plant per square yard, yet none of these plants suffer. All of them have different root zones, different growth periods, different light needs and different microbial populations. Healthy soil may contain a multitude of microbes, different plants, pore spaces and cover. Yet, with all its differences, it cycles nutrients very efficiently, utilizes fertilizer better and prevents growth of weeds.   
All soil is comprised of aquatic microbial populations, each entirely dependent on water. Remember eighth grade science class, which taught that the water cycle isn’t complete until the water enters the soil?  In healthy soil, water enters the soil and is stored in pore spaces. Tilled, disturbed and broken soil lacks pore spaces.  A lack of pore spaces essentially seals soil surface, preventing water from entering and creating run-off. Run-off takes all herbicide and fertilizer with it. 
Perfect farming and ranching mimics nature. Every successful farmer and rancher must become ecologically friendly in day-to-day activities to help nature. Nature heals itself with secondary succession, essentially the “healing cycle”:   annual weeds → perennial grasses → shrubs → young pine → mature oak.  Montana’s annual precipitation stops this “healing cycle” at the shrub stage.   
Picture a small Midwest town that has endured an F-3 tornado — destruction. Homes, buildings and lifestyles destroyed. Each tilling of the soil has that same effect on the microbial population living in it. The weapon of mass destruction for soil health — the disc.  Yep, the faithful old disc sitting on equipment row causes mass destruction with every use.  Disturb the soil and oxygen enters; pore spaces are destroyed and the microbial population is decimated.  
Nature responds to this mass destruction by initiating its “healing cycle.” Annual weeds grow, followed by perennial grasses, shrubs and so on through the cycle. Traditional farming methods halt that cycle in the ‘annual weeds’ category.  Consider the dollars spent spraying and/or tilling weeds every year, effectively barring nature from ever reaching its next phase — perennial grasses. 
The three elements factored in when considering the amount of fertilizer to apply:  Nitrogen, Potassium and Phosphorus (N, P and K).  Surprisingly, only 30 percent of applied fertilizer is directly used by the plant – the remaining 70 percent is used by the microbial population.  Chemical fertilizer won’t feed a plant; it feeds the microbes that fix nitrogen.  Therefore, if soil isn’t healthy N, P and K won’t matter.  
Farmers and ranchers are in this together. Soil functions the same on grasslands as it does on farmlands – it’s dependent on a multitude of species, healthy cover and sufficient pore spaces. The primary reason that grassland soil ceases to function is overgrazing. When overgrazed, plant diversity plummets; soil compaction (therefore no pore spaces) increases, canopy decreases and water runs off. A rancher must manage not only his traditional herd but also the soil-bound micro-herd.  
Ask our friendly neighborhood farmer the top problems with each crop. A good guess would be water, weeds and disease. How much do you spend every year combating these? 
Wikipedia tells us that the world population is now over 7 billion and is expected to reach 8 billion by 2025. That’s a billion more mouths to feed in just 14 years. The farmers and ranchers in America are the number one provider of food for the world’s population. How will we increase your output to feed those extra mouths? 
The number one goal of all anti-agriculture campaign groups, such as PETA and Western Watersheds, is to eliminate the traditional farmer and rancher from the landscape.  Ranchers and farmers face an interminable perception problem. If given the opportunity to defend yourself against the assaults of the anti-agriculture campaigns, how will you illustrate that you’re putting forth your absolute best effort?  How will you change their perception?
A list of excuses why the “healing cycle” is bunk and soil health cannot be increased includes: It’s too dry here; it’s too cold here; the growing season isn’t long enough; not enough rain; and the ever popular, “It’s always been done this way.”  
The first thing to do is to think outside the box. We need to ask ourselves what can be done to make ourselves more profitable and sustainable producers.  There’s one easy answer — improve our soil health! 
Bottom line, the soil must be fixed. Several tools used to accomplish healthy soil, some already in wide-spread practice, include no-till, strip-till, cover crops, crop rotation, rotational grazing, mob grazing, and sufficient recovery time.  
But, no-till won’t work here, right?  Wrong.  By limiting the tillage, that mini-tornado is averted and pore spaces begin to rebuild, which leads to water storage and infiltration.  
Cover crops increase diversity, protect the soil, break the hard pan and keep the soil temperature down.  All microbial activity stops at 113 degrees F; bare soil can reach temperatures of 135  to 140  degrees.  
Crop rotation easily increases diversity.  When changing crops, a rotational effect will be seen in the subsequent crop, and effect not limited to legumes. It will happen with all crops.  A best practice is to avoid single crop-fallow rotation. Of all options, this is the worst for soil health. 
Season-independent, rotational grazing increases soil health for a number of reasons:  increasing diversity, keeping cover on the ground, and allowing species to recover.
Mob grazing, another grazing-related tool, increases the number of animals on the land to a very high number for a short period of time; all plants are grazed evenly.  Furthermore, manure, urine, milk, and saliva (all of nature’s fertilizers) are spread evenly across the land.  
Far and away, the most important grazing-related tool is sufficient recovery time.  Large buffalo herds would heavily graze one area and move on.  The same area wasn’t grazed again until the next year  — the land had a full year to recover.   
To improve soil health, remember these things:  
The best thing for soil is a living plant 24/7 
Soil functions BEST with diversity, cover and no disturbance
Improved soil health, using the tools at our disposal, not only helps the land but also the bottom line, sustainability and image. Come to our office, ask us questions. We may not be experts, but we are more than willing to share what we know.  It’s something to get excited about — there are examples of success stories using the above mentioned tools right here in Prairie County!  Together, we can help nature and ourselves.

Published Jan. 4, 2012

Article Type: 
Guest Opinion


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