Check for earthworms: They can tell the health of a soil

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Soil test
A group of volunteers helped perform a soil test at Soil Health Day. The first cylinder contained soil that had been in a no-till field for 45 years. The middle was conventional tillage and the right cylinder contained soil from a pasture. The test proved that by continuing conventional tillage, the dirt falls apart and the soil dissolves.

SALEM, Ohio — The soil in a farmer’s fields isn’t going to get better by itself.

That’s the lesson from Soil Health Day held June 16 in Carroll County. The Eastern Ohio Grazing Council and the Crop Production Partnership joined forces to offer the event.

Gibbs1Frank Gibbs, a soil scientist and Natural Resources Conservation Service retiree, spoke at the event. He recently formed Wetland and Soil Consulting Services after retiring from 36 years with NRCS in Ohio. He is a fifth generation farmer on his family farm near Rawson, Ohio, in western Ohio.

He made it clear that the soil found in farm fields is not going to improve unless farmers take steps to stop the loss of topsoil and bring earthworms back to the ground.

Gibbs has first-hand knowledge of what a steady corn and soybean rotation is doing to fields, adding that fewer farmers are growing wheat in their crop rotations.

Yet, he feels there is clear evidence that farmers need to incorporate wheat and cover crops such as rye cereal grain or oilseed radishes into their rotation in order to develop good soil.

Tillage tools

Gibbs said farmers may have turned to no-till farming, but some are still using accelerators or other tillage tools. He has found that accelerators often seal off the ground, which means that when fields get heavy rains, the water runs right off of them.

He said that the soil is getting tighter and less porous than ever before due to compaction issues and the overuse of tillage tools. And, in his opinion, parts of western Ohio are “set to blow more phosphorus out into Lake Erie than ever before.”

Earthworm population

Gibbs also testified to the benefits of developing the soil’s earthworm population in the ground. He said that the earthworms mean that the soil is healthy. But to get to that point will mean a cover crop has to be planted so that the earthworms have something to eat.

Five principles

Gibbs said there are five principles of soil health that all farmers need to pay attention to in their fields.Gibbs2

• They include limiting the soil disturbance, which means limited tillage tools.

• Gibbs urges farmers to include soil microbial diversity. This means that farmers need to find cover crops that will encourage earthworm populations in the soil.

• He added that cover crops are also necessary to grow living roots year-round, which helps the soil to stay in the place and reduce water runoff. corn in rye field

• Gibbs said farmers need to keep their soil covered, meaning farmers need to keep a crop rotation moving with wheat or a cover crop.

• And, last but not least, farmers need to be stringent on reducing compaction in fields.

Compaction

Gibbs said grain carts are one of the biggest culprits when it comes to compaction. He said they haul a lot of weight and it’s not spaced out, which causes compaction.

Gibbs said that the first time a farmer drives over piece of ground, it means 70 percent of the top soil is compacted. Compaction isn’t a problem that takes a long time to create — all it takes is one tire over a piece of ground and compaction has occurred, he said.

Traffic plan

Gibbs urges farmers to come up with a traffic plan and control all unnecessary traffic in fields. He added that if a farm can work to get their wheel bases the same width, then it will mean less compaction.

Gibbs knows farmers make excuses about the weather stopping them from managing their soil, but he said that just can’t happen — the only way to keep soil healthy or to bring health back is by constant management.

“The weather keeps throwing things at us. We’ve got to learn to make it work,” said Gibbs.

Regulations

Gibbs was blunt with the audience that farmers have got to show that they are stepping up to prevent phosphorus runoff in order to avoid future regulations.

And instead of talking to other farmers about what they are doing on their farm, Gibbs suggested farmers start conversations with non-farm people and show them what is being done a farm so they understand about crop production and how phosphorus runoff is being handled.

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