LISBON, Ohio — Jim Skeels tried an experiment last year after his wheat came off: He planted a cover crop mix in the field.
He figured he had good success with double cropping wheat and soybeans, so cover crops might be worth a try.
To his surprise, there were immediate benefits the first year.
Skeels farms near Lisbon, Ohio, and has a rotation of corn, soybeans and wheat. He hosted a group of 25 area farmers Sept. 17 during a meeting of the Crop Production Partners, a new team of crop producers, and soil and water conservation district and Natural Resource Conservation Service staff in Carroll, Columbiana, Harrison, Jefferson, Mahoning, Stark and Tuscarawas counties.
This team works to plan field days and workshops geared toward applying conservation practices.
Ohio Department of Natural Resources Soil Scientist Steve Prebonick led a field tour of the Skeels farm and discussed the importance of maintaining healthy soil.
He said soil structure is second only to soil texture as an important soil property affecting air and water movement.
Prebonick said three things are part of good soil health: the physical part, chemical and biological parts.
He said the circle of death for soil begins with one thing: compaction.
Compaction can contribute to unhealthy plants, which can lead to increased chemical use, and more plant stress, then the roots of plants can die, creating conditions ripe for compaction and the cycle continues.
Roots are king
Prebonick told the group that healthy soil requires constant root turnover to promote microbial activity and an increase in organic matter. Soil also needs stable structure, larger connecting pores and nutrient-holding capacity.
He explained that managing soil organic matter is the key to air and water quality.
Seeing is believing
Prebonick showed the group one soil sample in a field that was “platy” and had little root material in it. A second sample had been planted in wheat and was then planted in a cover crop mix of crimson clover, cereal rye and radishes.
The field had been planted Aug. 19 and already had radishes that were four inches long underground. He said that will help to prevent erosion. He said it was also showing that fungi was active and roots were active, which was helping to keep the soil healthy.
Another test by the team on the field showed how crop residue is impacted by cover crops. The ground found that there was a 70 percent average of residue reduction with a cover crop and 50 percent without a cover crop.
Skeels said he can definitely see the benefits of cover crops. He said he was surprised how the crimson clover nodules up and helped with the nitrogen in last year’s experiment.
He said when the snow came off this spring, the rye grass was still covering the field. It was the first thing the farm sprayed after the wheat, because he knew if it went to seed, it could be a problem.
Skeels used a mix of 70 percent annual rye, 20 percent crimson clover and 10 percent radishes on the wheat field in August. He said he is anxious to get more planted as crops come off because he can see the soil health improving with just one year of use.
Skeels said conservation has been an ongoing project on his farm. He remembered, as a young boy, seeing his dad upset when he noticed erosion on the farm, and that fear stuck with him.
His farm is laid out in contour strips, and he uses no-till production practices. He’s also installed stock tanks for his cattle, as part of the conservation plans as the farm has developed over the years.
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