Soil health can make big difference for water quality

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Barry Fisher NRCS
Barry Fisher, USDA-NRCS, speaking at the Conservation Tillage Conference March 2.

ADA, Ohio — As grain farmers prepare for a challenging year of low profits, high inputs and increased environmental scrutiny — one of the best answers may be to simply improve their soil health.

Barry Fisher, a soil health specialist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service, told about 900 farmers and crop advisers at the annual Conservation Tillage and Technology Conference, March 2, that improving soil health is critical.

A healthier soil — one that is biologically active and contains high levels of organic matter — makes better use of nutrients, is more resistant to weather extremes, leads to less erosion and nutrient loss, and typically leads to higher yields.

Perhaps most importantly, a healthy soil builds soil aggregates, which improves everything else, including the soil’s water-holding capacity.

“If we could get our soil aggregate stability back, we would do a tremendous thing for water quality in this (western) basin,” he said.

The western basin of Lake Erie has become a target for conservation, due to the phosphorus runoff into Lake Erie, which leads to the growth of harmful algal blooms. Fisher said NRCS is planning to locate a staff person to the basin, to work directly with farmers as they continue the fight against nutrient runoff.

vendors
Farmers and crop advisers check out the vendors.

The water quality issue has drawn millions of dollars in state and federal funding, including new research into how nutrients leave farmers’ fields.

But an important factor — no matter where a farm is located or what conservation methods are used — is to build and maintain a healthy, viable soil.

“When we start thinking of it as a living thing — we will treat it slightly different,” Fisher said.

Keeping the soil alive means keeping something growing — whether it’s cover crops — or rotating crops to include more diversity.

During the recent run-up in grain prices, farmers in the basin focussed on cash grain crops — mainly corn and soybeans — sometimes at the expense of leaving ground bare.

Fisher said ground that has roots in it year-round “keeps our nutrients in play,” and makes them less likely to leave the field.

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Another problem, he said, is the misbelief that because a farm is flat, that it doesn’t have erosion. In truth, he said flat land is susceptible to “vertical erosion,” which means that soil particles and nutrients erode into the soil, filling up pores — and leading to another form of compaction.

Still there

A prevailing question at the conference was why the phosphorus and algae issue has not gone away — despite all of the new conservation practices and regulations.

A common answer is extreme weather. The past 15 years have seen an unusual increase in heavy rain, which has led to increased runoff.

Those things “amplify the effect,” Fisher said. But on the flip side, farmers who build their soil aggregates will find that their soil is more tolerant of heavy rain — and even drought.

Tackling the issue

During a panel discussion on soil health, former Deputy Secretary of Agriculture and no-till farmer Jim Moseley said it’s good that government and private businesses are “getting into the meat of the soil health question.”

If they don’t come up with some answers, he’s worried the matter will end up in law or in court, -where the outcome is uncertain.

“We do not want to put ourselves in a position, as farmers and land owners, of having to accept the legal determination of how we’re going to continue to farm the land. It’s devastating,” he said.

Panel discussion
Farmer Bill Richards (left), Barry Fisher and others who made up the panel.

Because much of the land in western Ohio is rented — tenants have to think critically about the time it will take to pay off any soil improvements they make. Many improvements take many years, but Fisher said even the first year can start to show results.

Also, improving soil health can be as much of a benefit to the landlord, as to the tenant, Moseley explained. A healthier soil adds value to the farm, and more incentive for landowners to seek out tenants who are doing good things for the soil.

“All of a sudden, they’re (landowners) going to be looking for farm operators that are doing it right,” Moseley said.

Scores of government programs have been established to help farmers improve their nutrient use, and soil health, and some farmers disagree over the best use of those funds.

Fisher said the goal is that when a farmer is no-longer funded, he’ll keep doing the same conservation practices that the funding helped start.

But Bill Richards, farmer from Circleville and a past NRCS chief, asked whether the subsidies are getting results, or rewarding the problem makers.

“We’ve got to figure out a way to raise the conservation ethic,” he said.

While money can help — he said the technical assistance and expertise is more valuable.

“We need that technical help, I think, more than we need the dollars,” he said, adding that the most important subsidy he ever received was a college degree.

Other factors

Other answers to nutrient loss include the proper use of field tile, choosing the right tillage or no-tillage practices, and applying nutrients according to the 4R Nutrient Stewardship standard.

But there is still some uncertainty over what works best — especially given the many differences from one farm to another.

Greg LaBarge, an agronomic systems field specialist with OSU, said the USDA is conducting at least 20 edge-of-field studies in farmers’ fields, to put the different theories to the test.

Each study includes two side-by-side fields, to make comparisons. Researchers are just now finishing up their baseline data and plan to begin implementing the kinds of farm practices they want to test — so they can compare the results.

The goal, LaBarge said, is “getting the conservation practices in the right place.” He added that “every field doesn’t necessarily need to be treated equally.”

Adding sulfur

One practice being tested is the application of gypsum — which some studies have shown helps reduce phosphorus loss, because it lowers soil pH and helps the phosphorus bind to the soil.

In a talk of his own, crop adviser Joe Nester explained how soil is showing a deficit of sulfur — which leads to a higher pH — and higher solubility of phosphorus. By adding sulfur-containing gypsum, he’s finding that more phosphorus is tied up in the soil and made available for the plant — versus leaving the field.

“I think this pH change is moving phosphorus,” he said. “We’re talking about a big chemistry change in the vehicle that moves nutrients.”

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