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Keep soil healthy with cover crops

Register • Dec 30, 2013 at 5:20 AM

Only a week ago, precipitation in the form of more than 3 inches of rain, coupled with the rapid snow melt, delivered a few travel difficulties and other hardships. It was not the kind of Christmas any of us were dreaming of. Even more troublesome to me were the observations I was able to make of many of our local farm fields, particularly the amount of soil erosion taking place and the potential adverse effect it could be conveying to our streams.

It is a given that soil runoff from farm fields that do not have established grass and other riparian buffers can decrease the water quality of the adjacent stream, thus increasing water treatment costs to protect public health, while also impacting Lake Erie’s fisheries. Stream sampling has shown rainwater can pick up and transport fertilizers and livestock waste, carrying nutrient-laden sediments from farm fields to drainage ditches and streams to our rivers and our great lake. And like one researcher noted, “manure and fertilizers are as good at growing algae blooms in our streams as they are at growing corn”

I realize from talking with some of the agricultural producers and farm operators that “conventional” intensive tillage methods seem to be necessary. The reasons offered include the loosening and aerating of the top layer of soil, which facilitates planting the crop. It also serves to mix the harvest residue, organic matter and nutrients more evenly throughout the soil. And done in the fall, it crumbles the soil clumps through frost-heave to make for a little smoother surface for spring planting.

On the other hand, conventional versus conservation tillage precipitates nutrient losses in the soil. It also decreases the water infiltration rate and of a certainty, increases the rate of soil erosion and stream sedimentation. It reduces the organic matter in the soil, valuable microbes and earthworms, and lessens the cohesiveness of the soil particles. Quite simply, soil is a living and a “life-giving substance” without which we could not grow the food we need in order to survive. Yet, perhaps even more critical than the tillage method chosen is the necessity to address the environmentally sensitive and vulnerable areas on the farm.

Over the past few weeks as I’ve driven to and from meetings, I’ve looked at a lot of farm fields — multiple hundreds of acres — that have already been worked, i.e. no crop residue left and no cover crop to anchor the soil. Furthermore, I also took notice of the lack of grassed waterways and grassed areas along the field edges to effectively buffer the streams. On the contrary, they’ve been farmed to the top of the stream bank. And this recent storm event has produced an easily discernible and unsettling amount of erosion.

Someone said if we truly want our soil to be healthy, we really shouldn’t see it very often. In other words, the soil should be “covered” all the time. Keeping our soil healthy and productive is of paramount importance; it’s one of the most important undertakings of our time.

Soil and water conservation districts will continue to direct a lot of our efforts toward education and public awareness so all land users may have a positive impact on our environment and ensure our healthy soils remain. Without any reservation, I am certain the farmer can maintain crop productivity, while implementing commendable conservation practices.

Encouraging is the fact that there are a lot of farmers who welcome best management tools that afford them the ability to leave their land in the best shape possible each year. They know it makes perfect economic sense to keep nutrients and soil “where they belong: on the farm, not in the water” The objective is to work with the land and with nature, not against it.

During one of our workshops a few weeks from now, agricultural operators and farm landowners will be able to learn more about soil ecology, nutrient recycling and ecological farming practices. Jim Hoorman, OSU Extension, will provide attendees at our “Soil Health Workshop” resourceful information about their options for cover crops. This day-long workshop will also provide participants the opportunity to work “hands-on” with seeds and soil types and discuss how their farm objectives could be best met with specific cover crops.

The main focus of this workshop will be to talk about “ecological farming” a method that appears to be growing in popularity among agricultural producers due to its success in improving soil structure, decreasing soil and nutrient losses, and producing higher yields. Hoorman adds how this workshop will also cover the economics of using cover crops and “how cover crops can counter extreme weather events, store soil moisture and improve water quality”

I’m encouraged to see how some of our area farmers are leading by example, doing what’s right by the land and other natural resources. As a couple of producers have stated: if one would have to keep doing the same old thing that didn’t prove economically or environmentally stable … “just quit and go do something else” Many are convinced that with a good farm management system, soil health building can be attained and our farming future more profitable, productive and sustainable.

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