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Attending to the needs of the soil

Register • May 19, 2014 at 2:10 PM

It seemed like this past winter just wouldn’t give up, resulting in a later than usual spring and delayed field work. Though a little behind, this spring’s corn planting is finally underway. The last few weeks of field work is going about as good as it can go between the rain events. Several of the soil and water conservation districts will be conducting tillage transects tentatively around June 1, a useful tool to determine the level of conservation efforts that have been made by agricultural producers.

For those not as familiar with this type of survey typically performed annually during the spring and sometimes in the fall, conservation tillage is basically a method of crop production utilized by the farm operator that requires minimum, if any, type of tillage equipment. This provides a very significant soil-saving benefit by increasing and maintaining the previous crop residue.

Often referred to as “no-till , this type of conservation tillage is currently used on 25 percent (approximately 96 million acres) of all cropland acres throughout the country. About 44 percent of all the cropland acres see some sort of conservation tillage, according to the 2012 Census of Agriculture.

The study also encouragingly revealed that of the states with at least 4 million total crop acres, Ohio (39.8 percent) was ranked along with Kentucky, Indiana, Pennsylvania, Kansas, Tennessee, North Carolina and South Dakota as having better than 30 percent of crop acres being no-tilled. Nebraska and Montana both lead the way with 40 percent.

So how does leaving the crop residue on the field help to keep our soils healthy? As a result of the microbial and biological activity that is fostered by incorporating no-till, the soils organic material also increases and soil tilth improves, thus increasing crop yields through soil productivity.

While wheat has been planted quite extensively via no-till for several years now, it’s anticipated soybeans will also see a significant rise using this conservation tool. The acres being planted for corn is not expected to see much of an increase in no-till, at least not at this point until the technology can provide assistance to the producer in overcoming related challenges.

Another vital side benefit achieved from practicing no-till is the significant minimization of soil erosion that can be obtained, thus improving and protecting the water quality of our streams, rivers, and in our case here, Lake Erie. Research has demonstrated soil erosion can be reduced by as much as 90 percent through no-till efforts, compared to conventional (moldboard plowing) tillage methods.

Coupled along with lessening the extent of soil erosion is the reduction in nitrate and phosphorus levels, which can help us address the algal bloom issues and concerns we’ve encountered in the western basin of our great lake. SWCD’s will continue to promote conservation tillage and provide technical assistance to all land users in our counties and throughout Ohio.

Speaking of which, our federal partnering agency, the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) in Erie County will host an information meeting May 28, from 2 to 4 p.m., at the USDA Service Center, 2900 Columbus Ave., Sandusky. This is another opportunity for us to “Help People, Help the Land” Kevin Kaltenbach, Resource Conservationist, NRCS, will discuss various topics and conservation interests with agricultural producers who might have interest in planting cover crops, constructing seasonal high tunnels or livestock waste storage structures, or managing the woodlands on their farm.

Applications are also being accepted for two Farm Bill programs: the Conservation Stewardship Program and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program. And according to a recent news release, the USDA’s NRCS staff can discuss the application process with regard to the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program, which includes the Grasslands Reserve Program and the Wetlands Reserve Program.

This application period is open through June 6. If you’re not able to make the upcoming informational meeting slated for May 28 and have conservation questions or concerns or would like to pursue the various program opportunities, you can reach Kevin at 419-626-6419 ext. 106.

Over the weeks and months ahead, agricultural producers in a five-county area — Crawford, Sandusky, Seneca, Wyandot and Erie — will be made aware of additional opportunities to practice personal stewardship on their farm. As a result of a Conservation Innovation Grant that was applied for and awarded to Heidelberg University this past October, an Ag Nutrient Technician was recently hired to help assess and address the natural resource concerns throughout the Sandusky River Watershed.

Over the course of this three-year grant, Abbi Hastings will be working the SWCD’s and their farm operators in each of the counties to coordinate the collection of farm data, including soil samples for testing and the effectiveness of various farming Best Management Practices installed on several demonstration sites. Verification and enhancement of the USDA-NRCS Nutrient Tracking Tool will also be fundamental component to his project.

We know productive soil is essential for the production of our food, both in quality and in quantity. Having dealt with the adverse issues firsthand that dealt a hard blow to this resource almost eight decades ago, Hugh Hammond Bennett commented how “conservation farming put first things first by attending to the needs of the soil, by seeing to it that the starting of place, the base, is put into sound health and kept that way” Any other farming approach that does otherwise will not be conducive to a quality of life tomorrow that we are able to enjoy today. May we purpose to take care of our soil and related natural resources, so they can meet our needs and demands now and in the future.

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