Check out our new video: Benefits of Cover Crops
Soil health also referred to as soil quality, is defined as the continued capacity of the soil to function as a vital living ecosystem that sustains plants, animals, and humans. This definition speaks to the importance of managing soils so they are sustainable for future generations. To do this, we need to remember that soil contains living organisms that when provided the basic necessities of life – food, shelter, and water – perform functions required to produce food and fiber. Soil is an ecosystem that can be managed to provide nutrients for plant growth, absorb and hold rainwater for use during drier periods, filter and buffer potential pollutants from leaving our fields, serve as a firm foundation for agricultural activities, and provide habitat for soil microbes to flourish and diversify to keep the ecosystem running smoothly. Learn more about how Soil Biology plays a major role in soil health.
WHAT SOIL DOES
Healthy soil gives us clean air and water, bountiful crops and forests, productive grazing lands, diverse wildlife, and beautiful landscapes. Soil does all this by performing five essential functions:
- Regulating water – Soil helps control where rain, snowmelt, and irrigation water goes. Water and dissolved solutes flow over the land or into and through the soil.
- Sustaining plant & animal life – The diversity and productivity of living things depend on soil.
- Filtering/buffering potential pollutants – The minerals and microbes in soil are responsible for filtering, buffering, degrading, immobilizing, and detoxifying organic and inorganic materials, including industrial and municipal by-products and atmospheric deposits.
- Cycling nutrients – Carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, and many other nutrients are stored, transformed, and cycled in the soil.
- Physical stability & support – Soil structure provides a medium for plant roots. Soils also provide support for human structures and protection for archeological treasures.
PREVENT PLANT COVER CROP OPTIONS
It appears as if there will be a record number of acres across multiple states this year that will not get planted this spring and will be eligible for the “Prevent Plant” program. (More information on Prevent Plant dates and details can be found at the end of this article.) While not getting a cash crop planted is a negative event, there can be some positives that come out of it. Many of us have been stuck in a corn/soybean rotation (or lack of rotation) for many years and if you have to take “Prevent Plant”, this may be a onetime opportunity for you to break out of this and add diversity to your system.
Our soils were historically developed from diverse plant and biology growth but much of this has been lost over the years and we struggle to find ways to bring diversity back to the farm. A diverse multi-species cover crop mix planted into your prevent plant acres can greatly stimulate soil life and soil biology while suppressing weeds, interrupting disease cycles and even produce and cycle nutrients for next year’s crops. For growers in livestock regions, you can also provide valuable livestock forage (be sure and follow the Prevent Plant rules on when you can graze)
With all of this happening across a record number of states, we get asked a lot: “What should I plant on prevent plant acres?” Obviously, the correct answer to that is another question: “What do you want to accomplish?” Followed quickly with, “When are you planting this mix?” and “What are your climate and soil limitations?” and most importantly perhaps, “What kind of budget are you allowing for this project?”
The Green Cover Seed Team addressed each of these questions individually and try to help you formulate a plan below. Soil Health Resources Guide
NOTE: We encourage you to do this sooner rather than later as we anticipate supplies on some seeds to get pretty tight as we move into the summer – (this is not a sales tactic but rather the state of where the seed market is at right now.)
Question #1. What do you want to accomplish? What is your goal? We have listed several potential goals here, with a list of species that may be useful for accomplishing that goal. NOTE: Multiple goals can be accomplished at the same time with a diverse cover crop mix….
Suppress weeds: the best way to suppress weeds is with a highly competitive crop that can form a canopy quickly and shade weeds out. Summer annual crops that can form tight, dense canopies and will often outgrow many weeds include sorghum-sudan, forage sorghums, pearl millet, okra, sunflowers, buckwheat, and cowpeas. A mixture of cover crops tends to be more competitive than a monoculture. For example, sunn hemp, although it grows rapidly and gets tall, does not form a dense canopy by itself. Cowpeas can form a dense canopy but do not get tall by themselves. But a combination of sunn hemp and cowpeas allows the viny cowpeas to use the sunn hemp as a trellis, and the cowpeas fill in the gaps between the sunn hemp plants to form a very effective weed suppressing canopy. It may also be helpful to have a mix that can tolerate a herbicide if it comes to that; in that case, you need tolerance to a herbicide that is effective against your target weed. For example, if your target weed is Palmer amaranth, you may want to plant a crop that is tolerant to atrazine or metolachlor used pre-emergence, or 2,4-D postemergence, assuming your weed population is not already resistant to those herbicides. If your target weed is Johnsongrass, grassy sandbur or some other grass, you may want a mix of legumes and broadleaves that allow the spraying of clethodim over the top. If you are waiting to plant until late July or early August, then a combination of both summer annual plants and cool-season plants can be used. Brassicas like turnips, radishes, mustard, and collards are effective at suppressing weeds, and cereal grains like oats and spring barley can suppress winter annual weeds like henbit and marestail from establishing this fall.
If your goal is to reduce weed issues in next year’s crop, then that changes things as well. Cereal rye planted in the late summer or early fall as part of a mix is one of the best weed suppressing crops if the next crop will be a legume crop like soybeans, as it aggressively ties up nitrogen which leaves none for weeds to use. Soybeans don’t mind, they just fix their own nitrogen. If the next crop is a nitrogen demanding crop like corn, a winter legume like hairy vetch can be used to both produce nitrogen and suppress weeds. Although vetch makes nitrogen, when it is terminated the nitrogen is in the form of protein and must be decayed before it is available to either crop or weeds. You can place a little nitrogen in the furrow where the crop can reach it and the weeds can’t to keep the crop well-nourished until the vetch begins to decay. Both rye and vetch can form a thick mulch that can help suppress small seeded weeds like Palmer amaranth from being able to get to sunlight after germination before they run out of energy. Both rye and vetch contain chemical compounds that stunt weed growth.
Fix nitrogen: nitrogen fixation is best accomplished with a mix dominated by legumes. The best summer annual nitrogen fixer is sunn hemp, followed by cowpeas, forage soybeans, mung beans, and guar. Again, mixtures are capable of fixing more nitrogen than monocultures in many cases, we recommend mixes containing sunn hemp and cowpea combination for summer nitrogen production as it will produce more nitrogen than a monoculture of either species alone. If you are planting later, as in August, then both cool-season and warm-season legumes are viable. Cool-season legumes include ones that will winterkill in most areas (spring peas, chickling vetch, spring lentils, faba beans, woollypod vetch, common vetch) and ones that will potentially overwinter in the north (balansa clover, hairy vetch, winter lentils) and in the south (crimson clover, arrowleaf clover, woolypod vetch, winter peas). An additional possibility for added nitrogen fixation, particularly if you are using a mixture with non-legume components such as sorghum-sudangrass, is to inoculate with our Bi-Azo inoculant, which is capable of fixing a small amount of nitrogen in the rhizosphere of non-leguminous crops.
Build soil organic matter: as we learn more about how soil organic matter is formed, we are realizing the most important contributor to soil organic matter is the root exudates a plant produces, not the aboveground plant growth. Therefore, the best bet is to produce more days of more exudates, of a diversity of species and plant families, along with as much aboveground biomass as possible. Diversity of plant families makes a more nutritious diet for the microbes that build organic matter, as some species have root exudates high in sugar, others high in protein, others high in lipids, others high in minerals; when combined, it makes a more balanced diet than a monoculture. In general, since the production of root exudates depend on the level of photosynthesis, the more biomass a plant produces, the higher the root exudates. Probably the best single plant for producing organic matter is sorghum-sudangrass, as it produces copious amounts of both root exudates and aboveground biomass. Sunn hemp is probably the best legume. Sunflowers are one of the better non-leguminous forbs. Mixtures with these plants are better than a monoculture of the best single one. Rye, triticale, black oats, and annual ryegrass are some of the better cool-season plants. Another key to building soil organic matter is to have as many days of photosynthesis as possible; thus, even though sorghum-sudangrass is great, it will be done at first frost. If you really want to build organic matter, plant a sorghum-sudan dominated mixture as early as possible, then mow or roll it down in late August and drill a cool-season blend with a high percentage of rye or triticale with annual ryegrass in it, without terminating the summer annuals. This will provide a relay of high root exudate production clear through next spring. Anther consideration; if you really, really, really want to build organic matter, then inoculate your first planting with mycorrhizal fungi. The glomalin produced by the mycorrhizal hyphae is the most persistent form of organic matter known and does wonders for the soil.
Provide grazing after Nov 1: since the prevent plant program allows grazing after November 1, you may want to plant a mixture that has high grazing value at that time. As far as summer annuals go, the best plant for stockpiled winter grazing is probably a sorghum that does not head out. Grain production can be a liability, in that if grazing is not regulated with daily moves of portable fencing, the animals can be subject to acidosis from excess grain consumption. If rationed out with portable fencing on a daily move schedule, a little grain can be desirable. Non-heading sorghums can be one of three types: 1) a photoperiod sensitive that will not initiate a head until after daylength drops below 12 hours and 20 minutes in September, such as our Sweet Forever, or 2) a male sterile product, such as our 400 BMR, with no other pollen producing sorghums in the mix or 3) a long maturity product, especially if planting after July 1 north of I-40 or so, such as our Super Sugar DM (conventional) or Silo-pro (BMR). Another summer annual grass that retains good grazing quality into fall is browntop millet. Summer annual legumes that tend to hold their seeds in the pod after frost to act as a protein supplement include mung beans and guar; sunflower also tends to hold onto its high protein, high oil seeds well into the fall. Stockpiled forage sorghum, especially a BMR, has fair grazing quality in winter, but is best suited for a maintenance diet for brood cows rather than growing animals with high expectations of gain. One other option might be to swath the crop (check to see if this is allowed) and leaves the swath in the field for post frost grazing; in this case, just about any sorghum variety will work well. Swathing also allows the drilling of cool-season species after swathing. A final option: spraying a sorghum crop with 2,4-D close to seedhead emergence can sterilize the flowers so no grain is produced. This might be an option is nonheading sorghum varieties are in short supply, and swathing is not allowed. If planting in August, then very few sorghum varieties will produce grain, but can still provide considerable dry matter before frost, but should be blended with cool-season plants for better grazing quality. Most cool-season, August-planted cover crops provide excellent November grazing. The highest yields of fall grazing will come from cool-season spring cereals (spring oats, black oats, spring barley, and spring triticale) and spring pulses (chickling vetch, spring forage peas, spring lentils) along with brassicas such as collards, turnips, rapeseed, and radishes. Cereals and legumes that overwinter provide less fall grazing but can provide spring grazing and/or spring cover and weed suppression, examples include rye, triticale, winter barley, annual ryegrass for grasses, and crimson clover, hairy vetch, and balansa clover for legumes.
If you just want to cover the ground as cheaply as possible and prevent erosion, then let us know, and we can design a mix for that purpose as well. We have some items that are very inexpensive on a per acre basis, such as sunflowers, rapeseed, a blend of conventional forage sorghums, and our remix biological primer. We also have an occasional “fire sale” on items that may be in danger of losing their germ and we want to get them in the ground before they do so. If your goal is “cheap”, just let us know. These items can also provide grazing as well as many of these other goals we have listed, but likely not as well as a mix designed expressly for that purpose.
Note on Chemicals If chemicals were pre-applied to a field that is going into prevent plant, there’s no sense in starting the conversation until you understand the potential chemical effect. NOTE: WE ARE NOT CHEMICAL EXPERTS! Please always consult with your chemical dealers or experts on this topic. Look at the label and other resources. Three of our favorite sources are:
With the excessive rainfall many chemicals break down much faster than the label says and might still work for cover crops but may have grazing restrictions on them yet. This will obviously vary greatly depending on specific soil types, chemicals, location, etc.
If you have concerns about herbicides, contact us before making the investment in a cover crop and we will send you a herbicide testing seed packet. These packets contain multiple plant groups and we encourage you to plant them on the edge of a field and observe closely to give insights on what might work in your field.
We know that this is a lot of information to digest and absorb so please feel free to reach out to any of the Green Cover team to have some personal help walking through this process. 402-469-6784 Keith Berns firstname.lastname@example.org Dale Strickler email@example.com
Youtube Video: Why We Plant Cover Crops (Green Cover Seed)
Rolling hills and shallow drainages are common in central Nebraska. Along with the beautiful rolling hills of Nebraska farmland, come some not so beautiful problems: runoff and soil erosion. The runoff water that goes through gullies and into streams or ditches can carry excess pollutants and sediment into streams and rivers. This impacts the quality and quantity of water in our area. Buffer strips are a valuable tool to reduce runoff and erosion. A Buffer strip is a strip of native vegetation that has been planted and established along drainages.
These strips offer many real advantages including:
• Increased water quality through filtration.
• Increased water quantity through slowed and captured runoff, and snow melt.
• Enhanced wildlife habitat.
• Decreased erosion, and fieldwork.
By planting native tall grasses in low areas next to streams and drainages, runoff is slowed and water is captured and cleaned. And since these areas are often challenging to farm, and lower in productivity, farmers can save time and expense with buffer strips as well.
CPNRD BUFFER STRIP PROGRAM
Funding for the Buffer Strip Program is from a fee assessed on pesticides registered for sale in Nebraska and is administered by the Nebraska Department of Agriculture, Nebraska’s natural resources districts, and the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service. Contracts are 5 to 10 years in length.
Dryland Payment Rates
• Dryland cropland enrolled in CRP, CREP, or other governmentally-funded programs, payment rate per acre is 20% of the weighted average soil rental rate.
• Dryland cropland not enrolled in CRP, CREP, or other governmentally-funded programs, payment rate per acre is equal 120% of the CRP weighted average soil rental rate plus $5, minus payments from any other source. (CRP weighted average soil rental rate is the amount calculated before the incentive and maintenance rate are added.) In no case may the payment from all sources exceed $250 per acre.
Irrigated Cropland Payment Rates
• For irrigated cropland enrolled in CRP, CREP, and/or any other governmentally-funded program, the payment rate per acre is $250, minus payments received from all other sources.
• For irrigated cropland not enrolled in CRP, CREP, and/or any other governmentally-funded program, the payment per acre is $225, minus any other program payments.
Your CPNRD Contact: Kelly Cole (308) 385-6282 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Contact your local NRCS office to sign up and for technical questions.
V6 Cover Crop Field Day
Over 70 people attended the V6 Cover Crop Field Day in March. This field is one of CPNRD’s demonstration sites where interseeding and dormant seeding have been established. CPNRD’s Cover Crop Demo Project has looked at a number of different methods of planting cover crops. We’ve used different planting periods within the cash crop growing season and even in different cash crops. Results from local demonstration projects have shown that there are several types of cover crop mixes that benefit soil health through improvement in ground compaction, infiltration, biological activity and organic matter.
We’re currently looking at broadening the growing window of the cover crops by planting when the commercial corn is in the V4 to the V6 stage of growth (basically knee high). Project locations included 12 different mixes to be evaluated for emergence and survivability. Evaluations were conducted by project personnel, NRCS staff, and Green Cover Seed representatives. Dormant seeding of cover crops is also being evaluated as another alternative for producers. This method focuses on planting covers late in the fall with the intention of emergence to primarily happening in the spring.
Speakers at Field Day
-Dean Krull, UNL/CPNRD Demo Project Coordinator *Why V6, what was planted, what emerged, what survived.
-Aaron Hird, NRCS State Soil Health Specialist *Discussion and evaluation of soil health in the field.
-Teri Edeal, NRCS Conservationist Agronomist *Soil health evaluation procedure, dormant seeding benefits.
-Keith Berns, Green Cover Seed *Different planting periods, species that work in V6 strategy.
For more info about cover crop options or demo plots, contact Dean Krull at (402) 469-0155 or email: email@example.com.
Green Cover Tour- 70 Cover Crops
For those of you that could not make it our cover crop plot tour, we videotaped the plots and our explanations of the species growing and observations of how the cattle grazed the plots. The sound is a bit rough as the microphone was picking up a lot of wind that day, but if you are interested in seeing over 70 different cover crop species and hear the explanations from the comfort of your house, click this link.
Cover Crop Groundwater Impact Study
The Lower Loup NRD and Central Platte NRD are working with EA Engineering, Science, and Technology, Inc. of Lincoln, NE, to conduct a three-year study to determine the impacts on groundwater due to cover crop management. Within the CPNRD, the study will be conducted in Sub-Area 9 of CPNRD’s Ground Water Management Program to determine the amount of water required to grow cover crops.
The Lower Loup Basin and Central Platte River Basin have diverse soil type and cropping practices that can affect both water quantity and water quality. The proposal will develop and implement a study that will determine the general influence of cover crops on soil moisture, groundwater recharge, and movement of nitrate in the soil. The main geographic region for consideration is the Loup and Central Platte River Basins, more specifically, the area between the South Loup River and Wood River that has experienced groundwater declines. The study will include both irrigated and dryland cropped fields and span multiple years. Identification of landowners, mobilization, and installation of field equipment is scheduled this fall, with a final study
CROP IRRIGATION LINKS
Proper staging of your crop is important when estimating crop water use. For example, 4 leaf corn will use much less water than tasseling corn. Crop coefficients (Kc) for nine Nebraska crops (corn, soybeans, wheat, grain sorghum, sunflowers, sugar beets, potatoes, dry beans) based on the stage of growth along with descriptions and pictures can be downloaded from this site to help you stage your crop.
The weekly ETgage change value multiplied by your crop stage’s crop coefficient (Kc) will give you your crop’s estimated water use. (ETgage website)
If you are using the watermark sensors, knowing the soil type of the field is also important. UNL’s Growth Stage Charts click here.
No-Till Farmers’ Push for Healthy Soils Ignites a Movement in the Plains
No-till farming started as a way to keep costs down for conventional farmers in danger of losing their land. Now it has become a subculture and a way of life for outsider farmers all over rural America.
Editors’ Note: Today, we introduce our year-long reporting series on rural America, the Rural Environment and Agriculture Project (REAP).
Jimmy Emmons isn’t the kind of farmer you might expect to talk for over an hour about rebuilding an ecosystem. And yet, on a recent Wednesday in January, before a group of around 800 farmers, that’s exactly what he did.
After walking onstage at the Hyatt in Wichita, Kansas to upbeat country music and stage lights reminiscent of a Garth Brooks concert, Emmons declared himself a recovering tillage addict. Then he got down to business detailing the way he and his wife Ginger have re-built the soil on their 2,000-acre, third-generation Oklahoma farm.
A high point of the presentation came when the 50-something farmer—who now raises cattle and grows alfalfa, wheat, and canola along with myriad cover crops—described a deep trench he’d dug in one of his fields for the purposes of showing some out of town visitors a subterranean cross-section of his soil. After it rained, Emmons walked down into the trench with his camera phone and traced the way water had infiltrated the soil. Along the way, the Emmons on stage and the Emmons behind the camera became a kind of chorus of enthusiasm, pointing out earthworm activity, a root that had grown over two-and-a-half feet down, and the layer of dark, carbon-rich soil.
“It was just amazing,” said Emmons in an energetic southern drawl. The water had seeped down over five feet. And the other farmers in the room—a collection of livestock, grain and legume producers mainly from Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, and the Dakotas, as well as several Canadian provinces who had gathered for the 22nd annual No-till on the Plains conference—nodded their heads in a collective amen.
Most had traveled for hours to hear Emmons and others like him share their soil secrets, their battle scars, and their reasons to hope. And they knew that getting rainwater to truly soak into farmland—instead of hitting dry, dead soil, soaking an inch or two down, and then running laterally off—is a lost art.
The previous morning, the controversial grazing guru Allan Savory had stood on the same stage before the enthusiastic crowd and described the enormous quantity of spent, lifeless soil that erodes into the ocean every year in terms of train cars. “A trainload of soil 116 miles long leaves the country every day,” said Savory, quoting the USDA-NRCS.
Or to put it another way, erosion accounts for the loss of around 1.7 billion tons of farmland around the world every year. As that soil escapes, so does an abundance of nitrogen and other nutrients that are slowly killing vast parts of our oceans and lakes. And as agricultural soil dies and disperses, it also releases greenhouse gases like nitrous oxide and carbon dioxide.
As the world begins to zero in on the need to bring this soil back to life—as a solution to drought, nitrogen pollution, climate change, and more—farmers like Emmons and others practicing no-till in the middle of the country could play a key role. As they reshape their operations with a focus on things like earthworms and water filtration and practice a suite of other approaches that fit loosely under the umbrella of “regenerative agriculture,” these farmers are stepping out of the ag mainstream. And while most no-till farmers see organic agriculture as inherently disruptive to the soil, they also have a great deal in common with many of the smaller-scale farmers that are popular with today’s coastal consumers.
These two groups of farmers don’t use the same language to describe what they’re doing (you’re unlikely to hear words like “sustainable” or “climate change” among the no-till set, for instance), but it’s clear that both groups are motivated by the opportunity to be responsible stewards of the land while exploring creative solutions to the status quo. And many no-till farmers are also just as skeptical as their organic counterparts are of the large seed and fertilizer companies they see as running their neighbors’ lives (and controlling their finances).
With Every End Comes a New Beginning
No-till farming has been around for more than half a century, ever since herbicides and precision planting tools allowed farmers to plant crops directly into the soil without disturbing it. But because tilling—or breaking up the soil—is primarily a means to control weeds, farmers who practice no-till have often relied heavily on herbicides to manage weeds instead. For this reason, it has traditionally found a home among conventional farmers looking for a way to improve yields or cut costs—although some no-tillers reject the term “conventional.”
But over the last decade or so, no-till has also become a kind of farming subculture—a world in and of itself. And, as the farmers who gathered in Wichita see it, putting an end to tilling the soil is often just the beginning of a whole range of practices that include growing cover crops, managed grazing, and diversification, i.e., literally increasing the number of cash crops in their rotations.
“No-till without cover crops and crop diversity is still an incomplete system,” Emmons told the crowd.
Together, however, these approaches have the ability to bring back living fungal ecosystems in the soil, retain water and organic matter, and sequester carbon. The farmers who practice them are also eligible for conservation funding from the USDA via the farm bill, and yet they are likely to see a reduction in the amount of available funds in this year’s smaller-than-average bill.
Many of these practices have also made modest gains in popularity recently. According to the USDA’s latest data, by 2010-11, no-till farming had grown to the point where roughly 40 percent of the corn, soybean, wheat, and cotton grown per year in the U.S. used either no-till or a half-step technique called strip-tilling. That works out to around 89 million acres per year. And while it’s unclear just how many of these farmers see no-till as a bridge to other practices—and therefore a way to cut down on the quantities of synthetic herbicides and fertilizers—it’s clear that the path forward is there for those who do.
“Those who are truly committed to regenerative ag are trying to use plants in place of [fertilizer and herbicides],” says Steve Swaffer, executive director of No-till on the Plains, the nonprofit that hosts the annual conference. “As your soils heal and go back to a more natural state,” he says, most successful farmers are able to “wean themselves off” chemicals. But he adds that most “haven’t eliminated [herbicides, pesticides, and synthetic fertilizers] from their toolbox,” entirely even if they see them as last-resort options.
“You can’t quit [synthetic fertilizer and herbicides] cold-turkey,” said Adam Chappell, a fourth-generation farmer from Arkansas who practices no-till and plants cover crops on over 8,000 of the 9,000 acres he farms with his brother. Now that he’s several years into the practice, however, he said, “I don’t need seed treatments for my cotton anymore. I’ve taken the insecticide off my soybeans. I’m working toward getting rid of fungicide … I’m hoping that eventually, my soil will be healthy enough that I can get rid of all of it all together.”
Nearly all the farmers who spoke at the conference had similar stories. And while many of the environmental benefits were left implied, the financial benefits were right up front. Emmons reported cutting fuel costs by two-thirds and fertilizer costs by half. Derek Axten, a grain and pulse farmer from southern Saskatchewan, described a major reduction in fungicide use for the high-value chickpeas he grows there. “I used one application while my neighbors used five,” he told the audience. “That works out to about $100 an acre.”
For today’s farmers, many of whom are squeezed financially at every turn, this ability to spend less on inputs is hugely compelling. “It’s not always how much money you make, it’s how much you keep,” Axton told the crowd.
Since this approach requires gradual, system-level changes, however, Emmons underscored, “the first year is going to be crappy. The cover crops aren’t going to work as well as you want and you’ll want to give up. But if you can make it three to four years, you’ll start seeing fungal dominance, more diversity of living organisms in the soil, and more biomass in the system.”
Tension with Organic
There was a resounding disdain at the conference for large organic operations, which many no-till farmers see as “ruining the soil” by tilling it.
Jonathan Lungren, an agroecologist and entomologist who left a job with the USDA in 2015 after filing a whistleblower suit alleging the agency had suppressed his research on bee health and pesticides to start a farm and nonprofit science lab for independent research in North Dakota, is an interesting example of this perspective.
After meeting no-till veteran and minor farm celebrity Gabe Brown and cover crop expert Gail Fuller, Lungren says he was convinced to try their approach. “Some farmers are way ahead of the science when it comes to this stuff,” he said. He contends that “Insecticides are an addiction. The more you use, the more you need,” and advocated for “changing the whole system, rather than trying to make a broken system work.”
And yet, his disdain for certified organic farms was palpable. “I’ve been on organic farms in California and I wouldn’t eat that food,” he said. “The soil is dust!”
Of course, not all organic farms are the same and while most do practice tillage, they also build fertility slowly using compost, rather than synthetic fertilizer—a fact that some research says makes their practices inherently better for the soil than most conventional systems. And many organic producers also rely on cover crops, green manure, and crop diversity to retain carbon and organic matter in the soil. For instance, a 2017 study from Northwestern University found that soils from organic farms had 13 percent more soil organic matter (SOM) and 26 percent more potential for long-term carbon storage than soils from conventional farms
But Kristine Nichols, former chief scientist for the Rodale Institute—one of the only locations where researchers have long-running plots that combine no-till with organic practices—says that the gradual breakdown to fungal communities in the soil over time in many organic systems can be a serious problem.
“Tilling can start to erode the diversity of the fungi in the soil over time. So you’re going to start getting the loss of certain keystone organisms for providing amino acids and antioxidants that can be very important for human health,” said Nichols. While at Rodale, Nichols worked with researchers at Penn State University to look at an antioxidant and amino acid called ergothioneine, which is produced by soil fungi. They saw a very strong relationship between both the concentration and frequency of tillage and loss off ergothioneine.
As scientists begin to get a firmer grasp on the human microbiome and its relationship with microbial communities in the soil, Nichole believes, “it’s going to start putting more pressure on the organic community to reduce tillage.”
Nichols, who worked with no-till farmers in Nebraska for a decade before going to Rodale, says that while organic farmers tend to see any use of herbicides as “the ultimate evil,” the no-till set feel similarly about tillage. In the same way that no-till farmers are often told to use herbicides only when no other solution is available to them, Nichols likes to challenge organic farmers to see tillage as the choice of last resort.
Steve Swaffer also acknowledged that that sweeping generalization about soil health can be hard to make. “It’s all about management, right? And it’s a human being who makes the decisions about how a farm is managed,” he explained by phone after the event.
“I think that the organic producers have been bastardized somewhat because of the large production and people capitalizing on the premiums that are available,” he said. “I’ve been on these farms where it’s a monoculture of lettuce or spinach and it certainly meets the organic standard, but the dirt that’s being used as a growing medium has no life in it. And yet those people are able to capture those premiums.” Meanwhile, he added, many of the farmers he works with aren’t able to sell the food they grow outside the commodity market. “So I think there’s probably some resentment,” he said.
That feeling is compounded by the fact that many of the farmers who gathered in Wichita are often ostracized in their own communities for stepping outside the expected rules of conventional agriculture.
Even Jimmy Emmons, who seems about as self-assured as a farmer can be, acknowledged that he doesn’t even go to his local coffee shop anymore. If he did, he’d hear disapproval from his fellow farmers for doing things like planting his wheat directly into a living stand of plant residue without tilling or grazing his animals on cover crops. On a panel at the conference, for instance, Adam Chappell responded to a comment made about the science of monoculture by saying, “There is no scientific evidence of the benefit of monoculture, but there is plenty of propaganda. The salesmen tell me constantly that I’m stupid, or that I’ll go broke” because he’s using fewer inputs. Tuning out those messages, he added, has become a lot easier thanks to the network of other no-till farmers he stays in touch with online—Twitter and YouTube are popular platforms for sharing photos, observations, and videos of one another’s farms—and at conferences like No-till in the Plains.
In some ways, the fact that this approach to farming is based on profiting by cutting costs has liberated the “soil health movement” from the need to make a premium by differentiating in the marketplace. And yet several groups are currently working to do just that through potential certification schemes for regenerative agriculture, making a label likely in the near future.
And because consumers are more likely to spend with their health in mind than the health of the environment, the success of such a label may rely, at least in part, on proving what many no-till and regenerative farmers say they’ve seen anecdotally: that healthier soil leads to more nutrient-dense food. And several of the scientists present in Wichita, like Nichols and Jill Clapperton, farmer and founder of Rhizoterra, hope to help move that research forward.
Nichols points to ongoing research at The University of Massachusetts, Johns Hopkins, and the University of California at Davis aimed at determining the links between soil health and nutritive content in food. And she says some of the preliminary research she has seen suggests that improved soil health could point toward solutions to the obesity crisis as well.
The diluted nutrient content in our food, says Nichols, “basically drives our bodies to have to consume more. Our gut microbiome essentially signals to our brain that it’s starving, and says, ‘eat more food.’”
She hopes that the organic and no-till communities—which are both relatively small on their own—can work together to begin to find solutions. If that doesn’t work, she says, a broader goal of saving soil could inspire unity.
“Organic farmers, conventional farmers, no-till farmers—everyone is seeing soil leaving their farms,’ says Nichols. “Reducing the amount of tillage you’re doing is a very significant way to stop that from occurring.”
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