Promoting soil health

A cup of tea.

So much pleasure in the simple things, but having been out on-farm all afternoon in the freezing temperatures, my fingers needed to warm up enough to type everything up about an amazing day here in Lincoln, Nebraska.

native prairie grass.JPGDriving up here yesterday from Colorado, I had a great opportunity to see the type of land and farming systems up close, 480 miles along the highway with fields on both sides pretty much the whole way. I found a couple of interesting things, firstly cattle out in the fields seemingly eating corn stalks (I almost crashed the car looking to see whether there was anything planted between the rows that they were eating) but they seemed to be eating them quite happily. Secondly the number of pivot irrigation systems that I passed, (I’m planning on counting them on the drive back on Saturday to pass the time, so stay tuned for the actual number later this week).

Today I started the first of two days being very kindly hosted by Mike Wilson (note the 1 ‘l’ in his surname) and Mike Kucera. Both of these Mikes work for NRCS, Mike Wilson as the lead on the climate programme and as a research scientist, and Mike Kucera as the main agronomist responsible for soil health and its promotion with farmers. I started the day frantically trying to remember my chemistry and biogeochemistry (which, lets face it, was pretty non existent in the first place) as I got to tour the soils lab that they have here in Lincoln.  This amazing lab, which is a myriad of corridors and very complicated bits of equipment, is home to the National Soil Survey Centre which does tests all the soil samples that make up the soil survey, and does lots of other cool things, which I can’t really start to understand. As well as that they have a basement full of soil samples which was pretty amazing.

After the tour, I got to meet with some of the people that design programmes and help farmers on the ground to implement soil health measures. Two things dominate – cover crops and no till. The big issue here in Nebraska is water management. The average rainfall for this ares is between 24 – 28 inches per year, and as such there is a need to capture and hold that water, and then use it to grow profitable crops. The way that this can be done is through minimising tillage and implementing cover crops  and residue retention to allow the soil to be in a position to hold that water and allow the crops to access it.

The impetus behind these programmes is to reduce erosion, improve water quality and all the things that we are all so familiar with, but for the programme, it is taking a view that all these things also help to develop resilient businesses, indeed by doing the right thing on-farm, the environmental benefits come along as well (its a win-win). After water, the most limiting factor was thought to be carbon (not Nitrogen) as carbon is seen as soil organic matter, and the more soil organic matter that is there, the more water that you can hold, the more ‘glue’ you will have to stick soil particles together, which will create good structure and the more food you will have for biology to work and cycle nutrients. The scientists have also worked out that for every 1% organic matter you can hold 1 inch of moisture.

To try and help get these messages across, Nebraska started last year implementing soil health demonstration farms.  By enrolling in this programme, the NRCS through their cost share programme, offset the costs of setting up cover crop trials or different management practices and then use these as ‘hubs’ for other farmers to come and see it working in their local conditions. These demo farms also offer a chance to look at the economics of some of these practices and the returns. The demos are set up for 5 years to allow for adequate monitoring and understanding, and as they are only at the end of year 1 there isn’t any data yet on their efficacy, but it will be worth a watch.

After loads more discussion with some of the staff who decided to give up some of their morning and come and hear me waffle on, after a Nebraskan lunch of a baked sandwich (which was yum) we headed out to meet some farmers.

lincolnfarmer1.JPGLarry Dedic who farms just outside of Lincoln was our host for the afternoon, kindly assisted by a couple of his neighbours, Don Jirsa, and Terry Vaverka.  We spent the afternoon talking about soil health, how they look after it in their system and the drivers that made them look at how they were doing things. Interestingly when a discussion was had about incentives, there are some of the same issues that we have here in the UK, the payments are all well and good, but there are so many hurdles that you have to jump through to get them, they aren’t always worth it (you’ve got to deal with the government, and who wants that?!).

stalks after grazing.JPGDuring the afternoon we went to see Don’s farm where he was doing rotational grazing with his cattle, and learnt more about the practice of grazing the corn stalks. One field that we went to see had been drilled as seed corn, and then when that had been harvested, at the same time, a cover crop of tillage radish had been broadcast. The cattle went in and grazed the left over seed corn and the radish as it came up.

lincolnfarmers 1.JPGWinter kill is something that is used here to terminate some of the cover crops, as the cold temperatures and the snow and ice can knock them right back so that they don’t need spraying off. Cattle were grazing these corn stalks quite happily and they provide a great source of magic manure back to previously continuous arable rotations (adding organic matter, biology and all the other great stuff that comes from the use of livestock in rotations). Grazing these stalks (when they are managed well) also leaves enough of a residue on the soil to provide the benefits of soil armour and cover as well as a feedstuff.

delfrikeAfter this we went to visit another farmer Del Ficke. A proponent of mob grazing, stacking enterprises and focusing on soil health, Del is pioneering a system of restoring soils.  He explains, “healthy soil is the foundation that productive and resilient agriculture depends on. When we focus on feeding out soils with living roots in the ground and cover above, our soils will behave just like they were designed to and act as living sponges that store water and cycle nutrients efficiently and effectively. By adding cover crops into your operation, you put yourself in a situation in which you are able to feed your soil and provide a premium forage for livestock, all while making nutrients available for your next crop. Time to farm smarter, not harder.”

soil-lincolmHis efforts were paying off. One of the things that Del was grateful for was that they had always taken soil samples, as such he had a baseline from which to measure. He has managed to improve his soil organic matter percentage in one field from 2.6% to 6.9% in a decade. Digging a hole in one of his fields, I saw some of the nicest soil that I have seen for a long time, and when the temperature was a bit warmer, he alludes to finding 125 earthworms in one spadeful, (we found 2 even in the freezing temperatures).


If I was to write down everything that I have learnt and discovered today, this blog would go on for ever, but I learnt a lot, saw some great farmers who were doing fantastic things, and took time out to talk to a crazy English girl about sustainability and carbon, and finished the day seeing some buffalo, and a stop on the Oregon trail (just another day on this mad adventure that is Nuffield!).

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