Farmers’ school in session
SIBLEY-If farmers are going to feed nine billion people by 2050, healthy soil has to be the start of that proposal.
This statement was made by Ann Byers, Natural Resources and Conservation Service district conservationist for Lyon and Osceola counties during the Feb. 5 Farmer’s Night School at Sibley-Ocheyedan High School’s ag education room.
“Soil is our greatest resource,” she said. “We need to (do) what keeps it healthy.
“That might include reducing tillage, using cover crops, increasing soil organic matter and better utilizing and understanding soil biology.”
Byers said producers should fully implement conservation practices such as grass waterways, basins and terraces, no-till and strip-till practices and nutrient and pest management practices.
She said cost-sharing funds are available to help producers with conservation practices – some projects can receive up to 50 or 75 percent of the funding necessary, depending on the project.
Byers said the Soil and Water Conservation District in Osceola County typically has around $90,000 in its Environmental Quality Incentives Program for such projects.
She said Lyon County often has a waiting list for producers wanting to use EQIP money, and that Osceola County’s unused EQIP funds will most likely transfer there if they go unused.
“The big changes we’ve seen is the practices we fund,” said Byers. “Traditionally, a lot of EQIP money went towards livestock, and (the law says) 60 percent nationwide has to go to livestock.
“But in Lyon County there were years when we funded $300,000 on ag waste projects, and six or seven years ago we funded about $100,000 in ag waste.”
Byers said as rules and regulations have changed, the NRCS has seen more changes in structural practices, such as terraces and grass waterways, and cover crops.
She said EQIP incentive dollars are available for cover crops that fall between the $23 and $48 per acre to seed.
John Schmidt, an Ocheyedan farmer and NRCS board commissioner, encouraged producers to get off the tillage bandwagon and get on board with voluntarily doing what is necessary to reduce nitrates and stay on top of soil and water health issues.
“If we don’t voluntarily get started doing things, we’re going to get dictated how we can farm,” he said. “It would be better for our farms if we could make those kinds of decisions ourselves.”
Schmidt said it’s already happening in the Chesapeake Bay area, and in Denmark – where the government has prescriptions on what they can apply to each field.
“Their yields are actually about half of what they are right across the road in Germany, where they’re free to use their own common sense,” he said. “We don’t want that to happen here.”
Schmidt said he has practiced no-till strategies for the last 20 years. He said it does a “superb” job of controlling erosion and pollution, but he had to get creative as to how he could get his fertilizer buried the way he wanted.
“I can get my fertilizer down where I want it – about 7 inches deep, and all my fertilizer is dropped down at the bottom of that row, so I plant right on top of that strip.
“The seed’s only 5 inches from the fertilizer, and the fertilizer is in a narrow band (not broadcasted).”
He said he started strip-tilling about eight years ago. Schmidt said it doesn’t offer the same degree of erosion control that the straight no-till practice would offer, but he said it’s a good compromise.
Schmidt said his great-grandfather came from Illinois and farmed for 30 years with intense tillage. Eventually the soil was worn out, and he moved to Iowa to farm.
Schmidt said half of the topsoil was lost there as well, using the same tillage practices.
He said he learned early that he needed to cut back on tillage in order to build top soil and organic matter for his son, who would inherit the farm land someday.
“I’ve been able to improve my organic matter by 1 or 2 percent,” he said.
He said strip-till offers cost savings, with only one pass through the field in the fall, then he plants in the spring.
He said banded fertilizer costs are lower, since the fertilizer is placed directly where it needs to be, with no waste.
“With the acres we cover, I don’t know how you get everything done without it,” he said. “When you don’t disturb the soil, you save a lot of water, have better infiltration rates and build organic matter.
“Tillage is the problem – it’s not the solution.”
He encouraged producers to let soil rest as much as possible and let worms do the work of infiltrating the soil and mixing fertilizer.
He said excess tillage ruins the structure of the soil, making it less useful and stripping away all of the soil carbons quickly. He said every pass with tillage equipment evaporates the equivalent of one-half inch of moisture.
Schmidt said even with increased soil conservation practices, organic matter continues to decline on tilled fields.
He said no-till practices increase organic matter at about .1 percent per year – so it takes 10 years to improve soil organic matter by 1 percent.
He said one percent of organic matter produces 25 pounds of nitrogen, six pounds of phosphorous and increases water holding capacity by 4 percent.
“If you can gain back a couple percent of organic matter, that’s a tenth of your moisture that you can hold,” he said.
He said pollution and fertilizer loss is reduced from 80 to 90 percent for no-till, and by a little less than that for strip-till.
He said field cultivators run about 4 inches deep, and normally the fertilizer gets mixed at half that depth, so your fertilizer is basically 2 inches deep.
“You get into July and August when it’s dry, there’s no moisture left at 2 inches, and that’s where your fertilizer is. The roots need moisture to take in the fertilizer, so you’re wasting your fertilizer.”
And that’s what washes off in heavy rains in a tilled field, he said.
In a tilled field, he explained, the top will silt over and get crusty after a rain, and a heavy rain after it will wash off. He said land rollers behind soybean planters encourage crusting on top of the soil, adding to the problem.
In the end, Schmidt said strip till offers less costs of production – equipment, fuel and fertilizer – and it saves time.
“We’re usually calving at the same time we’re planting. If we didn’t do this (no till or strip-till), we’d have to get rid of the cow herd for sure.”
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