Up close and hands on
ALGONA – Iowa farm soil can work harder for good production and water quality.
That was the clear message to more than a dozen women at a soil health workshop which took place April 13 at the Water’s Edge Nature Center, in Algona.
Carol Schutte, of Clear Lake, coordinator for “Women Caring for the Land,” said women own or co-own more than half of Iowa’s farm land, and that they are more likely than men to implement changes on their land in order to improve soil health.
“There is room in any operation for conservation,” she said. “Good soil structure is important for crop production.”
Schutte said soil health is made up of three components. She asked the women to imagine three circles that intersect in the middle. One of the circles represents good soil chemistry, one good soil structure-which she said is essential and that if that is absent, chemistry cannot make up for it. The third circle represents good soil biology-organisms that live in the soil to help increase productivity.
“The center where these circles intersect is where you want to be farming,” she said.
Jean C. Eells, PhD, of E Resources Group in Webster City, said Iowa soils have degraded over the years, largely because of widespread tillage practices and not enough roots being (or staying) in the ground to hold soils in place. She said corn and soybeans are warm-weather crops, and that once harvested, the land is black for the remainder of the year until the following growing season.
“That’s not a system that favors soil health,” she said. “We’re banking on our warm-season crops to survive and build up the soil again so the next year’s crop will grow. What we want are things like oats on the landscape and hay and alfalfa on the rotations (so we) have living roots in the soil for the entire time.”
Eells said soil is robbed of its biology and structural elements by having roots in the soil only during the primary warm-weather season.
Schutte said good soil samples should resemble the density and consistency of chocolate cake when it is broken up. She said it would contain some roots, and that those roots would hold the soil sample together, which in turn, would hold and/or filter more water in a field.
She said water downstream from soil structures like that would result in cleaner water. She said soil that resembles the consistency of cocoa powder is in poor health.
“When there are roots in the ground holding the soil together-and tillage (comes along) it tears the roots apart and it cannot hold water or filter water,” said Eells, showing the women water samples of both kinds of soil after having had water poured over them.
The soil that was full of roots and clumped together resulted in water that was cleaner than that of soil that had no solid root system within it.
This, Eells said, is a clear message showing the need for grass waterways and buffer strips, because they not only aid in water filtering, but they also hold soil in place, preventing the erosion of topsoil.
“Anytime you see little gullies in fields, it means soil and water are moving, when it shouldn’t be,” said Eells.
Schutte added that tillage practices cause finer soils to sift down into deeper soil layers, clogging tile lines. “We need to think about getting our soil in good structure first-so it holds and filters water, then think about tiling. I bet you wouldn’t even need it.”
Schutte said climate change has affected soil structure, with rains coming in less frequent 3- and 4-inch amounts at a time instead of slower and more frequent rain showers. She said this causes water to sheet off instead of draining down.
She said good soil biology would include working microbes. Schutte said roots absorb nutrients from the soil, but also leak out syrups, which bacteria feed on and divide, making a “glue” of sorts that helps hold soil particles together.
She said there are good fungi that live in healthy soils, also producing those glue-like characteristics.
“There are ways to improve soil biology, and they would include not doing tillage and trying not to apply pesticides and fungicides,” said Schutte. “We could then cut down on the chemicals over time because the soil would be taking care of those things on its own.”
Eells encouraged the planting of cover crops, which would also produce living roots in the soil during the dormant season. She said metabolism from microrganisms in the soil create heat, and that living roots promote oxygen management and a warm, porous soil structure.
Eells said it’s best to start small when planting cover crops until producers understand its management, in order to protect the crop investment.
Sharon Chism, accredited farm manager at Hertz Farm Management Inc., of Nevada, said cover crops are something they’ve been using on their farms in central Iowa for the last decade.
Her landowners use it in small 1- to 2-acre areas, primarily on side hills to avoid side-hill shrill and erosion in fields.
“We tend to (plant) cover crops instead of grass waterways because grass waterways need maintenance, and gullies can form … it can be a challenge in spraying Round-up so it doesn’t shrink the size of the grass waterways.
“Farmers are pro-active in trying to maintain soil so we don’t have to try and repair with grass waterways.”
Chism said she’s seeing more interest from landowners as they hear and read more about cover crops, but she said it’s a challenge for them to find the time and resources to plant cover crops in an entire field – so they focus on the more fragile parts of the fields.
“We have seen fields where we’ve got cover crops on the entire field, but it’s more labor resources in the fall for the farming operation in addition to more monetary resources, and the weather is also a big factor, as to whether there is enough rain in the fall for the crops to emerge, and enough heat units to get them growing (at that time),” said Chism.
She said planting cover crops into an area where soybeans will be planted next is the best learning curve, since there is more time for the soil to dry out and utilize whatever tillage or chemical burn-down will be used for the cover crops.
Eells said producers could use poorer-producing areas of their fields to create wetlands to hold soil and water, rather than “losing the seed and investment on that area of a field.”
Eells produced a flyer offering five tips on building soil health – building organic matter in the soil, testing soil at least once every four years, using no-till practices, using cover crops and networking with others to learn what can be done to protect, preserve and build soil health.
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