A policy-changing movement

AMES – Boosting soil health with cover crops was the topic of a soils seminar on June 5 at the Scheman Building on the Iowa State University campus in Ames.

Ray Archuleta, a Natural Resources Conservation Service conservation agronomist, started the daylong seminar with explaining the importance of soil health and using audience members to help him with several demonstrations.

“The soil health movement is such a strong, positive movement,” said Archuleta. “A movement that is helping to change policy.”

Soil has to maintain health in order to survive, he said. The steps necessary to do this include practicing no-till, using cover crops and understanding the soil ecosystem.

“Tillage is the most intrusive thing in the ecosystem,” Archuleta said. “It spreads weeds, breaks up bacteria and destroys the biotic glues of the soil.”

The problem of soil run-off has been one that conservationists have been trying to solve for years, but Archuleta believes soil run-off isn’t the issue at all.

“We don’t have a run-off problem, we have an infiltration system problem,” he said.

The way to increase soil infiltration, Archuleta said, is to keep soils covered 24/7 and to understand its ecosystem.

Biomimicry, which is the examination of nature, its models, systems, processes and elements to emulate in order to solve human problems, is one way, Archuleta wbelieves, will help soils become healthy and more productive.

“We need to emulate the prairie and forests,” he said. “They are covered 24/7, feature diversity, build their own nutrients and have animals.”

Archuleta claims farmers who have incorporated those systems have eliminated the need of having to feed the land with commercial fertilizers, saying soil feeds the plant; fertilizers do not.

“We need our soils to function as a vital living system,” he said. “We have disrupted the soil ecosystem and now our soil is naked, hungry, thirsty and running a fever.”

Diversification with cover crops, Archuleta said. is one way to mimic the prairies and forests. Using a variety of plants will help provide with different root depths, helping with soil infiltration and contrary to popular belief, using several different species of plants the proper way will not lead to plants competing and not flourishing.

Soil diagnosis

The best tool to help determine soil health is a shovel.

Archuleta recommends digging a soil sample to see, smell and feel for the health of one’s soil.

According to information provided by the NRCS, soil that is functioning at its full potential is full of roots, and is home to worms and other organisms and also provides the right amount of air, water and organic matter for microorganisms to thrive and for plants to grow and to be looking for those aspects.

Healthy soils have a sweet and earthy aroma, while unhealthy, out-of-balance soils smell sour or metallic, or like a kitchen cleanser, he said.

Healthy soil is easy to dig into and will feel soft, moist and crumbly, while unhealthy soils feel dry, crusty and cloddy and does not crumble readily when pulled apart.

Long time no-tiller

Dave Brandt, a farmer from Ohio, spoke with the large crowd about his farming operation and experience he has gained through his more than 40-year career practicing no-till.

Brandt said he has been practicing no-till since 1971 and shortly thereafter growing cover crops. In that time, he said he has turned yellow-clay to a dark, rich soil.

For the first 30 years of growing cover crops, Brandt said he grew a single species, but nine years ago, he decided to bring more diversity to his operation and began growing two different species simultaneously- winter peas and radishes – but recently has been experimenting with other mixes.

His advice, when it comes to growing cover crops, is to keep them thin, not planting them necessarily as thick as some experts suggest and he has also learned there is no need to remove the residue left from the cover crops before planting.

“The residue will get smashed down during the planting and there isn’t always a need for herbicide, the cover left helps hold in the moisture for your crop,” said Brandt.

One piece of advice is when it comes to planting into standing cover crops, Brandt said, it works best if the plant is pollinating or flowering.

When the cover crop is in that stage of growth, it will more likely remain flat, when it is rolled or planted, otherwise there could be issues with it springing back up.

Cover crops, Brandt said, can play a large part in helping to reduce and break up compaction. While planting oilseed radishes, for example, he has seen them grow as much as 50 inches in down and while doing so has reduced compaction by 40 percent.

To help get his cover crops planted in a timely and proficient manner before his corn is harvested,

Brandt said he has converted a high-clearance sprayer to drop the seed in the row and sees this becoming the future in cover crop seeding.

Brandt said he drops the seeds at the height of the ear of corn and thinks the seeding results are better than those seeded from the air.

For first time cover-crop growers, Brandt suggests starting with rye, as it is “a very forgiving crop.”

With the delays in planting this spring, Brandt said cover cropping may be a necessity in Iowa.

“If you are prevented from planting, you need to use a cover crop,” Brandt said. “That way your ground won’t be naked and hungry.

“Think now within the next two months if you can’t get your beans or corn in, you can start a no-till operation and plant cover crops in your prevented planting acres. Even if you have to wait until mid-July, you can plant a summer mix and it will either freeze off or some species may bloom in the spring and you are on our way to lowering input costs.”

“I’m not against fertilizer and I’m not against chemicals,” he said, “but I am for making money.”

Archuleta said to help reduce dependency on petroleum products, a farmer has to be committed and be patient when switching acres over to no-till and using cover crops.

“Expect the worse, initially, it is healing hundreds of years of disruption,” said Archuleta.

He added it could take at least three to five years for soil to begin to repair and before it starts to increase nutrient cycling.

He also recommends networking with an expert or fellow no-till producer.

“Find a mentor or a community of believers of this type of holistic thought and planning process,” said Archuleta.

In order to be successful, he said, get organized, understand the needed tools, both equipment and crops, and make one’s operation resilient through ecological and financial diversity.

“Don’t put all of your eggs in one basket,” he said. “Mother Nature doesn’t, that’s why she can grow in all sorts of conditions.”

When it comes to designing cover crop mixes, Archuleta suggests using at least eight species and to let the legumes feed the mix and to not fertilize.

He also recommends using blends that will offer different heights and having as much biomass growing below the ground as there is above the soil.

Plant a diverse rotation; he said, to meet needs, such as crops for grazing or to protection during a drought, and to ensure the rotation covers the soil 24/7.

Both Brandt and Archuleta said four to six weeks of cover crop growth s needed in order to get a positive result.

Archuleta recommends visiting Green Cover Seed’s website at www.greencoverseed.com and using the SmartMix Calculator.