- Category: Programs
Horse Creek Days 2019
By: Elizabeth Gibbs
The Hardin County Soil Conservation District was proud to be part of Horse Creek Days held at the beautiful Horse Creek Wildlife Refuge on Horse Creek in Savannah, Tennessee. The event invites all Hardin County 4th grade students to attend a day of education and fun. The “Water Quality Station” was manned by Elizabeth Gibbs of the Hardin County Soil Conservation District who demonstrated the Enviroscape model to help students to understand the ways in which communities contribute to the quality of their water. Jared Kelley and Martha Griffin of the Natural Resource Conservation Service engaged the students in lessons about erosion, water quality and the diversity of life in and around Horse Creek. Chis King, technician at the McNairy County Soil Conservation and Wildlife Habitat Biologist Chris Hunter of the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency provided live examples of life found in and around the creek. Mr. Hunter invited students to explore the environment as he spoke on specimens found by the students. Mr. King spoke to the students about conservation and what they can do to help preserve our natural resources. Thanks to our partner agencies; the TWRA, McNairy Co. SCD and the NRCS for making such an impression on these Hardin Co. students. The staff and students had a great time on Horse Creek.
Five Questions Non-Operator Landowners Should Ask Their Farmers about Soil Health
More than half of all cropland in the United States is rented . This means the person who owns the land – a non-operator landowner – is often separate from the farmer making daily management decisions that have long-term impacts on the land.
If you are one of those landowners, you may not be thinking about your soil and how it is managed. Your soil is your most valuable asset, and building soil health is a capital improvement. It is an investment – in your land’s long-term productivity and resiliency.
How can non-operator landowners and tenant farmers work together to build land that’s healthy, resilient, and productive?
Barry Fisher, an Indiana farmer and nationally-recognized soil health specialist with USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, recommends that non-operator landowners ask their farming partners these five questions.
1. Do you build organic matter in the soil?
Organic matter – carbon – may be the most important indicator of a farm’s productivity. The amount of soil organic matter often determines the price farmers will pay to rent or buy land.
“Finding a farmer who is interested in building organic matter by using practices like no-till and cover crops is like finding a bank with a better rate on a Certificate of Deposit,” Fisher says.
2. Do you test the soil at least once every four years?
Optimizing fertility and pH levels is important to your farm’s productivity. Regular soil testing can give an indication of trends in soil fertility, pH, and levels of organic matter in a field. These tests help determine the amount of fertilizer each field needs and potentially saves money for farmers on fields with adequate or high fertility.
New soil tests that indicate active carbon levels and populations of important soil biology are also available to help monitor soil health. If a field has a history of manure application and very high fertility, for instance, a farmer could potentially plant cover crops to keep those nutrients in place rather than applying more nutrients that may not be needed.
3. Do you use no-till practices?
“The reality is, a field that has bare soil is subject to erosion and loss of organic matter since it no longer has the protective cover from the crop residue on the surface,” Fisher says. “No-till farming utilizes the crop residue to blanket the soil surface and protect it from the forces of intense rainfall and summer heat. This protective blanket will conserve moisture for the crop and prevent loss of soil from wind or water erosion.”
4. Do you plant cover crops?
Cover crops provide a green, protective blanket through the winter months or fallow times.
“The green-growing cover is collecting solar energy, putting down roots and providing habitat when the soil would otherwise be lifeless and barren,” says Fisher. “This habitat provides food and shelter for a broad population of wildlife above ground and beneficial organisms below ground.”
Cover crops hold onto nutrients left from the previous crop and release them to the next crop. The solar rays these plants collect are powering photosynthesis, taking in carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to produce food for organisms living in the root zone. Cover crops also build nutrient-rich organic matter in the soil and improve the soil’s ability to take in water.
5. What can we do together to improve soil health on my land?
According to Fisher, the duration of the lease agreement is perhaps the most critical matter in encouraging the adoption of soil health management practices.
“Farmers can actually build the production capacity and resiliency of their landowner’s soil, but it may take several years to realize the full benefits of doing so,” Fisher says. He suggests that landowners consider multi-year leases to provide tenure security for the tenant. Longer tenures give both landowners and tenants more opportunities to improve soil health and benefit from the resulting production and profitability gains.
“Improving soil health can provide long-term, stable dividends for you, your family, and your farming partner,” Fisher says. “Improving soil health also can decrease the effects of flooding, make food production more resilient to weather extremes, and improve the health of water and wildlife.”
Fisher encourages landowners to learn more about the basics and benefits of soil health management systems and begin the soil health discussion with their farming partners right away.
“Whether you own or rent your land, everyone has a great stake in improving the health of our soils,” he says.
Grow Life in the Soil
Grow Life in the Soil
The need is critical to grow more life in the soil, and it starts by treating it as you would your own body.
Soil is filled with living, breathing, hardworking creatures – it’s a natural commodity more important than any cash crop. When soil is alive, it’s teaming with macro- and microorganisms, ranging the gamut from highly visible beetles and worms to microscopic viruses, bacteria, and fungi. Each of these soil citizens provides a service to the healthful functioning of the broader community.
Having lots of healthy and diverse organisms in the soil creates a self-sufficient cropping system that becomes less dependent upon synthetic fertilizers and pesticides.
The system itself produces fertility for robust plant growth, resistance to pests, and water-stable soil aggregates that enhance soil porosity to permit rapid water infiltration and to resist erosion.
In a nutshell, such a system produces resilient crops. In today’s uncertainty of climate, the need for plant resilience is growing more urgent by the day.
“The need to think about and work toward soil health is becoming extreme,” says Kris Nichols, a soil scientist-consultant from Kutztown, Pennsylvania. “Plants need resilience in order to withstand stressors such as adverse weather. One thing that you can count on is a continuing increase in the uncertainty and variability of climate.
“During the span of just one week here in Pennsylvania last winter, we had historic lows and historic highs in temperature,” she says. “We had a swing in temperature of 70°F. That doesn’t make any sense. Yet, it’s happened multiple times. How does a plant respond to such variability in conditions?
“We need a production system that is resilient,” she says. “A healthy soil that is alive with organisms keeps the system resilient. It does that by promoting diversity of life in the soil and above ground.”
Along with the growing need for resilience in cropping systems, there is a need for the kind of stable soil structure that resists wind and water erosion.
“We lose nearly 2 billion metric tons of topsoil annually in the U.S.,” says Nichols. “Most of that ends up in lakes, rivers, and estuaries. In the Gulf region, for instance, dredging is needed to remove the soil in order to keep shipping lanes open. Much of it is piled in that area, clogging the estuaries and exacerbating drainage problems.”
Eroding topsoil typically carries nitrates and phosphates from synthetic fertilizers with it, notes Nichols. These nitrates and phosphates end up in ground and surface waters, creating conditions such as the Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico.
“In some communities now in places such as the Midwest, it’s hard to get good drinking water without having to do costly filtration,” she says.