ARCF applications are now being accepted year round with projects being funded as funds become available.
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?
Some landowners like the look of a clean-tilled field in the springtime. But that “nice look” can be very short lived.
“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.”
Tennessee farmers have been transforming the landscape for decades with no-till farming methods, helping to restore the state’s soils. In fact, the University of Tennessee’s Research and Education Center at Milan has been a leader in this effort since 1981. The research conducted by UT AgResearch at Milan is known worldwide.
While no-till farming is the norm in Tennessee today, it hasn’t always been the case. “About four decades ago, West Tennessee was ranked as one of the top areas in the U.S. for the highest soil erosion rate,” says Don Tyler, retired professor for the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture. The average soil erosion rate for Tennessee at that time was 40 tons of soil per acre per year.
Unlike tillage, commonly known as plowing, no-till methods leave soils undisturbed, allowing crop residue to remain on the surface, protecting the topsoil from runoff. Seeds are planted in rows in the soil. In contrast, tillage leaves soil “bare” and highly susceptible to erosion.
Some soils across Tennessee are considered fragile, Tyler says, but West Tennessee’s are especially susceptible.
“The soils in West Tennessee are especially erodible because they are very silty soils,” Tyler says. “They are almost like talcum powder – very silty and easily moved by water if they’re exposed and tilled.”
As an example of how easily soil can erode with tilling versus no-till, Tyler says, “We have data that shows in till systems, one storm can result in the loss of more than 10 tons of soil per acre, whereas a no-till system right beside it with the same measurements may result in 1/10 of a ton loss. It’s a huge difference.”
Today, Tennessee is a shining example of the no-till success, with up to 90 percent of the state’s farms using no-till practices, according to the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service. This change was possible thanks to the assistance and innovation of the University of Tennessee Extension and UT AgResearch, within the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture, and Tennessee’s row crop farmers who saw the benefits and invested in the technology to make no-till a reality.
Tyler was one of the many team members enlisted to research and help Tennessee adapt its tilling ways that were having a negative impact on the land.
“With no-till, we’ve dramatically reduced the manmade accelerated soil erosion,” Tyler says. “A lot of the soil that we have now in the state would not be here if we did not go no-till. The soil was eroding at such a high rate, and there would be fields today that would have been abandoned if we did not make the change. We have many farmers now who have been completely no-till for 30 years,” he adds.
Farming in Dyer and Lauderdale counties, along the Mississippi River, Jimmy Moody experienced firsthand the positive changes that no-till methods brought to his West Tennessee farm.
Moody, who is in his mid-60s, farms on his own family operation and at Cold Creek Farms with a business partner, growing soybeans and cotton. Back when he used to till all of his land, he would need to burn crop residue, till soil and plow weeds. But since he took up no-till, he directly plants crops and controls weeds with advanced herbicides that were unavailable several decades back.
“When I was young, using no-till was unheard of,” Moody says.
No-till is good for the soil, reducing soil erosion and increasing organic matter in the surface soil. Plus, it encourages flourishing earthworm populations – which are a great indicator of soil health and create channels to flow water into soil and reduce runoff. No-till farming has economic benefits, too. “Farmers using no-till are minimizing their labor needs, the time it takes to actually farm, reducing fuel costs dramatically, and a lot of them can farm on a much larger scale than they would be able to otherwise, which has almost become necessary to survive,” Tyler says.
Moody agrees. “There’s no way that I could be farming on the scale that I am today without no-till farming,” he says.