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CROP WATCH

Thoughts on soil health

March 3, 2017
BOB STREIT - columnist , Farm News

February 2017 is history and March has arrived. It is hard to fathom that the new year is already one sixth over. Time does fly when you are having fun. That means that the first day of spring is only about seven weeks away. Wow

I was in Illinois last Monday and Tuesday and drove through some hard rain enroute. Tuesday morning there were worms and worm tracks everywhere as the frost had moved out of the subsoil and Lumbicus terrestis, or nightcrawlers, decided it was time to break their winter hibernation.

Welcome back and we hope you have a nice summer. May you go about your tasks of breaking down plant debris and enrich the soils in doing so.

Soil health

The idea of good soil health is gaining much more lip service as more growers recognize problems with erosion in their own fields and the fact that their organic matter levels have dropped measurably in their farming lifetimes.

Different groups are hosting seminars, conferences, and meetings to present their facts and try to get more growers on board, offering them ways to help reverse the trend.

For example I used to work with an 80-year-old farmer from Franklin County. Years before they could see only the roof of a neighbor's barn from their own yard. After years of moldboard plowing and subsequent soil erosion the hills in their field were lowered by 13 to 15 feet and most of the same barn could be seen from their yard. They were left with yellowish clay and lots of rock on the hills instead of nice black dirt. How much of the eroded dirt ran into their bottoms versus how much ended up in the Gulf?

That topsoil was the portion where the majority of the minerals and organic matter existed.

Thus there have been more meetings in the state and the Midwest where soil health has been the point of discussion. Presentations given by people like Jill Clapperton can describe a vivid zoo-like menagerie of strange-looking little critters that crawl, swim, or jump through the soil, interacting with fungi, bacteria and other little critters always looking for their next meal.

In time they cause applied fertilizer to be converted into usable plant nutrients, build organic matter, and go about the task of converting plant residue into a carbon-based sponge that adds tilth to the soil and acts to hold water for future plant use. At these conferences the speakers provide more information about the actual role of crop roots working in a symbiotic relationship with the flora and fauna living around and on them.

The guidance given can then be taken home by the growers who then experiment to see which pieces of information best fit their farm and their goal of saving their soil and improving their profitability. This seemed to be the theme of the conference held in Spirit Lake a few weeks ago that Karen Schwaller wrote about in the 2/17 Farm News.

At other conferences they seem to deal more from the operators' seat as they have to make decisions about rotations, fertilizer application practices, input products such as which pesticides to continue using, where cultural practices or more drainage can improve some fields and even if they are the generation that should be tasked with making bold changes or it is the task of their sons or daughters, whichever is their successor. Realize that hard core devotees approach their ideas with almost religious fervor and enthusiasm. They recognize that this top 12 inches of soil is what sustains the human race.

This seemed to the direction of the recent Soil Health Conference held in Ames.

Gabe Brown is in this group. He is the North Dakotan who has doubled his organic matter and improved his moisture infiltration rate to where his fields can absorb a foot of rain without runoff. In comparison many of our Iowa soils can barely absorb a half-inch of rain before it quits soaking in. He does not brag about how much rain falls in any one rainfall event.

Instead he quotes how much soaked in and how much his crops yield with sometimes minimal rain. The stored moisture serves as reserve to be used by his crops during the drier months of the summer.

One thing that needs to be provided is which fertilizer products and which pesticides help, hurt or are neutral to this soil biology. This is where presenters squirm a bit as they survey to see what company reps that helped write the check to support the meeting might be sitting in the audience.

In some cases, the jury might be in or out on such products. In others there may have not been enough studies done to say for sure if their products affect soil biology negatively or positively. To ignore this could lead to long-term failure to make progress on building soil health.

Experimenting with or using strip tillage is something that looks good and offers several benefits that can bring semi no-till to flat land operators. One thing that might be good would be to sample a few fields for a Haney analysis to gauge the soil quality of your different fields. You have to learn where your fields are at before you can decide where you are going.

Brazil

A few people have asked how Brazil was while we were down there and wanted to know more about what we saw. The biggest and most memorable sight was touring the big Cataracts, or waterfalls as we call them in North America, known as the Foz do Iguassu. It is a gargantuan two-mile-wide falls that lay in a horseshoe shape in the Iguacu river valley.

Supposedly 311,000 cubic meters of water go over the falls each second. A person has no way of knowing how accurate that figure was, but they have build walkways out into the stream flow along the edges of the falls so when you walk on some of them there is a very heavy mist accompanied by a 30 to 40 mph wind created by the deluge of falling water.

Ancient Indian tribes included it in their legends and it remained hidden from most visitors until it was "rediscovered" by a Spanish Explorer in 1549. Due to its location trading posts were set up in the area and it became a gathering spot and development area for the three country area.

The waterfall was named one of the seven natural wonders of the world and deserves that claim. We will try to post pictures of our visit there and maybe a video we obtained. Look it up sometime.

On the same Saturday morning it seemed the time to tour the huge hydroelectric dam called Itapoa, named after the main Indian tribe in the area. This is South America's largest hydropower dam, and until the Three Gorges Dam in China was completed it was the world's largest.

The project was organized by a forward-thinking group of leaders in Brazil and Paraguay knowing if they were going to develop the region and its commercial potential they needed a sure source of electricity. The obvious source was going to be the large river flowing along their joint border. They formed a bi-national governing board and began the planning, eventually selling bonds backed by the eventual power that would be generated by the dam and power plant.

There were other trends that seem to be developing in Brazilian ag. Growers and farm managers seem to be recognizing they need to be developing more crop rotations and introduce more livestock into their operations. Since most Brazilian and Argentine growers raise two grain crops in one year and they have a four-month winter time where either small grains or pasture can be grown they are producing more acres of improved pasture. Fertilizer companies are developing foliar mixtures of nutrients that boost forage growth, mineral content of the forage and improving the palatability of the leaves, all which increase the lbs of beef per hectare and overall profitability of the cattle operations.

Bob Streit is an independent crop consultant and columnist for Farm News. He can be reached at (515) 709-0143 or www.CentralIowaAg.com.

 
 

 

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