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Here is an article I wrote for the “Down on the Farm” feature in the Berlin Journal Newspapers that was published in September. This is a monthly feature that is written by rotating members of area Farm Bureau chapters.  I have recently taken on a role as the Young Farmer & Agriculturist Chair for Green Lake County.  Enjoy!

Healthy Soil Holds Benefits for Agriculture and the Environment

As the summer winds down and students and teachers head back to school, I hope you took some time to enjoy the great outdoors during the warmer months.  Maybe you went hiking in an old growth forest, or fishing at your favorite lake, or maybe you logged some hours driving a tractor.  These three things may not seem like they have a lot in common, but they are all dependent on taking care of a very important resource: soil.

Soil doesn’t get a lot of attention in our everyday lives, but it is literally the foundation of everything! It holds the roots and soil ecosystem in the old growth forest, acts as a filter for our waters, and provides nutrients to the crops growing in the fields.  Without healthy soil we would have collapsing ecosystems, polluted waterways, and infertile fields that would make it difficult for humanity to survive.

The truth is that our soils need our help. Traditional farming methods such as heavy tillage and leaving the soil bare during wet seasons have decreased the soils’ ability to hold themselves together by upsetting their ecosystem and destroying the organic matter particles which hold everything together. According to Dr. Harold Dregne of Texas Tech University, 74% of soil in North America is considered degraded, meaning it is no longer functioning at its best and perhaps is no longer suitable for agriculture.  Dr. Rattan Lal at Ohio State University has stated that we are losing on average more than five tons of topsoil per acre every year in the United States.  Five tons per acre is only the thickness of a nickel, but add that up every year and it doesn’t take long to realize that this precious resource is literally being swept away.

Where does that soil go? Usually it ends up in ditches or waterways where it carries with it nutrients that throw off the balance of life in a lake or stream.  Excess Nitrogen and Phosphorus in waterways from soil runoff contribute to algae and seaweed growth, making life less pleasant for humans and the desirable species in the water. It also means that the soil and nutrients are no longer in the fields where they belong and can contribute to growing food for humans and livestock.  Dr. Lal and colleagues estimate that erosion and soil loss cost American agriculture $44 Billion each year in lost yield and nutrients.

So what can be done? Luckily there are steps that can be taken to reverse these trends and help farmers keep their soil where it belongs while protecting our water.  These steps are often known as the “Five Keys of Soil Health.”

  • Minimize Disturbance – This can mean eliminating one tillage pass a year or going full-no till. Less disturbance means a more thriving soil biology community. Compaction is also a serious problem so choosing a sacrifice track, staying off the fields when wet, and using the right size tools for the job can help soil maintain healthy structure.
  • Armor on the Soil at All Times – If we don’t want it to run off, it makes sense to cover it up! This can mean leaving the stubble from the previous crop there without tilling it in, planting in a winter crop, or establishing a cover crop. This protects the soil from the brunt of the rain and wind while providing some resistance to the soil that does get moving.
  • Living Root as Much as Possible – Did you know that plants and soil organisms talk to each other? It’s pretty cool. The roots and microbes have an exchange of nutrients that works for both parties so they get what they need.  These healthy soil communities then contribute to the growth of organic matter as they go through their life cycles. In agriculture this means trying to have cover crops or commercial crops growing as much of the year as possible, which I know has its challenges in Wisconsin! The living roots also help hold soil in place and further prevent erosion.
  • Diversity – If you let a space go wild, you won’t find just one species of plant or one type of bird. That’s because different plants have different root structures and nutrient needs so they contribute to the ecosystems differently.  By planting multiple species of cover crops together and having diverse rotations of crops on a farm, farmers can help their soils be healthy and fertile.
  • Animal Impact – Whether it’s sheep grazing or tankers of manure being spread, animals are an important part of soil ecosystems. When animals consume plants, they break them down and their waste gets eliminated in their feces. Manure contains valuable nutrients that can both save a farmer money on fertilizer but are part of the biological processes necessary for healthy soils.  Farmers today follow strict guidelines to make the most of their manure and prevent the nutrients and bacteria from ending up in our waterways.

Through implementation of these steps we can slow and possibly reverse the trend of soil loss. Every 1% increase in soil organic matter results in 25,000 more gallons of water being infiltrated and not running off in each rainfall event, and each ton of healthy soil is worth $30 in nutrients to the farmer and reduction in off-site damage (NRCS, 2018 dollars). In order to feed the growing population and protect our waters, it is clear that soil is something we cannot afford to lose.