Soil Health Resources – Agricultural producers who were able to participate in the Soil Health Workshop conducted on January 20th at the Williston Research Extension Center by the Williams County Soil Conservation District and NDSU Extension had an opportunity to hear Keith Berns with Green Cover Seed talk about carbon and the importance of carbon in building healthy soil.
Keith Berns, a former teacher, is a no-till farmer and co-owner of Green Cover Seed along with his brother. Green Cover Seed is headquartered in Bladen, NE, with key partners across the High Plains and Midwest. They specialize in developing and delivering cover crop seed but are also committed to educating people about soil health.
One of the resources Green Cover Seed provides as part of their commitment to educating farmers, ranchers, and others about soil health is their annual Soil Health Resource Guide. The 8th issue of this guide was recently released and is available to read, download, or order copies at no cost on their website, https://greencover.com/
A unique feature of their resource guide is that every year they invite some of the best minds in the soil health arena and regenerative agriculture movement to share their expertise and insight for the benefit of all. A few names you may recognize from this year’s guide include Ray Archuleta, North Dakota’s Jay Fuhrer, David Montgomery, Christine Jones, and Nicole Masters, just to mention a few.
Whether you want to learn more about soil health or are looking to reinforce your understanding of soil health, if you can find the time to read the articles in this guide, I think you will begin to better understand and appreciate the importance and interconnectedness of the basic principles of soil health. These basic principles are minimal soil disturbance, keeping the soil covered, keeping a living root in the soil as much as possible, maximizing diversity, and livestock integration when possible.
It is also important to know your context. Basically knowing your context is your individual situation. This could be climate, geography, resources, skills, family dynamics, goals, and any other factors that may influence you and your operation.
Carbon is one of the driving forces behind improving soil health. Carbon is the primary component of organic matter. Organic matter is vital to healthy soils and to build organic matter we need to find ways to put more carbon into the soil along with increasing microbial biomass and diversity. A higher level of soil organic matter improves both the availability of nutrients and soil moisture for crops.
As research shows the less you till, the more carbon you keep in the soil to maintain organic matter, a good starting point to improve soil health is to minimize soil disturbance using practices such as direct seeding or no-till systems. Each time soil is tilled, it is exposed to oxygen which stimulates microbial action to decompose organic matter at an accelerated rate, releasing carbon into the atmosphere. Over time, tillage alone leads to a loss of soil carbon and depletion of organic matter.
Minimal soil disturbance is also less disruptive to soil aggregates, which are one of the key components to soil structure and health as good soil aggregation is important for moisture infiltration into the soil and in providing habitat for the soil microbes.
At the same time, practices that minimize soil disturbance tend to leave more cover on the soil surface to protect against soil erosion, reduce moisture loss due to evaporation, and help moderate soil temperatures to keep them in a more favorable range for both plant development and soil microbial activity.
An important step in getting more carbon into the soil to build organic matter is to keep a living root in the soil for as much of the growing season as possible. Research has found that living roots are the most important means of adding “new” carbon to the soil. Plants take carbon dioxide from the air and water from the soil, which they transform into simple sugars through the process of photosynthesis. Plants transform these simple sugars to a number of carbon compounds including some which they leak from their roots.
These exudates from the roots are very energy-rich carbon sources that help feed the microbes in the soil. In exchange for the “liquid carbon”, the microbes in the vicinity of the plant roots help acquire nutrients and minerals for the plant. Some of the carbon that is leaked to the microbes is turned into stabilized forms of carbon called humates and glues such as glomalin, which bind soil particles together to form aggregates and enhance soil structure.
This is an over simplification of the process of regenerating soils, but should give you some insight into the interconnectedness of the soil health principles in building soil health. In essence, soil organisms build their own shelter, which are soil aggregates. Soil aggregation improves soil structure by increasing pore space which increases the soil’s ability to infiltrate and store moisture. This is beneficial to both microbes and plants. Plants spur microbial activity by capturing carbon from the atmosphere and converting them to sugars some of which they purposely exude from their roots to feed the microbes, who in term help provide the plants with nutrients, minerals, and even to some degree moisture from the soil.
Farmers who use soil health building systems that include no-till, cover crops, and diverse species rotations have been reporting greater productivity, profitability and resiliency to weather extremes. Not only can healthy soil help protect your farm from drought, improve production, and protect soil and water resources, it can also lower input costs – and that can lead to a healthier bottom line for your business.
69th National Hard Spring Wheat Show – Don’t forget the 2022 National Hard Spring Wheat Show which will be held this Wednesday, February 9th at the Williston Area Recreation Center.
All are invited to attend the Ag Appreciation Breakfast starting at 7:30 am. The main program begins at 9am and will feature presentations on many new and current topics relating to agriculture ranging from weather to grain markets.
From a soil health standpoint, you won’t want to miss the 3:30 pm presentation by Upendra Sainju, research scientist at the Sidney USDA Northern Plain Agriculture Research Laboratory, speaking on “Soil Carbon Storage in Wheat-Based Cropping Systems”. Dr. Saninju is renowned in developing soil and crop management practices that sequester carbon and nitrogen in the soil, reducing nitrogen fertilization needs, mitigating greenhouse gas emissions, and sustaining crop yields in dryland and irrigated cropping systems.
A social hour and supper will close out the day leading up to the Wheat Show’s featured speaker, Jolene Brown. She is well known for her wit and humor while addressing serious issues involved with agricultural operations.
More information on the Wheat Show and the complete program can be found at https://www.ndsu.edu/agriculture/extension/events/69th-national-hard-spring-wheat-show-williston-nd.