Soil health has become a focus by astute farm managers, with a growing interest throughout the farming communities across the nation and the world. In view of this fact, a Soil Health Field Day, sponsored by Cornell Cooperative Extension, USDA NRCS, and the Watershed Agricultural Council — with funding from a USDA Conservation Innovation Grant and cooperation from Seedway, LLC and King’s Agriseeds Inc., took place at NYS Ag and Markets Commissioner Richard Ball’s Schoharie Valley Farm on Sept. 3.
“We anticipated about 100 to be in attendance,” said CNY CCE Field Crops Specialist Kevin Ganoe, who headed up the field day. “When 200 registered, we had to close the registrations!”
The field day, which focused on cover crops, featured keynote speaker Ray Archuleta (aka “Ray the Soil Guy,” and self proclaimed “the soil whisperer”), an energetic and enthusiastic conservation agronomist for the Natural Resources Conservation Service, with over 30 years of experience working with soils across the country.
“Soil is the engine of your farm’s productivity,” stated Archuleta. “If you do not fundamentally understand the basics of how soil functions, you are disconnected from it. It’s like being married and never talking to your wife.”
With the help of participants from the workshop, Archuleta, an advocate of reduced tillage, demonstrated soil stability tests, comparing clods of soil from different sources. These tests showed that soil from natural, untilled land has better structure and stability, while soil structure is broken down through tillage.
“Good, healthy soil will hold together and it holds its integrity and structure. Let us make this very clear!” Archuleta ephasized, “Tillage is one of the most destructive, intrusive things we do to modern agriculture! Natural systems do not kill. We have known since the 30’s that tillage oxidizes organic matter. The tillage machine is the catalyst. With the tillage machine — the rotor tiller — the discs are the most brutal!” Archuleta said there is a reason why the highway department uses discs; they don’t want filtration.
Demonstrations showed water would filter through no-till soil, while tilled, degraded soil exhibited severe run-off. “Natural ecosystems do not leak nutrients readily,” Archuleta explained. “Runoff is a symptom of poor soil function.”
Mimicking nature is the best choice for soil health. “Nature is high diversity, low disturbance. Farming is high disturbance, low diversity,” Archuleta pointed out. “Apply biomimic strategies.”
Evidence shows that incorporating cover crops will have a significant impact for reducing nutrient losses from fields, while increasing nutrient availability to soils.
“Cover crops are not optional. Cover crops are not about erosion. That’s the wrong concept,” explained Archuleta. “It’s about feeding the soil. We have got to incorporate diversity as much as we can in our cropping systems.”
A system based on reduced tillage and a mix of cover crops, naturally fertilized by livestock, will produce healthier soils over a period of time. “We’re making the fertilizer companies very, very rich because we don’t know soil function!” Archuleta stated. “When we know soil health, we empower ourselves.”
Archuleta says one sign of soil health is the presence of earthworms. “Earthworms are your tillage machine. Let them do it! They’re our recyclers. They’re our soil engineers!”
Other speakers at the field day produced more scientific evidence to back up what Archuleta was saying.
Emily Reiss, with Cornell, informed attendees about the importance of plants on soil function. “Cover the soil whenever possible,” Reiss advised. She commented that nitrogen from the soil provides more than 50 percent of the nitrogen taken up by plants. “Legumes have a nitrogen fixing capacity,” she said, showing charts with test results. “Cover crop mixtures add another opportunity to increase diversity,” she explained, citing grasses and legumes as a common example. “There are great benefits in mixing these together.” She also noted weed biomass decreases with more cultivars.
Planting times, harvesting dates and the importance of rotating crops were also discussed.
Regional Field Crops and Soil Specialist Kitty O’Neil gave a presentation on implementing a comprehensive approach to soil health. “The goal is to heal the soil,” O’Neil said. “It’s not easy to do!” Along with Archuleta and Reiss, she advises “maximizing vegetative cover and diversity.”
“Even if you can’t get a fully developed cover crop, it’s still beneficial.”
Wind and water erosion are reduced even with a small amount of cover crops. “There is a significant difference,” O’Neil stated. Reduced tillage is even more important. “It has a bigger impact — faster.”
Attendees split up into groups to tour 35 plots of warm and cool season cover crops species and to view how the soil was impacted by the presence of cover compared to soil without. Clovers and vetches, summer annuals, buckwheat, winter rye and cover crop mixes were all viewed and discussed by Cornell representatives, a Seedway representative, a King’s Agriseed representative and farmers who had experience with particular varieties.
A soil health and crop diversity presentation was led by Archuleta in one plot, while strip tillage/ reduced tillage/ no till was viewed and discussed in another plot, with Ethan Ball and Chuck Bornt. Reduced tillage machinery including planters were available for examination by attendees.
The effects of utilizing cover crops was obvious.
“More and more farmers in New York State are taking a second look at their crop rotations, cover crops and reduced tillage, in an effort to improve the health of their soil,” said Kevin Ganoe.
“Soil health has been given special attention by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations by declaring 2015, ‘International Year of Soils’,” said Aaron Gabriel, Cornell Sr. Extension Resource Educator, Agronomy, “We depend on soil as a basic resource for our survival. Even though farmers continually improve their soil stewardship with less tillage and new machinery; interest in soil health is at an all-time high. Productive soils are lost to development, and farmers are expected to grow more crops on a shrinking resource. Farmers need to improve the soils that they have left to them.”
“Our hope with this event was to show farmers and service providers how a wide variety of cover crops perform under real world conditions, and to provide research based information on using cover crop mixes and other strategies to improve soil health and crop quality,” remarked CCE Regional Horticulture Specialist Crystal Stewart.
For more information on cover crops and soil health contact Ganoe at email@example.com .