Soil health: Appreciating a new agenda

CEW-MR-3-Soil health1by Troy Bishopp
SKANEATELES, NY — President Barack Obama arrived in the Syracuse area and spoke about a new agenda for higher education which is more affordable, encourages and embraces innovation and becomes a good investment because it pays off over time.
At the same time, just south of Orangeman country adjacent to the Owasco Lake Watershed, there was a different kind of meeting. Gathered in the middle of a wheat field were over 80 farmers, extension educators, agri-business service providers and conservation professionals learning about a new agenda and demonstrations to improve soil health which also embraced innovation and was a good investment over time. As Cayuga County farmer, Steve Nemec said, “We need to do the right thing by our soils.”
The theme of the gathering was to inspire the ‘biologicals’, according to farmer hosts, Steve and Jason Cuddeback, who’s lineage goes back three generations on their 800 acres of land. After practicing with diverse rotations, conservation tillage and no-till cropping with cover crops for years and seeing the production increase while expenses decrease, they have become true advocates. “Being that we are in a sensitive watershed and with the high prices for nitrogen and fuel, we must do everything we can to enhance our biology in the soil. Give them the right environment and they do all the work. It just makes good economic and environmental sense,” said Steve.
To inspire the audience and provide some showmanship, David Lamm, agronomist and leader for NRCS’s National Soil Health and Sustainability Team and David Brandt, no-till farmer and 2011 Ohio Farmers’ Ag Man of the Year brought a boatload of props to explain the attributes of a healthy soil and how to build healthy resilient soils with cover crops.
Using the slake test, rainfall simulator and water infiltration demo, Lamm created the ah-ha moment for the audience as the soil biological “glues” and organic matter held soil in place while the tilled soil clod dispersed in water or ran off. “These examples get folks, young and old, thinking about the importance of soil life and the ever present, water cycle,” said David. Lamm said the specifics of a robust healthy soil system vary from farm to farm, but they all share four core principles. “To improve soil health: Disturb it less, plant cover crops, use plant diversity, and grow living roots during the year.”
Brandt showed off cover crop mixtures with yield and economic data while relating true stories about his progression with equipment and plants to get the job done. “I believe the most important tool for farmers is a shovel to check their soil management every day,” said the cover crop king.
Dr. Bianca Moebius-Clune from Cornell University’s soil health lab reiterated to the audience that we generally have a “tillage addiction” while demonstrating a provocative look at the importance of soil pore space using a series of sponges. She also gave the group an overview of the Cornell Health Test and what it measures while adding to the baseline data of the land. “We are excited to have created a numerical measurement tool to show how soil biology improves the bottom line and help farmers make management decisions for long term sustainability.”
Adding to the excitement was a panel of smiling, articulate, local crop farmers.  Steve Cuddeback, Donn Branton and Steve Nemec all shared their personal stories with using minimum and no-till systems. All men stated they saved fuel, labor and increased yields while being able to harness more microbes in the soil and decrease nitrogen fertilizer use. However, they tempered their enthusiasm with the practical realism that it takes patience, some outside of the box thinking and the need to keep a systems approach to your management of the soil. Donn summed it up nicely by saying, “We don’t have to reinvent the wheel, just make it run smoother.”
As the sun settled, equipment companies as well as the Cuddebacks demonstrated no-till, zone till, Aerway and compact disc harrow implements in the wheat stubble as well as showcasing some trial plots of cover crop mixtures and use of GPS navigation systems and mapping software.
When asked about the success of the event, Keith Severson, Field Crop Educator for Cayuga County Cornell Cooperative Extension said, “This day was a culmination of many organizations and opportunities to bring people together to learn about conservation and enhance the productivity of our farmland… the basis of our wealth. Soil health training and implementation is the wave of the future. You can feel the current flowing towards a sustainable future.”
The following day Lamm and Brandt took their road show to a “train the trainer” workshop held at the Musgrave Research Farm in Aurora, NY in which over 60 conservation district, NRCS and extension educator field staff came to get hands-on knowledge in how to teach these ah-ha moments to stakeholders in their locale. They practiced with the tools provided from the night before and added biological indicators and perk tests out in the facility’s fields. They learned more about the attributes of cover crop mixtures and plant dynamics as well as the nuances of conservation tillage equipment use and costs. They even learned the art of showmanship from the jovial teachers.
Aaron Ristow, Upper Susquehanna Coalition’s Ag Coordinator and Cover Crop Initiative manager thought the training was eye-opening. “I got a good feel (literally) on the importance of improving soil health practices and was intrigued by Dave Brandt’s approach and passion in planting cover crop mixtures. I can now see and prove to our watershed partners the great economic and environmental benefits of increasing our underground flora and fauna.”
The soil health workshops were supported by the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the NYS Soil and Water Conservation Committee, Cornell Cooperative Extension and Cornell’s Soil Health Testing Lab, Empire Chapter of the Soil and Water Conservation Society, CNY RC&D Council, Farm Bureau, Cazenovia Equipment, Monroe Tractor, Aerway Equipment and the Cuddeback Family Farm.
To learn more about soil health visit: www.soilhealth.cals.cornell.edu or www.nrcs.usda.gov

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