“What are we creating?” Madison Co. SWCD/Upper Susquehanna Coalition Regional Grassland Conservation Professional, Grazing Specialist (aka the Grass Whisperer), Troy Bishopp asked attendees at the Otsego Co. Soil & Water Conservation District (SWCD) 2017 Soil Health Workshop. “What is the problem? There are numerous problems… Why does it matter? What are we doing with the pastures? What are we doing with crops and soils and biology? We’re burning them up by not keeping them covered. And then when they harden, you can’t get water infiltration. Can we change it?”
Bishopp and the other speakers, including Madison Co. SWCD Manager, Steve Lorraine; Cayuga Co. SWCD Grazing Specialist, Jason Cuddeback; Cornell University SCNY Regional Team soil scientist Fay Benson; Otsego Co. SWCD AEM Contractor Bob Weaver, and Otsego Co. SWCD Manager Jordan Clements encouraged attendees to “unlock the secrets in the soil” through crop covers and soil management.
Bishopp stressed that organic matter and fertility play a key role in soil health. “No fertility, no anything!”
He described challenges with building soil fertility while raising organic, grass fed beef on hilly pastures.
Using maps and charts to show his plan of pastures and lots, he explained his plan of marking out his property into parcels and rotating pastures, hay feeding for added organic matter, and described how he utilized soil testing to follow and determine soil fertility.
He pointed out where the family had traditionally spread manure and reported that the fertility was highly rated there, as may be expected.
“We’re trying desperately to change the dynamics and move this fertility up the hill. That’s the attempt.”
Moving fences, rotating pastures and managing animals have made a difference and although mob grazing and trampling had improved soil samples and organic matter, with good pH; Bishopp says his soil is terribly deficient in phosphorous, and his organic matter levels have “leveled off or are going down.”
He noted it takes about three years to see a difference in soil testing results.
“There’s an active organic matter, there’s dead organic matter and there’s some things that take time to manifest themselves. It takes time for practices like mob grazing and for lime to work. I’ve heard from the soil agronomists that it takes up to 3 years for stuff to happen when you’re not plowing.”
Showing results from 2008-2014, Bishopp commented, “Basically I have no phosphorous.”
New York State is known to be deficient in phosphorous and, except for few CAFO farms, in CNY phosphorous is not known to be found in high amounts in the soil.
Bishopp says he is fortunate to have honeoye soil on his farm. (Honeoye soil consists of deep, well-drained soil formed in a loamy till.) And, although he has made every attempt to cultivate the soil, he has, apparently, only been feeding the plants, which is evident in the soil testing results.
Bishopp said he brought his observations to Madison Co. SWCD Manager, Steve Lorraine, who agreed. “He said you’re only feeding the crop. You’re not feeding the land.”
How much money should be invested in practices like liming, foliar feeding, adding chicken litter, etc., to improve soil quality, Bishopp asked. “What’s it going to cost per acre? Can I afford that? How am I going to move forward with the amount of money that I have?”
And the questions don’t stop there.
Bishopp says there are some inconsistencies in the messaging, and although grazing certainly is good; it is not enough. “It’s a break even. The practice on the ground doesn’t match the soil test. That’s why I am taking all of these soil samples this year, this fall, in 2017. I want to find out where I’m going.”
Bishopp recognizes that “no longer can we assume that just having animals grazing grass and having fertilizer tablets coming out the other end is a sustainable practice. You’ve got to feed the soil engine well to optimize the environmental, financial and community benefits of a local pasture system. I think it is imperative to manage your pastures to a high level with a focus on improving soil fertility and health using the tools available for your situation and goals.”
Otsego Co. SWCD AEM Contractor Bob Weaver spoke to attendees about soils from a different perspective. He addressed runoff and demonstrated the impact it has on watershed and the environment.
He showed slides depicting what he deemed to be mistakes he had made over the years in conservation and updated slides showing how those mistakes had been remedied through conservation programs.
“One of the big points I want you to take home is that everything that happens with conservation and soil that’s bad — because that’s what you read about in the news — is not always the fault of the farmer.”
Weaver showed how poorly thought out constructed roadwork is among many projects causing erosion through the removal of trees.
Buffers, of which trees play a major role, include cover crops and the roots they provide to hold soil in place year round.
“Trees are good for the soil, no matter where you plant them,” Weaver remarked. “You can’t go wrong with a tree.”
He showed how buffers have been strategically used to modify his property, protecting the stream that runs through his farm. “This way the soil that does run off, doesn’t make it to the stream.
Weaver encourages folks to manage their pastures through rotation, minimum tillage, zone building and pasture management.
“It’s the kind of grazing that you do that makes a difference. Grass holds the water and it holds the soil.”
Weaver said a lot of the time pasture damage is more permanent then people think. It takes years to reestablish what has been destroyed through mismanagement.
“Farmers are wonderful stewards of the land,” commented Weaver, “and they should continue to excel in their conservation efforts. Management is key to soil health improvement. Keeping clean water clean is the responsibility of all stake holders, not just farmers and landowners.”
Weaver said it is imperative to address storm water runoff in cities and towns.
“Highway construction projects need better management to reduce soil erosion. It’s not all about what farmers do wrong. Soil health should involve the whole community, not just the farming community.”
Madison Co. SWCD Manager, Steve Lorraine spoke to attendees about how Madison County had applied for and received grants allowing them to assist farmers in Madison County with planting cover crops with a no-till drill, as costs involved can be restrictive to many farmers who are not equipped ahead of time.
“Cover crops help with erosion and leeching of manure and holds nutrients in the fields,” commented Lorraine. However, he added that timing is “key.”
“Timing is everything with cover crops!”
Lorraine said the project was very time consuming as it was slow going, and although broadcasting is not a preferred way of seeding due to the seed waste involved, if you must broadcast, be sure to use a seed roller afterwards.
Soil scientist Fay Benson wrapped the meeting up with demonstrations of soils being impacted by environmental conditions.
“I think the strongest message the soil health demonstrations have for farmers is ‘seeing is believing,’” said Benson. “The demonstrations allow them to see the difference a healthy soil has on protecting water leaving their farm. They will hopefully use their ingenuity and knowledge of their farms to work towards healthier soil.”
Contact your local SWCD for information on available grants, buffers and soil conservation.