Crop Comments: Sustainable Soil Seminar, in Syracuse

On March 6, approximately 175 people attended the all-day 2019 NOFA-NY Dairy and Field Crops Conference. This Conference, held at the Holiday Inn of Syracuse/Liverpool, also served as the annual membership meeting of the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York (NOFA-NY). In addition to attendees absorbing the lectures presented by the keynote speakers, the guests were able to visit with any of the 24 vendors sponsoring this program.

According to NOFA-NY’s website at www.nofany.org, “We are New York’s leading nonprofit organization providing programs and services to promote sustainable, local organic food and farming. Our coalition of farmers, gardeners, consumers and businesses join together to create a food system that’s ecologically sound and economically viable. Through education, certification, advocacy and other efforts, we promote organic food production, local marketing, and land stewardship.” The mechanics of actual organic certification is accomplished through the website certifiedorganic@nofany.org — or the old-fashioned way with hard-copy paperwork.

The lead-in keynote speaker at this Conference was Ray Archuleta, who is a Certified Professional Soil Scientist with the Soil Science Society of America. He claims 30 years’ experience as a soil conservationist, water quality specialist, and Conservation Agronomist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). Following his retirement from NRCS in 2017, Ray founded Soil Health Consultants, LLC, and Soil Health Academy.

At the Academy, he teaches Biomimicry strategies and Agroecology principles, the ultimate goal being to improve soil function on a national scale. Applying his experience and education close to home, Ray — along with his wife and kids — owns and operates a 150-acre farm near Seymour, MO.

Archuleta is enthusiastic about soil health and his passion is infectious. Passionate about no-till, Ray likes to remind producers that what makes a successful no-till system are the things you don’t necessarily see on the ground. “The fertility of our soil is in the structure of it,” said Ray, calling the structure of no-till soil “incredible.” It all begins with “micro-aggregates,” which he says act as a glue to keep soil together. With tillage, he said, micro-aggregates get disrupted, leading to a system that can’t absorb water and can’t handle carbon as well. “We don’t have a runoff problem. We have an infiltration problem,” he said. “Our job is to maintain that the soil pore system is open.”

It’s not just in rural areas, Archuleta said. In urban areas, runoff is a big problem because topsoil is removed in the building of subdivisions and development. With so much fertilizer being put on the ground to feed grass, large rain events usually lead to a lot of runoff, which in turn harms waterways further down the line, such as the Chesapeake Bay. To keep microbes — or workers, as he calls them — doing their jobs in the soil, they have to be “fed.” To that end, Archuleta said manure makes a great meal. “Manure is awesome because it’s feed for the microbes,” he said. “Microbes break it down to build the soil structure. This increases water-holding capacity and increases infiltration.” It’s not perfect, though. Manure contains a lot of phosphorus and potassium, which he says can create an imbalance in the soil system.

The main presenter for the afternoon session on March 6 was Francis Thicke. He and his wife Susan co-own and operate an organic dairy and crop farm near Fairfield, Iowa. They process their milk from their 80-cow dairy on the farm, and market organic dairy products through local grocery stores and restaurants. They are also experimenting with innovative regenerative grazing and cropping practices on their farm. Thicke has a PhD in agronomy/soil fertility. In the past he has served as the National Program Leader for Soil Science for USDA Cooperative Extension Service. He shares Archuleta’s honed enthusiasm for no-till farming and cover crops (which more and more folks refer to as winter forages).

Among many ecologically sound solutions described and proposed by Thicke were the methods of using cover crops, “perennializing”, biodiversity, integration of livestock on the landscape, and ingenious solutions, such as biochar, for closing the loop on energy use on the farm. Poultry comprise a critical element of that biodiverse livestock portfolio. “A chicken is like a mini-Tyrannosaurus,” said Francis, singing the praises of the hens who work for free on his farm. “If a mouse runs by a chicken, one pick and a shake and the mouse is dead. They’re vicious little things” (meaning the chickens). He explained that his hens serve as the best fly-patrol squadron for his cows. Because of them, he doesn’t need to use pesticides against the flies and every hen lays an egg a day, to boot.

For me the take-home message from Thicke’s presentation dealt with roller/crimping winter rye in the spring. This practice works very well for him, and is appealing to more and more growers who are plagued increasingly with herbicide-tolerant weeds — as well as volatilizing and drifting dicamba. Here’s what he recommends. Plant winter rye seed at four bushels per acre between Sept. 15 and Oct. 1 (in northern tier states — pretty much those bordering the Great Lakes.) In the spring, roll the rye at flowering stage with a roller/crimper (mounted on the front of the tractor, if at all possible). At any other stage of maturity, Thicke said the rye will bounce back. Then drill the soybeans into the flattened rye stover — with 200,000 seeds per acre, using a grain drill with 7-inch rows — or even a corn planter with 30-inch rows. When soybean seedlings are very visible through the rye (probably about four inches tall), roller-crimp the stand a second time. Watching this University of Wisconsin/Madison Agronomy Department video on u-tube will explain this: www.youtube.com/watch?v=Aiocr_icrfw.

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