Getting To The Root Of The Problem
Farmers Given A Lesson In Restoring Soil Health
Posted: February 13, 2013
Jay Fuhrer of the Natural Resources Conservation Service office in Bismarck, N.D., discusses “poor soil health” issues on Tuesday with the audience at the Virginia No-Till Alliance winter conference in Harrisonburg. (Photos by Michael Reilly / DN-R)
Jay Fuhrer of the Natural Resources Conservation Service office in Bismarck, N.D., says soil can’t be rescued until farmers stop “treating the symptoms” and look to the root causes of poor soil health.
Cover crop seeds are on display Tuesday at the Virginia No-Till Alliance winter conference in Harrisonburg.
Conventional tillage and a lack of cover-crop usage was causing much wind and water erosion. Farmers were only harvesting corn for silage, believing the North Dakota climate was far too dry — at approximately 16 inches of precipitation annually — to harvest corn for grain.
Jay Fuhrer, of the Natural Resources Conservation Service office in Bismarck, N.D., was putting in grassed waterways left and right to combat water runoff due to the soil’s inability to retain moisture.
“What we didn’t realize was we were just treating symptoms,” Fuhrer told an audience of farmers at one of four Virginia No-Till Alliance winter conferences Tuesday. “It was the problem we needed to get at. The problem was poor soil health.”
Fuhrer was the featured speaker at the event, held at the Rockingham County Fairgrounds. Strong soil health is considered fundamental to making no-till farming practices successful.
He formed a team with other local ag officials to look into the soil problems.
In 2009, the Burleigh County Soil Conservation District established a 150-acre educational site called the Menoken Farm to investigate those concerns.
While researchers use limited herbicides on the site, they don’t use fungicides, insecticides or commercial fertilizer. Officials experiment with cover-crop mixtures, compost mixes, companion planting and other sustainable farming techniques on the site.
“I haven’t put a waterway in for 10 years,” Fuhrer said, adding that farmers in the area now yield about 100 to 110 bushels per acre of corn for grain.
Though not as high as the 123-bushel-per-acre national corn yield average, it’s much better than the former average of next to nothing.
At Tuesday’s conference, nearly 250 farmers and representatives of other ag interest groups heard a variety of strategies for implementing no-till practices, including focusing on improving overall soil health.
Extension agents, professors and other experts discussed topics related to tillage practices, including a relatively new method called vertical tillage.
In that practice, tools work only the top few inches of ground to attempt to enjoy the benefits of tilling without the costs — namely, erosion and deep soil disruption.
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