In this, the final video on weeds, we spent a little time with no-tillers Matt Bainbridge, Al Miron and Ralph Holzwarth and got them to tell their stories about how their no-till, diverse rotation systems were doing with weeds, and how this affected some of their costs to cope with weeds. The message we received from them is consistent with our previous videos namely that with low-disturbance (i.e., no-till) systems, especially when combined with diverse rotations, weed control can actually improve and costs for weed control can be lower than in conventional tillage systems.
Learning obviously isn’t relegated only to the classroom. This is one of the key reasons Merit or Myth was formed – to identify and spread truths that haven’t found their way into textbooks yet.
One year ago this month we shared our first true Facebook post with the world.
Outside of our appearances, however, a lot has changed in a year. We’ve visited with producers, researchers, and conservationists across South Dakota. We’ve spent time at farms that have widely different relationships with Mother Nature, some of them with fields of wet conditions, others of long-standing drought, some in frigid temperatures, others in the scalding heat. The data we’ve observed and the soils we’ve seen first-hand have shown that, regardless of conditions and location, healthy soils benefit everyone involved. What’s more, the fundamental practices that help create and sustain healthy soils seem to be consistent (1. Minimize disturbance, 2. Keep the soil covered, 3. Keep a live root in the soil as many days as possible, and 4. Feed the soil with diversity, diversity, diversity)!
The response we’ve garnered from farmers and ag acolytes in and around South Dakota has been a large reason we’ve been able to do what we do. We’d like to thank everyone who has played any part in helping us create our content! We’d also like to thank the individuals who have followed us along the way! Of course, while our success has been encouraging, it does not mean we haven’t had our detractors.
One quick scroll through our content and anyone can see that the soil health practices that we’ve been putting to the test often don’t fit with the conventional narrative that has been provided to the farmer and even the home-owner (Just look for example at TV commercials promising instant results in the garden if you use product X). The conventional narrative, deeply ingrained in many universities and classrooms across the nation (and the world) is typically predicated on practices such as conventional till, allowing fields to lay fallow, and inputs – fuel, fertilizer, herbicide and pesticide usage. To be sure, many of these techniques may provide short-term results, but often at the expense of the resource (and not always with an economical benefit to the farmer/homeowner).
Often the assumption is that tomorrow’s technology will fix today’s problems, right? It hasn’t always played out that way. Bottom line – will our grandchildren want to send us the bill for degrading the resource even further?
Today, we’re happy to notice that things are changing, even if those changes have small beginnings.
SOIL HEALTH IN THE CLASSROOM
The effort to get soil health principles into the classroom is beginning to bear fruit. Sources say that Western Illinois University (WIU) is currently developing what they’ve termed a “soil health education in-service” program for their professors. There also appears to be a heavy push for developing courses centered specifically around low-disturbance, no-till agriculture at the university.
A large reason for this has been the message of NRCS educators such as Barry Fisher and Candy Thomas. Both of these educators have given notable presentations within the Illinois ag community. Seeing that Merit or Myth is an NRCS initiative, this furthers our belief that we can have an impact on farmers, communities, and our nation!
As far as the upcoming course at WIU, NRCS agronomist Mike Kucera and his team are already several years into formulating the curriculum in large part to a $200,000 grant. What’s more, they’re not stopping at the WIU campus, they’re also actively pushing their upcoming curriculum into schools in nearby states.
Midwest Grass & Forage manager Scott Jones, who has seen the presentation of several NRCS educators first-hand, knows the benefits of such a curriculum.
“Through these presentations it’s become evident to me if we’re going to take soil health improvement to the next level, along with no-till agriculture, we have to educate kids in high school and colleges,” Scott says. “The 800-pound gorilla in the room is tillage, and until we address that issue and make soil health job No. 1 for worldwide ag, we will continue down the slippery slope of depleting soils and losing ag productivity.”
While this hasn’t happened within the great State of South Dakota, it appears to be only a matter of time before soil health enters the classroom all across the Midwest and into the Great Plains. If you’re reading this today as a regenerative farmer or even as one who employs conventional farming techniques, there is great reason for optimism. With more education comes a wider knowledge base and with that knowledge comes a deeper understanding for all. In this case, as soil health principles get more attention, more research, and more data will start coming in about what regenerative farming looks like. What an exciting time to be in agriculture (Just go back to our first video where we spoke to Dr. Ray Weil)!
A lot has changed in a year. This latest news surely means that there’s even more change to come for the next 365 days… and what appears to be a change for the better. If that isn’t refreshing in this day and age, we don’t know what is!
Don’t be the last to join the revolution,
Crop rotations for weed management? At first glance, it doesn’t seem possible. We know, however that in our previous videos, Dr. Anderson showed us how (1) no-till reduces weed prevalence and (2) how he verified this idea experimentally. In this third video, Dr. Anderson discusses why rotating cool season crops into our warm season rotations are so beneficial to weed control. Dr. Anderson demonstrates how through the synergistic effects of no-till combined with diverse rotations, one can reduce weed pressure by a factor of eight before the first drop of herbicide is used. We recommend you view the first two videos (“Fate of the Weed Seed in Conventional and No-Till Soil” and “Seedling Emergence in Conventional and No-Till Fields” with Dr. Anderson.
Anyone who has kept up with us at Merit or Myth knows that there is a growing list of benefits that are associated with cover crops. From reducing runoff and erosion to increasing organic matter and suppressing weed emergence, it seems more research comes out every year proving the merit of this practice.
As with all tools, however, cover crops are only one piece of the puzzle, not the whole picture. This is because the fields in which we grow our crops are all dynamic ecosystems that are influenced by everything with which they come in contact. Given that we’re in the middle of a three-part series on weeds, it’s important to understand how the implementation of cover crops effects weed management, specifically when it comes to herbicide usage.
THE INTERSECTION OF HERBICIDES AND COVER CROPS
For better or for worse, the practice of spraying herbicide has conventionally been an accepted reality of farming. It makes sense: in simplest terms, a producer looking to grow plant A is going to encounter some problems when mother nature wants him to grow plants B, C, and D along with it. The quickest way to subdue mother nature? Spray chemicals, ask questions later.
We’ll leave the long-term effects of spraying herbicide for another time (if you would like a bit more information on this, check out our own Dr. Buz Kloot’s take in his video, “Weeds: A Chemical or An Ecological Problem?”). The bottom line for now is that, regardless of what it does to the environment in the long-term, when it comes to herbicide, very few of us have a thorough grasp on the subject. Extension agent at the University of Wisconsin Dan Smith has seen this firsthand when it comes to the crossroads of herbicide and cover crops. His advice? Make sure you read the label.
“Most herbicide labels contain information for forage crops,” Smith says, “but they don’t contain information for cover crops. It’s important to dig into that label to make sure you don’t have any restrictions on that herbicide, things that would prevent you from legally feeding that to your livestock or selling it to a livestock farm.”
Easier said than done, we know. Reading herbicide labels isn’t exactly like flipping through your favorite Dr. Seuss book. These labels are routinely long and include terms and chemicals of which not every farmer holds a comprehensive knowledge. However, it’s more important than ever for us to understand what these labels have to say.
HERBICIDE: TIMING IS EVERYTHING
While the benefits of cover crops are extensive they don’t exactly happen overnight. This reality has lead farmers to seek more readily available ways to utilize cover crops in the short-term, such as using them as a forage crop. We must be aware, though, if we’re to use cover crops as forage that some herbicides carry significant risk for animal consumption. In this regard, timing is everything. This is why Smith says that a good place to start when it comes to reading herbicide labels is the rotational crop section.
“The rotation data is a legal requirement from the time of herbicide application to the time that we’re going to harvest or graze that cover crop that turns into a forage crop,” Smith says. “That could be a diet for cover crop establishment, but remember that you can grow a cover crop following any herbicide application as long as you never harvest that cover crop.”
Of course, individual herbicide types and brands have extensive variation and herbicide carryover can be effected by a variety of conditions, from organic matter content to soil pH to rainfall and soil type. This is yet more evidence that the greatest teacher when it comes to farming is below our feet. Read your herbicide labels and find out how they affect your soil firsthand. It may be a little more work in the short-term, but once the benefits of cover crops are realized, you’ll be thankful that you did.
Join the revolution,
In our previous video, Dr. Randy Anderson walked us through the various fates of the weed seed in conventional and no-till fields. In this video, the theory comes alive as he discusses the results of a three year study he did in comparing conventional and no-till weed seedling emergence.