In our previous video we saw that by the end of the season, there is no difference in the number of heat units and temperature as seen by a conventional versus a no-till soil. In fact any differences in cumulative heat units between the two systems disappears by the first week of July. In this video, SDSU’s Anthony Bly explains how that happens by examining the side-by-side temperature comparisons between a no-till, and conventional till system near Vermillion, South Dakota. In the latter part of the season (after July 1), we also see that in no-till soils maximum temperatures are consistently cooler and minimum temperatures are consistently warmer than conventional till soils. The NRCS’s Eric Barsness discusses this and tells us why it’s a good thing.
It’s been said that what comes easy doesn’t last, and what lasts doesn’t come easy. This adage is especially true when it comes to change.
Any change worth making isn’t going to be done overnight and it isn’t going to be realized without difficulty. One Iowa farm is showing the Midwest though that, when it comes to transitioning to soil health practices, the change doesn’t always have to be as difficult as we’ve been led to believe.
SOIL HEALTH: RECORD SETTING YIELDS
“I always heard at least five years yield drag on no-till,” Says Kevin Prevo, one of three primary operators of the Prevo family farm located on the outskirts of Bloomfield, Iowa. “But we never saw that. We actually had our best ever average yields in 2014, until we topped it in 2016 for both corn and soybeans.”
These results (and their timeframe) certainly run counter to what most of us hear about incorporating soil health practices. We get it. Stop turning over your land, drastically reduce input costs and watch your operation blossom in a short amount of time? Twenty years ago (and to many, still today!) this would have been unheard of! The Prevo family farm is one example of how this seemingly tall tale can be more down to earth than we expected.
This is not to say that the Prevos didn’t have their fair share of growing pains. The transition has required a drastic change, first in mindset, then in practice, and the implementation of a year-round management-intensive system. However, for those hesitant to transition to regenerative farming because of the dreaded five-year drag, the Prevos are proving that that notion isn’t a universal truth.
Of course, as we’ve continually discussed, it’s not an individual practice that accomplishes what the Prevos have done, but the adoption of a systems approach. Dr. Randy Anderson of the ARS discusses the idea of systems synergy where we stack practices on top of one another (e.g., no-till, on top of, say, diverse rotations on top of, say, cover crops). The result is that the benefit of the whole is far more than the sum of the individual benefits. Kevin Prevo highlights their transition to no-till above, but their success would not have been possible without the incorporation of cover crops. NRCS soil scientist Jason Steele knows this first-hand.
“It’s important to build up that soil biology with cover crops,” Jason says. “Organic matter will increase in the poorer soils first, providing immediate improvements in infiltration rates and water holding capacity.”
If one simply transitioned from till to no-till and left it at that, these benefits would not have been realized (and the increase in yield would certainly be a pipe dream).
When it comes to soil health in the future, the “five-year drag” may become a belief of the past. With the stacking of practices like diverse rotations, cover crops and no-till, as well as clarity on how to go about the transition most effectively, you tap into system synergy. The result: profitable farming and healthy soils can be realized quicker and more fully than previously thought.
As far as things go for the Prevos, the horizon is only getting brighter. The family farm is on their third straight year of record soybean yields with corn yields not lagging much further behind.
“We beat our corn yield average record this year by 20 bushels per acre over our 2014 highs,” says Kevin Prevo. “And we did it on traditionally poorer producing soils.”
Turn your “weakest link” (i.e. your poorest, most degraded soils) into a strength, increase infiltration rates, and increase yields. Throw on top of this terms like “environmentally friendly” and “sustainable” and you have a recipe for current and future success. Land that is primed to feed your family for generations to come. These are a handful of the reasons why soil health is the farming of the future.
Still, the idea of a change in practices looms large. We don’t dismiss this reality. This is where ancient wisdom still has a part to play in helping us move forward.
“The secret of change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old, but on building the new.” – Socrates
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SOURCE: Record Yields From The Bottom Up
In this video, the USDA-NRCS’s (Brookings, SD) Eric Barsness and SDSU’s Anthony Bly discusses and experiment the NRCS conducted in Vermillion SD on a conventionally tilled and a long-term no-tilled field. Eric buried two temperature probes at 2” and the probes were able to record temperatures every 15 minutes over the entire growing season of 2016. This test is a nice example of how no-till and conventional till fields perform side by side and also show that, while there may be differences in the heat units (or growing degree days) at the beginning of the growing season, by the end of the season each crop received the same number of heat units.
“Healthy soils are a farmer’s best friend.”
Anyone in or around the soil health movement is most likely familiar with this notion. Of course, it is still of fierce debate between conventional and regenerative farmers. Here at Merit or Myth, we’ve dedicated most of our efforts to understanding both sides of the coin in an attempt to get the biggest picture possible. For more information on why practices that increase soil health appear to be the more ideal methods, you can visit our YouTube channel and/or our blog page.
Today’s post isn’t geared at changing anyone’s mind in this debate. What this post attempts to illuminate is why something like soil could be a farmer’s best friend.
Of course, we could talk in terms of yield, weed management, irrigation and the like to try to point this out. In reality, however, while these all appear to be benefits of healthy soils, they don’t address the core question: what is it about healthy soils that lead to these benefits in the first place?
One of the most straightforward answers: microbes.
MICROBES: FILLING A GREAT NEED
It’s been estimated that a teaspoon of most healthy soil contains more microbes than there are people on earth. Nothing in nature boasts this sort of abundance without having a key role to play. Before we get into the specifics of that role, however, it’s important to stop and understand their growing relevance for today’s agricultural scene.
We live in a time of change. One could argue that we always have. Nonetheless, the current change that faces us on the agricultural horizon is unavoidable. With global human population quickly approaching 9 billion, The American Society of Microbiologists (ASM) projects that farmers will need to produce 70 to 100 percent more food by 2050. The only way to do this appears to be through the utilization of a key building block of healthy soils. You guessed it: microbes. If recent research is of any indication, these microorganisms not only cut down on inputs, but they also increase healthy crops.
“Producing more food with fewer resources may seem too good to be true,” states the ASM in one of their recent reports, “But the world’s farmers have trillions of potential partners that can help achieve that ambitious goal. Those partners are microbes.”
Our understanding of the role microbes play may have reached it’s most recent peak in December 2012 at the ASM’s colloquium where leaders in science, agribusiness and various members of the USDA convened. At that meeting, the attendees discussed the reality of population increases, the demands it will place on the farmer, and concluded with a challenge: to increase global food production roughly 20 percent while decreasing fertilizer and pesticide use 20 percent over the next 20 years.
University of Minnesota’s Department of Plant Pathology Linda Kinkel was one of the leaders in attendance. She knows all too well that it’s only through applying what we know about microbes and deepening our understanding of them that this challenge can be made a reality.
“We understand only a fraction of what microbes do to aid plant growth,” Kinkel says. “But the technical capacity to categorize the vast unknown community (of microorganisms) has improved rapidly in the last couple of years.”
Here’s a bit more of what we do know: microbes play a crucial role in helping plants to thrive amid saline soils, extreme temperature fluxuations, and various other challenges mother nature throws at us. As they do a lot of work for the farmer, increasing their presence in our soils is a crucial step to the eventual elimination of pesticide, herbicide, and fertilizer. In addition, there is growing evidence that microbes are a key contributor to heightening flavors of top-quality produce as documented in strawberries.
Keep in mind that the majority of these microorganisms are “good guys”, i.e., they don’t result in an economic loss to the farmer when present in the soil and if we manage for the “good guys” they do the work of regulating the “bad guys”.
And Kinkel says, “we’re only at the tip of the iceberg.”
So how does it all work?
MICROBES: INSIDE THE PROCESS
When seeds begin to take root, whether naturally or as planted by a farmer, the native microbial community is quickly activated. As Brian Barth, writer at Modernfarmer.com, beautifully explains, “(When a seed germinates) chemical signals enter the soil via the exudates of the plant and a symphony of underground activity commences. Genetic information is exchanged; the various microbial players assume their positions on the tissues of the plant; often, one microbe colonizes another, providing a service that helps the first microbe to assist the plant whose roots it is embedded in.”
The process that allows an exchange between plant and soil is known as Rhizodeposition (simply put, the capturing of energy from sunlight in the form of carbon and then translocating that energy into the plant’s roots) and it has a crucial role to play in soil carbon turnover.
Of course, as is the case with most any breakthrough in knowledge, there will most likely be an accompanying breakthrough in technology. Whether this new “technology” is an actual breakthrough or merely industry’s attempt to monetize a new development is, of course, to be determined.
In the case of microbial activity being linked to crop production, there’s plenty of concern that all sorts of companies could jump in with “bug in a jug” additives that keep a farmer tied to input costs. Keep in mind the best microbial solution won’t come from industry – farmers, through fostering the land by applying soil health principles (minimum disturbance, keep a live root in the soil, feed the soil with diversity, and reintroduce animals to the land) can create a perfect place for natural microbes to thrive. When the farmer works with, rather than against nature, a beautiful partnership with a formidable ally is created. After all, Mother Nature has a 4.5 billion year head start on us in R&D.
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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.