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.
Extinction is a perfectly normal part of nature. Scientists of all backgrounds, belief systems and areas of study can agree on this. What is often overlooked, however, is the potential cost of extinction – whether within a single ecosystem or multiple.
Still, no one plays a larger role when it comes to the loss or gain of a species within an environment than farmers. According to the USDA Census of Agriculture, as of 2012, a little over 40% of the United States was made up by farmland. This means that farming is power and farmers play a massive role in deciding what species thrive and what species don’t. So why should farmers choose the former? Well, a recent study from just one state over shows that in promoting the livelihood of multiple species, farmers can actually see an economic return.
Saving the environment while earning money? Sounds like a late-night infomercial. Nevertheless, it is backed by a unique research project published this year in Science Advances, and it offers one of the most convincing arguments yet for biodiversity.
THE TRUTH BEHIND BIODIVERSITY
The first thing to note when it comes to diversity (which is a principle that also happens to be one of the four principles of soil health), is that its effects go well beyond simply what we put in the ground.
“Biodiversity evokes exotic birds, tropical forests, the beauty of nature,” says the research project’s co-author and Texas Tech professor Natasja van Gestel.
Understanding that biodiversity benefits and works along with nature is the very foundation of regenerative farming. As alluded to above, however, the principles of regenerative farming can also be profitable farming… though it typically isn’t seen this way.
“Money isn’t usually what comes to mind,” Professor Natasja van Gestel continues. “But biodiversity has monetary value, and in this study, we figured out how much value for one critical ecosystem service: carbon storage.”
While science has an understanding of the value of photosynthesis (use of the sun’s energy by plants to convert carbon dioxide to carbohydrates for energy and growth) it’s rare that scientists explicitly relate photosynthesis to economic value. This research project, however, has managed to assign a dollar value on species diversity through monitoring its effects on carbon storage.
The first question that needed to be asked, therefore, was “does biodiversity even influence carbon storage?” The short answer they found: YES!
BIODIVERSITY: A STUDY OF ECONOMIC VALUE
The scientists involved in the research, brought together by The National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC), used a pair of long-term studies based just next door in the Minnesota grasslands. To find their answer, they first had to identify how much more carbon is present per added species. Their findings were fairly straight-forward: For every new plant species added, carbon storage increased. Further, the increase of carbon storage through plant diversity is most realized on land that is the least diverse (which, unfortunately, is mostly traditional farmlands).
This brings us back to a common theme we’ve discussed. Whether it’s in considering the change to no-till, adding in cover crops, or an all out shift towards regenerative farming as a whole, these decisions aren’t made lightly. Nevertheless, this study and many others like it are proving that it’s these very soils, the ones unaccustomed to such practices, that benefit most from these changes!
To put it in numbers, the increase from five to six species within a plot yielded 10 times more carbon than the increase from 15 to 16 species. In various observed plots of around 2.4 acres, increasing from one to two plant species over a period of 50 years would yield an additional 20,500 lbs of carbon per acre (with probable savings of over $335 per acre). Author Glenys Young in her own article on phys.org regarding species diversity shows this on a larger scale:
“Cost savings could hypothetically be significant. For example, adding just one species to the 12.3 million hectares of cultivated lands restored by grasslands by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Conservation Reserve Program could save more than $700 million. The biggest cost savings come from restoring the most degraded, species-poor lands.”
CARBON STORAGE IS JUST THE BEGINNING
In short, the four principles of soil health are beginning to be quantified in terms of economic value. The increase in at least one of them (diversity) also leads to an increase in diversity of all forms of life. We surely live in an exciting time for agriculture!
“This is one of the first studies to estimate the economic value of biodiversity,” states Brad Cardinale, who spearheaded this study by bringing economists and ecologists on board. “It provides what is almost certainly an underestimate of value, but I still expect the study to become a classic as others repeat and improve these estimates for other ecosystems.”
Seeing this study as an “underestimate of value” seems like over-selling. However, Cardinale can feel confident in such statements as these because the reality is that biodiversity carries a multitude of benefits well beyond carbon storage. The point? This study is just the tip of the iceberg. Efficient, low-input, sustainable farming will soon be an option for farmers around the world, even those who farm atypical crops and in extreme conditions.
The future is bright,
This spring (2017) SDSU Extension’s Anthony Bly and farmer, or shall we say “citizen scientist,” Al Miron got together to look at the influence of tillage, cover crops and manure on infiltration in a number of fields in Minnehaha County, SD. They compared soils in two long term (9 year) no-till fields, two conventionally tilled fields that had not been tilled for a year and one field that was deep tilled in the fall and then again tilled with a field cultivator in the spring. Al and Anthony did 4 repetitions at each site and came up with some interesting results as concerns the effect of cover crops and tillage. The “aha” moment experienced by the grower who loaned the team some tilled land to do the study on is important as his paradigm was “more tillage = less infiltration”. As this farmer saw the results, especially of the 5th (double-tilled) field, he was sold on the idea pretty quickly!
In this video, we recap the last 11 videos on our Merit or Myth Series that deal with residue and tillage. We sum up the information provided by our farmers and researchers, from West River to East River of South Dakota. As we consider the statement: “Farming without tillage and with surface residue is not only possible, it works!” we have to ask “Merit or Myth?”. It’s up to the viewer to decide.
This is the third part of a three part series in Dr. Anderson’s 10-minute talk on his spiral of regeneration.
Dr. Randy Anderson, Research Agronomist with the USDA-ARS in Brookings, SD, shares with us his spiral of soil regeneration. The concept of the spiral had its genesis in Dr. Anderson’s work in no-till where he observed a number of interactive biological effects at work. In this third video, Dr. Anderson provides a real-life example of two winter wheat scenarios based on tillage and crop rotation. It’s often that the farmer’s eye test is all that needs to be done to see where the advantage is, no degree in agronomy required! We hope this and the next two videos in the series give you a much better grasp of what happens when you begin to disturb your soils less!
Picture this: A proactive community of open-minded producers joining forces for the greater good. With all of them together, they work to increase yields and soil health, and gain a better understanding of their livelihoods.
If such a community existed, would you be interested? It may seem “pie in the sky”, but one state down, that’s exactly what’s going on.
COMMUNITY FARMING: SOIL HEALTH AROUND THE DINNER TABLE
For the last several years, an 8-member group of Nebraskan producers has gathered in the pursuit of shared knowledge. In that time, the positive effects of the union have been undeniable. Nobody knows this better than group member and Palmyra, Nebraska native Mike McDonald.
“One person in the group raised 6,000 bushels of cereal rye,” said McDonald. “Together, we cleaned it and, in a cost-efficient manner, were able to increase the drilling rates.”
As McDonald can attest, this is just the tip of the iceberg. What separates this group from your average producer get together is that they don’t stop at surface-level issues. Just like the roots of their crops, they always dig just a little deeper. One of the more popular topics of discussion? Cover crops. More specifically, livestock and how it relates to the practice.
PUTTING SOIL HEALTH TO THE TEST
It’s pretty obvious that high intensity paddock grazing can be a bit labor intensive, so to include such a practice in one’s operation, you’d have to thoroughly believe in its efficacy. Mike McDonald and members of his group have seen enough of the benefits of the practice to incorporate it despite the concerns. In fact, McDonald believes in it so thoroughly that he loaned 40 head of livestock from a fellow group member for a 20-acre site.
So what were these benefits?
According to McDonald and his group: increased soil fungi and other microbes (these are the “good guy” microbes that Dr. Elaine Inhgam talks about), decreased herbicide usage, and increased overall pool of organic nutrients (yes, nutrient pools can be organic as well as inorganic). Or look at it this way: increased efficiency and effectiveness leads to increased sustainability.
Of course, paddock grazing isn’t the only value-added practice that the 8-member group has tested and employed. McDonald also has up to 41 bee hives on his property that are responsible for increased production. After their discussions and research, the group also endorses cutting out virtually all fertilizer and herbicides as well as focusing on income diversity. Of course, with knowledge comes responsibility and the group acknowledges that. To incorporate livestock into an operation, one must be aware of cover crop maturity dates prior to planting, and proper grazing windows, but the results speak for themselves.
A UNITED FRONT
The idea of community learning shouldn’t be new to those who’ve followed along with us at Merit or Myth – uniting the South Dakota farming community has been a crucial discussion point for us. We’re excited to see such practices playing out in surrounding areas and confident that similar stories will start popping up across the Mt. Rushmore State soon.
In the meantime, keep your ear to the ground and listen for what your soil is telling you. There’s no telling what you’ll hear next!
Join the revolution,