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Tour Proves Why Conservation is Still Cool

This Business of Farming

No-tillers, innovators gather to learn latest precision, soil-saving techniques

Published on: August 9, 2011

In a day filled with unforgettable farm stops and innovative producers, one moment stood out at today’s CTIC (Conservation Technology Information Center) annual tour. Mark Scarpitti, state agronomist for the Ohio NRCS, held a clod of dirt in each hand: One from a field that had been tilled 52 years, the other from a field - no more than 20 feet away - that had been no-tilled 52 years.

 Worth a thousand words: Soil in right beaker is from no-till field

The darker no-till soil had the benefit of microbiological activity and more organic matter, noted Scarpitti. Its tiny pieces of organic glue gave it a kind of friable, porous nature; the other seemed more like a brick. “This soil looks like it’s been beat to death,” he said. Carefully the agronomist dropped the two clods into individual beakers of water with small nets to hold them in place. The clod from the tilled field immediately began to dissolve and cloud the water; the no-till beaker remained clear as a new window pane.

“You can see no-till acts like a sponge, which is important with severe rainfalls,” says Scarpitti. “In tilled fields, you can see that soil collapses within seconds of contact with the water. If that were rainfall, what would happen? It would seal over and you would have runoff.  The tilled soil does not maintain its structure. It’s sealing off, and we’re getting a tremendous amount of runoff as a result.”

This is the second year I’ve made this tour, which takes farmers and soil conservation leaders to some of the most innovative farm operations on the planet. Today we’re outside Toledo, Ohio, where the focus has been cleaning up Lake Erie and finding better ways to address soil loss in the Maumee River Watershed.

At the 4,000-head Bridgewater Dairy they recycle practically everything, including the manure. Anaerobic digesters process it for animal bedding. Methane gas fuels two 1,000-hp engines which supply enough power for the dairy and provide more leftover power that goes back to the local power company.

At the Gary and Scott Mavis (left) farm near Edgerton, fields are divided into yield zones based on past yield maps and soil types. Soil is tested in each zone separately, then lime, fertilizer, nitrogen is applied variable rate based on the yield potential in each zone. The farm even hires its own precision tech consultant to make sure they’re getting the most out of their data.

Over at the Allen Dean farm, USDA soil scientist and free spirit Frank Gibbs is talking up to the crowd of onlookers – literally – as he speaks to us from a soil pit he had dug earlier. With his flowing blond hair, bolo tie and cowboy hat, Gibbs is unlike any USDA guy I’ve ever met. He doesn’t look much like a typical soil scientist and, frankly, doesn’t sound much like one either. He talks about the virtues of night crawlers, organic matter and the glacial movements that created the deep, rich soils of America’s heartland. His take-home message: stop whining about the quality of our soils and realize that we have some of the best resources on earth. “We complain about our soils, but people here have it good,” he says. “Other places in the world would be jealous to have this soil and these drainage systems.”

Gibbs' advice to no-tillers? Stick with it. Forget ‘situational tillage,’ where you happen to rip up soils once every four or five years. “That just wrecks all the earthworm casings, and you wreck your water infiltration in the process,” says Gibbs (left).

Across the road, Dean tells us how he has incorporated cover crops into his no-till soybean and wheat operation. He grows radishes, annual ryegrass and cereal rye to keep water in place and provide nutrients to the beans after burn down. “It’s all about water quality, making sure we don’t have phosphorus runoff,” he says. “Anywhere we had ryegrass, we had crystal clear water runoff after snow melt.”

To prove his point, Dean (below) hoists a jar of water so clear it looks like it came from an Aquafina bottle. Two cloudy bottles nearby had five and 12 times the phosphorous content that the clear jug held. Those other jugs came from upstream water where there had been no cover crops, Dean notes.

It does cost something to seed and buy those crops. And it takes some timing in the fall to make sure it gets done. But Dean looks at the value of the soil and the nutrients he’s keeping in place.

“We can’t afford to let nutrients go downstream,” he says. “Cover crops help us continually recycle those nutrients. We’re using less fertilizer today because we have higher average organic matter across the farm, and that comes from the cover crops.”

Nearly all the visits today were about innovation, recycling, keeping nutrients in place, and doing things that will save farmers money and resources. With a little extra management these practices can pay off for just about everybody.

“When we talk about no-till and cover crops, remember, these are not the goal – they are simply the best tools to use to improve soil health,” says Scarpitti. “They are the best ways to create a sustainable system to plant your crops into.”

I’ll share more of the ideas gleaned from this tour next week.