“Resiliency in Agriculture,” was the title of an event held recently in Ainsworth, Iowa that drew a packed room of farmers, ranchers and others from across the nation and internationally to learn why “soil health” is central to all-things agriculture.
The event was sponsored by the Center for Rural Affairs, Continuum Ag LLC. and Indigo Ag.
Keynote speakers were Lance Gunderson – who previously served as the director of Soil Health and New Test Development at Ward Laboratories based out of Kearney, Neb. Gunderson is pursuing his doctoral degree in agronomy with an interest in soil microbial ecology and soil health. He is founding member and president of Regen Ag Lab that will be open for business in early 2020.
Dr. Liz Haney most recently served as a research scientist at Texas AgriLife Blackland Research and Extension Center based out of Temple, Texas. Haney said after she got out from behind her computer-generated models to see what is really going on in the countryside, she was moved to venture out on her own and announced the launch of her new consulting business – Soil Regen. Haney and her husband Rick were instrumental in developing the Haney Soil Test that goes far beyond “conventional” soil tests that simply measure the amounts of nitrates/nitrogen. She said the Haney Test looks for ammonia nitrogen, soil respiration, microbial active nitrogen, water, etc. and determines pools of nutrients made available to the crop that conventional tests miss entirely.
Humans have historically practiced the Dust Bowl, Haney said, showing a picture of the Dirty Thirties followed by a photo of a huge plume of dust blowing across tilled ag land during a 2017 Iowa dust storm. “It’s a short-sighted mindset that they didn’t realize in the 1930s. Out of that time came the Soil Conservation Service. Apparently, a lot of us still don’t know (their ag practices are still causing Dust Bowl conditions).”
Haney talked about the science behind soil health, but also pointedly addressed the psychology that keeps farmers and ranchers from learning and applying new practices, “The infrastructure is set up in a vicious cycle. Universities and (ag) industry are focused on increasing yields to feed more and more people.”
When it comes to “feeding the world,” Haney said we are already producing enough calories to feed the world. It’s not a “feeding the world” issue she said, it’s a soil health issue, “We are told to be resilient, not to farm for resilience. We need to make our farms resilient to extreme weather and resilient to the market with our soils.”
“When you go to the bank, do you throw your money at the window and hope some goes in or do you make it so you can deposit it all? So, why do we do this with the rainfall and our fields,” she asked the group as she showed them a picture of a flooded, tilled field next to a field with cover crops that had soaked in all the rain.
“You can’t change what’s going on around you until you start changing what’s going on within you,” Haney said adamantly. She noted that putting the “skin” back on the soil by using no-till and mixed species of cover crops, decreases erosion and the need for inputs, “Cover crops feed soil biology. They jump start biological activity by capturing solar activity and increase water infiltration.”
Increasing water infiltration in crop fields across the nation also helps to minimize what has become a crisis in the Gulf of Mexico, Haney said, “The Dead Zone in the Gulf was 8,500 square miles in 2019.”
“We can also increase profitability,” Haney noted, using an example of a North Carolina farmer who changed from “farming for yield” to “farming for profit” using practices such as accounting for the nitrogen credits from his legume cover crops that led him to reduce herbicide spraying, etc. and saved both time and money. She listed that he used no post spray on 500 acres of corn, no post spray on 400 acres of soybeans and that led to chemical savings of $19,800. Also, because of testing his soil with the Haney Test, he had fertilizer reductions and savings of phosphorous ($22,600), potassium ($14,375) and nitrogen ($34,343), for a total overall savings in 2018 of, $91,118.
Gunderson pointed out that cover crops fix and address nearly every soil health principle. He outlined these principles to the group. They include; soil armor – keeping the soil covered; minimizing soil disturbance with no-till and reduced inputs; adding diversity with crop rotations and polycultures; having a continual living root in the soil with cover crops, perennials and continuous annual crops; and integrating livestock with rotational grazing. He stated that animal impact helps establish more carbon into the soil.
He said one of the biggest traps keeping farmers and ranchers from making changes is, “Inside their heads.”