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Ray Archuleta, a USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service conservation agronomist

Mimic the mentor to improve soils and cut inputs

When considering how to maximize the productivity of Ohio’s agricultural lands for generations to come, there are more farmers taking cues from the ultimate expert on the subject — Mother Nature.

For eons, she took care of the soils and developed them into some of the richest the world has ever seen. Now, as modern stewards of the land face the perennial challenges associated with agricultural production, there are some simple and broad concepts that are just scratching the surface of a very complex science that is just beginning to be understood.

“We are trying to educate people to have the right ecological context. We forgot to look at the soil as a living ecosystem. We were not taught to synergize with it,” said Ray Archuleta, a USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service conservation agronomist to 300 listeners packed into David Brandt’s Fairfield County farm shop earlier this month. “We are taking a more holistic view through biomimicry. We are giving people a new way of looking at the soil by learning to mimic the mentor and stop fighting it.”

Ray Archuleta on learning from nature

Archuleta encouraged the listeners to think about how the soils they farm were originally formed.

“The soil in the forest and prairie are covered 24/7 and they have animals in the system. They have diversity and they are never bare. We need to follow some of those principles and mimic nature on our farms,” he said. “Buffalo, for example, group very tightly because of predators. Now some of our graziers are grouping cattle very tightly using hotwire. That gives us better manure distribution and we are getting great responses from our pastures.”

Mother Nature is also a very low input, low cost operator.

“If you teach people how the soil functions, they use fewer inputs that can end up in the waterways and it is less costly for the farm,” Archuleta said. “If we can cover the soil, sequester those nutrients and use the right soil tests, we are using fewer inputs.”

Cover crops, no-till, animal manure — not complicated concepts in a broad sense, but Archuleta acknowledges that the challenges and complexities are in the details. This is a management intensive system, though some farmers are making it work.

“You are farming with a complex system. We want an easy pill. We have diminished our soils for hundreds of years and fixing things takes time,” Archuleta said. “We have producers now who have cut their inputs dramatically, but it is a commitment and it is a system. People who don’t want to take risks — don’t even try covers and no-till if you are not willing to change and learn. But, if you want to change, reduce inputs and pass the farm to the next generation, come and learn. If you’re not committed, don’t do this. Cover crops have to be just as important as your main crops.”

David Brandt, of course, is known around the country for his work with cover crops and long-term no-till on his Fairfield County farm where he has dramatically reduced inputs. One example is with herbicide costs.

“We have seen a reduction in herbicides by as much as 50%. As we use cover crops that don’t mat down we are not seeing marestail, giant ragweeds or winter annuals out there in the fields. We still have the opportunity to use post if we want to and we pull the trigger if we need to, but 90% of the time we don’t have to pull that trigger,” Brandt said. “We are trying to mimic Mother Nature. We want in our cover crops plants that are short in stature, medium in stature and taller, just like your woodlots are. We will have root growth anywhere from three inches down to five feet deep.”

Brandt and others have been able to increase yields and make similar and significant cuts in inputs including nutrients, fungicides and pesticides with long-term cover crop use.

In terms of cuts in commercial fertilizer, the reductions can only be successfully implemented after several years with carefully managed no-till and cover crops, Archuleta said. Then, as the soil health and quality improves, the fertilizer requirements decrease. The key to this, though, according to Archuleta, is using the right soil test — the “Haney test.

Traditional soil tests measure the amount of nitrate in the soil, but do not account for the contributions of soil microbes that mineralize organic nitrogen and phosphate. Because of this, traditional soil tests often direct farmers with healthier soils to apply more fertilizer than is really needed.

“The problem is that conventional tools are not measuring the right soil characteristics. They test for inorganic nitrogen in the form of nitrate, but that’s just one form of nitrogen available to the plant,” said Richard Haney, the soil scientist with the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service Grassland, Soil, and Water Research Laboratory who developed the “Haney test.

The “Haney test” involves drying and rewetting soil and analyzing it for microbial activity to measure nitrate and ammonium, plus an organic form of nitrogen. It also measures organic carbon and other nutrients. The drying and rewetting process mimics what happens in the field before and after a rain.

The soil test results include a spreadsheet that shows the amounts of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium available to plants along with measurements of water-soluble organic carbon, water-soluble organic nitrogen, and soil microbial activity. The results also provide a calculation of soil health and the ratio of carbon to nitrogen.

The Haney test is available at laboratories around the country, including Brookside Laboratories in New Bremen. It adds to the time and costs for a soil test, but it saves on fertilizer costs. Brandt started using Haney’s system three years ago.

“I estimate that it’s saved us at least 25% in nutrient costs,” Brandt said. “The readings were more accurate than other soil tests we had run, and we either maintained or increased our yields.”

The road has been a little different for every farm success story Archuleta highlighted, but the basic concepts have proven themselves time and again for those who are willing to make the significant investment in the future of their soils.

“First, expect failure. You will have failures. Expectations are everything,” Archuleta said. “Get organized have the right equipment and understand your cover crop varieties. Don’t do this alone. Build a soil health community you can rely on for advice. Incorporate diversity into your operation. Rotate animals and enterprise diversity so that farm becomes more resilient to ecological and economic stress. Be patient and try three to five years with covers and no-till.”

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