November 17, 2022
FFA members coming to Indianapolis for the National FFA Convention want to learn about agriculture. Mike Starkey, Brownsburg, Ind., is eager to teach anyone who’s interested why he no-tills and protects water quality on his farm. Shannon Zezula is always ready to demonstrate how no-till improves soil health. Bree Ollier never turns down an opportunity to spread the word about conservation. And Bob Barr is always happy to share lessons about water quality, especially to young people.
All these elements came together when FFA members from Colorado, Oregon, Minnesota, Pennsylvania and West Virginia visited Starkey’s farm this fall.
“We’ve been no-tilling for over 20 years and using cover crops for over a decade,” he told the visitors. “It keeps our soil and nutrients on the farm and improves productivity.”
Through give-and-take conversation, Starkey learned that FFA students and advisors from Oregon live where most annual ryegrass is produced. In fact, they knew the same people who persuaded Starkey to try annual ryegrass.
“It’s still our cover crop of choice,” he said. “It does a good job for us and is typically an important part of our cover crop mix.”
Seeing is believing
One of the activities during the farm visit was a common demonstration that shows the difference between no-till soil and conventional soil. Obtain soil samples from long-term no-till and conventional-tillage fields near each other. Set up two tall cylinders of water and drop in the samples.
“It’s called a slake test, and it shows differences in the samples,” explained Zezula, state resource conservationist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service.
Ollier, with the Hendricks County Soil and Water Conservation District, assisted Zezula with the demonstration.
“What’s different about these samples?” Ollier asked FFA members.
“Soil particles are flaking off the conventional-tillage sample,” one student responded. “You can see soil building up in the bottom.”
“That’s right,” Zezula answered. “There’s more structure in the no-till sample. Plus, soil glues from microorganisms help hold that soil together.”
The conservation expert added that in the field, water would run into the no-till soil faster. Once surface soil particles melted together in the tilled field, rain droplets would pool up and run off.
Checking water quality
Barr is a research scientist from Indian University-Purdue University Indianapolis who conducts ongoing water quality studies, one of which is on Starkey’s land. The FFA members went to the field to see how water coming off fields and going into streams is monitored.
“When that water runs off, it can carry soil particles and nutrients,” Barr explained. “We have water monitoring stations set up at the upper and lower end of a stream to measure water quality.”
Along the length of the stream, fields from conventionally tilled and no-till fields border it at different locations. The two permanent water monitoring stations operated by the U.S. Geological Survey operate year-round, constantly collecting data.
Barr said there are definite changes in patterns in what’s detected in water from fields depending on how they’re managed. They find less sediment coming off no-till fields. Typically, there are less nutrients coming off too since nutrients attach to soil particles.
They also find less nutrient runoff in fields where fertilizer is applied closer to when crops use it rather than in the fall.
“We’ve been observing what happens there for 16 years, and we’re still learning,” Barr explained. “We like to share what we’ve learned whenever we can, especially with young people.”
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