Whether it’s hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico or algae in Lake Erie, water quality is often in the news. While not all problems lie at the feet of agriculture, the farming industry does need to proactively step up and address their part of the problem.
The answer lies in five relatively simple concepts that take some management skill to implement. Here’s a closer look:
1. Implement a never-till system. Notice this is not a “no-till-most-of-the-time system,” but a “never-till system.” You must be flexible, but many years of soil health benefits can be undone by just one tillage pass. Resist the temptation to till for a short-term reason. The price will be paid over the long term.
It’s important to address nutrient and soil compaction issues before moving into a never-till system. Using cover crops and adapting your nutrient management are critical pieces to this system. Never-till will take some management. Find a local successful never-till farmer to keep you from making the same mistakes he or she did in moving to never-till.
2. Start using cover crops. The list of benefits of cover crops includes reduced erosion and more diversity in your cropping system to provide more food and habitat for soil microbiology. Plus, cover crops provide growing roots year-round to build soil organic matter and protect the soil. Cover crops produce and scavenge nutrients, depending upon the species. You may also get weed suppression.
Start into cover crops with something simple: a plant that will winterkill. Then move into more challenging cover crops and mixes. Have a plan and a purpose in mind when you develop your mix. Know how you will plant the cover crop and have a termination plan with contingencies.
3. Adapt your nutrient management. Each farm and field are different. As soil health improves, so will nutrient cycling, availability and nutrient use efficiency. Start with as precise a system of soil testing and nutrient application as possible. Test various nutrient management rates, placements, timing and products. Find what works best to maximize your nutrient use efficiency.
4. Install buffers. The first 30 feet along the edge of a woods seldom produces like the rest of the field. This makes a great place to plant buffers, which filter out potential runoff before it enters a water course. Every open ditch should have a filter strip to filter out nutrients and help buffer against direct application of pesticides into open water. If you include pollinator-friendly species in your seeding mix, you’ll provide habitat for native pollinators. These areas may be eligible for the continuous Conservation Reserve Program or other USDA programs.
5. Accept the management challenge. The shift to never-till may require a drastic change in your operating system. You may want to make changes in steps. Develop a solid plan to change your system, do it over time, and be flexible and willing to change as needed. Most of all, as noted earlier, find someone who has been successful with a soil health system to be a mentor for you.
Donovan is a district conservationist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service. He writes on behalf of the Indiana Conservation Partnership.