Keys to success

Forum highlights benefits of healthy soil

How to make the majority of crop producers understand the benefits of no-till and cover crops for creating healthy soils was the keynote speaker’s focus Tuesday morning during the second annual Ohio Soil Health Symposium at Camden Falls Reception and Conference Center.

“I think the keys to production and profit are the same as the keys to environmental stewardship,” said keynote speaker Doug Peterson, Iowa and Missouri soil health specialist with USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service and a cow/calf intensive grazing rancher.

“I see that production and profit very much in line with environmental stewardship,” he said. “If we’re going to solve this problem environmentally, it’s up to us as producers, and high-cost answers aren’t it.”

Two of Peterson’s keys to solve issues related to soil deterioration include increasing education on basic soil function and alleviating misunderstandings about the need for tillage of today’s soils.

He briefly reviewed the history of tillage. He said it was a profitable method of crop production when farmers were tilling grasslands because every few years they would move to a new spot and let the soil rest for several years. In the short term, tilled land with a lot of organic matter killed weeds, improved water filtration and provided a good seed bed.

However, after a few years, production would decrease and farmers moved to a new spot.

“The old spot healed itself,” he said. “Tillage was based on tilling a healthy soil.”

Practices were passed down through generations with little adjustment for new farming practices.

“That’s what we were taught,” he said. “Our ancestors did things for a good reason. They did things because they worked.”

Tradition plays a large role in continued tillage, he said. But today’s farming practices are different and require new methods. Today’s crop production doesn’t allow soil to rest and constant tillage weakens soil and breaks down healthy soil structure.

As technology changed, farmers were taught to add nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium back into the soil to maintain productivity.

“We forgot about the aggregate stability,” he said. “The belief that tillage improves infiltration is based on a soil that had a high organic matter, soil that had high aggregate stability and soil with biological life. That’s not the kind of soil farmers have today.”

He asked participants to help educate their neighbors.

“We don’t have all the answers, and producers are going to look to other producers for the answer,” he said. “We need your help to get the 98-99 percent of producers who aren’t here to understand these things.”

Peterson’s third key to profits as well as stewardship is to treat the root causes of the issue rather than its symptoms.

For example, he said the issues with nutrient runoff aren’t going to be fixed until the underlying causes are discovered.

He suggested using the “Five Whys” approach to find the underlying problems, which means asking “why” at least five times to get to the heart of an issue.

For example, if the problem is harmful algal blooms in Lake Erie, the first question is “Why are there HABs in the lake?” If the answer to that question is too much phosphorus, the next question is “Why is there too much phosphorus?”

He suggested continuing to ask why until the root of the problem is found. In his example, the root of the problem was a lack of healthy soils.

The same process can be used to solve any problem, he said.

The fourth key, he said, is to use farming practices that have a positive return on investment.

Peterson reviewed a nutrient-reduction strategy used in Iowa that he said cannot be sustained long term because of the high cost and reviewed the benefits of creating healthy soil through no-till farming practices, cover crops and other conservation measures, such as filter strips.

“If we find the root cause, generally the symptoms are taken care of,” he said.

He said no-till saves equipment costs and labor costs, and gave several examples of study results showing the cost savings.

“One of the best management decisions I ever made was to get started and to stick with it,” he said.

Lastly, Peterson said it’s important to figure out the reasons farmers don’t change.

“What causes people to change?” he asked. “Only a very small percentage of people make changes because they like change.”

More likely, he said farmers change because they’re forced to through legislation, “and we don’t want that.” Or, he said, people change when they see a financial benefit.

He said farmers don’t yet understand the financial benefits of healthy soils.

“We have to come up with a socially acceptable answer,” Peterson said. “It’s a process.”

During an introduction to the daylong program, Beth Diesch of Seneca Conservation District, one of the program’s sponsors, said the conference was designed to let producers network and learn from each other and the speakers.

“We have people from out of state, right down the road and people from all ends of Ohio,” she said. “It’s really about Ohio getting together and see how they can do better with soil health.”

Bret Margraf of SCD said the conference also is kickoff to the spring farming season.

“The reason we have this here today is it’s the last little team huddle before you take the football field or take the court,” he said. “It’s to help you stay inspired, on task and motivated.”