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Forty Chances to Improve Your Soil Health

by LuAnn Rolling, District Conservationist

There is a book written by Howard G. Buffet called Forty Chances. It is based on the notion that the average farmer gets forty crops, or forty chances to make changes. This book is a dire warning about what happens when the farmers, and the food they produce, goes away.

How does the concept of 40 chances apply to you? You have 40 chances to change things in your operation to improve your soil resource for future generations or to deplete that resource and leave your ground in a less productive state than when you began.  The easy changes are adopting new seed varieties, new herbicides, new equipment and basically those “new” technologies that come along and are being pushed by agri-business and are generally accepted by the farming community. The hard changes are the ones that change the crops you normally use, the weed control methods that you are being told are the ones to use this year and the tillage and planting methods that you have always used. These changes are not necessarily the norm, aren’t accepted by all of the neighbors and carry a certain amount of risk.  The entire soil health movement falls into this category.

This movement is actually led by farmers. The Universities are finally getting on board and there is some movement in agri-industry to embrace parts of soil health, but the largest push is coming from farmers and consumers who want to see their food being produced in a sustainable manner.    

Are you willing to be part of this change to stabilize and improve the long-term productivity of our soils even though these changes may carry some social or economic risks? Will you continue to watch that gully get bigger or start driving up and around rather than try to cross that gully before you realize there has to be a waterway there that functions?  Will you continue to battle problem weeds like waterhemp by applying more and stronger herbicides rather than try a simple change of crop planted or trying a cover crop for weed suppression? Will you continue to raise the same one or two crops even though the profit margin is almost non-existent and because of this continual practice your soils are obviously becoming more unstable and gullying is occurring after every rainfall event?

What will you do with your forty chances? There are some great innovations that would increase the productivity of your land, increase your profit margins and fight weeds. These include adding a small grain to a continuous corn or corn/bean rotation and planting a cover crop during or after every crop and then planting green into the cover crop the spring after. It may include returning grazing livestock in rotation on cropland acres rather than harvesting all the feed mechanically and allowing them to deposit manure rather than hauling it back to the fields.

Your changes do not have to be big or earth-shattering but you have to start. The NRCS can assist with programs to plant cover crops, small grains in rotations and implement grazing systems.  There is a great group of innovative Allamakee County farmers that are adopting soil health technologies that are willing to discuss their changes.

Contact the local NRCS office and we can facilitate setting up these farmer-to-farmer contacts. We would love to be part of your start toward a change.

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