Famed Soil Experts Draw Crowds to Flolo Farms

Soil health expert Ray Archuleta, pictured above, speaks to a crowd of 150 at the Steinlage family’s Flolo farms in West Union during a full day of soil health workshops. Those in attendance included professional farmers, Natural Resource and Conservation Services agents, community members, and visitors from as far away as Saskatchewan and Arkansas. Submitted photo.

Soil health experts Ray Archuleta and Doug Peterson drew a crowd of 150 to the Steinlage family’s Flolo farms in West Union for a full-day soil health workshop supported by Fayette County Extension, Fayette County NRCS, and Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, Region 4. Those attending included professional farmers, Natural Resource and Conservation Services agents, community members, and visitors from as far away as Saskatchewan and Arkansas.

Ray Archuleta is known around the world for his analysis of soils under different tillage systems and his promotion of healthy soils and conservation tillage systems. He has 25 years of experience with the USDA’s National Resources Conservation Service across the United States, and has lectured internationally, earning the nickname “Ray the Soils Guy.” Doug Peterson is the Regional Soil Health Specialist with the USDA’s Natural Resources and Conservation Service, who also runs a cow-calf operation in northern Missouri.

Ray started his discussion not with soil, but with the difficulties farmers face being profitable today. “Something’s wrong when it’s nearly impossible to bring someone into the business or get started farming, and farmers have a higher suicide rate than the ‘80s.” Farm profitability, he said, can be improved by creating healthy soil conditions and as a result, using fewer inputs. “If we can learn how to nurture and embrace synergies in nature, then we can reduce inputs and afford to bring the next generation onto the farm.”

Archuleta, Peterson, and NRCS Area Agronomist Neil Sass engaged farmers in demonstrations to show how soils hold up under different tillage practices. Soils from three states, including Iowa, were tested for soil stability. Two samples from each state shared the same soil type, but one was tilled while the other was in no-till. When placed in a cylinder filled with water, all of the tilled samples fell apart, leaving the water muddy; in contrast, the no-till samples held together and kept their aggregates intact, leaving the water clear. Archuleta explained that tillage breaks down the glues that hold soil aggregates together, causing them to disintegrate easily. Since aggregates are key to holding nutrients, tilled soils leak more nutrients.

Next, Peterson and Sass used a rainfall simulator to show what happens to fields that are in tillage, no-till, and no-till with cover-crops during a rainfall event. A rectangle was cut from the surface of Flolo farm’s fields under different tillage systems and placed in a metal tray under the rainfall simulator. During the rain, runoff water was captured in a clear bucket in front of each sample, and water that infiltrated was captured in a second clear bucket underneath. After eight tenths of an inch of rain, the differences were stunning.

On the tilled field, nearly all the rain ran off and caused erosion, leaving the run-off water muddy and the infiltration bucket empty. The no-till field (with residue) also ran-off, but had more infiltration and less erosion. No-till with cover-crops was head-and-shoulders above the others; most of the water infiltrated and there was no run-off and no erosion. When the trays were flipped upside down, exposing the bottom of the samples, water had completely infiltrated the no-till with cover crops soil, while the bottom half of the tilled soil was powder dry.

Peterson explained that once tillage breaks down the glues and the soil disintegrates, pore spaces collapse, preventing the water from infiltrating and leading to run-off and erosion. Reducing tillage prevents the destruction of aggregates, but cover crops actually work to build aggregates. Their roots emit sugars to feed soil organisms, which then make the glue that cements aggregates together. The take-away: keeping diverse roots in the soil as much as possible builds soil stability, which holds nutrients and moisture and improves farm efficiency.

Farmers Derek Axton and Michael Thompson also spoke about their operations and the benefits they’ve seen using covers and no-till. Axton, who is based in Saskatchewan, intercrops: “We grow two or more [different] plants in close proximity to boost yield and lower inputs. We’re getting better yields and spending less for inputs.” Thanks to success with these practices, Axton has not used any insecticide or seed treatment for six years. Likewise Thompson, based in Kansas, credits cover crops with helping his family farm become more profitable and enabling him to come into the operation.

Bob Recker rounded out the speaker line-up, showing drone photos of Flolo Farms and sharing his research with corn row spacing. By introducing strips between the rows, allowing more sunlight to penetrate, and increasing the corn population in the end rows, Bob can make up the yield difference in having fewer rows planted. This approach may offer a good opportunity to cover crop and build soil health in the strips.

All-in-all, the day was a successful learning experience with many engaging activities and speakers. Loran Steinlage was pleased with the turnout and the day. “It’s all about learning, sharing experiences and bringing people together,” he said. “When you have world-renowned experts in Northeast Iowa, it’s great to see people come out in droves to learn from them.”