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Reducing Crop Inputs with Increased Soil Health
by LuAnn Rolling, District Conservationist

I’d like to step back and look at agriculture and where we are heading. In the late 1800’s all the ag schools knew that having a mixed forage in a rotation increased yields. In the 1890’s they were teaching that adding clover to a corn field would result in increased corn yields. So what happened? Agriculture replaced horses with tractors.

This resulted in a decrease in the need for forages and oats in rotations. Next came synthetic fertilizers, followed by pesticides.

These changes resulted in some unpleasant side effects. Erosion increased and, as Mother Nature does, weeds and insects adapted to the chemical inputs and became resistant. Plants were bred on high fertilizer rates and the entire cropping system was built on excess - as humans often do we succumbed to the “if a little bit is good, more is better” and we based our cropping system on more and more commercial inputs.

As chemicals became more complex we tended to rely on “expert” advice and rather than truly evaluate inputs we simply applied whatever the “program” was for that year.  

There are two issues facing us because of this:  our soil has eroded and degraded biologically to the point of needing excess inputs to maintain production and the costs of inputs are often exceeding the returns from the crops. Basically, our whole system is built on excess and now we can’t afford it

We need to consider diversifying crops and including cover crops. We know that cover and companion crops suppress weeds naturally and can reduce the need for pesticides. If a producer considers the cost of reductions in inputs it more than makes up for the cost of seeding the covers.

We know that no-till and having a living root in the soil sets the stage for soil building which means nutrient cycling and input reductions, but it takes time. The soil needs to “rebuild” itself. Changing soil biology does not happen overnight, or with one growing season.

Producers need to be patient and be willing to accept some setbacks in the process. Producers also need to realize that change happens faster if they are implementing several soil health building practices, not just no-till or just cover crops.  

The Allamakee Soil & Water Conservation District is currently conducting a project looking at inter-seeding cover crops into corn at the V3 to V6 stage. This year, 15 Allamakee County farmers tried several inter-seeding methods and several seed mixes on eight replicated plots on their farms.

We have seen much change in agriculture and that change must continue if we are going to profitably raise crops while maintaining our soil resource.

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