What's Up at the USDA Office?

Upcoming Deadlines/Dates
December 5: Last day to return COC ballots
December 9: Dairy Margin Coverage Program
December 15: Crop Reporting for Fall-Seeded Small Grains

Next Season starts this Fall
by LuAnn Rolling, District Conservationist
Fall is the time to start implementing practices for next year’s crop.  Just because temperatures are cooler and grain is harvested it is not time to just “let things sit”.  In order to best prepare for the 2023 crop producers should be concerned with keeping the water, nutrient and carbon cycles functioning as long as possible.

According to John Kempf, founder of Advancing Eco Agriculture, writing in the October issue of No-till Farmer, “taking steps to maximize soil health in the fall can yield results throughout the subsequent growing season.”  He explains that we’ve all observed the extraordinary flush of growth that happens in the spring that can’t be accounted for just by moisture.  “For alfalfa production, for example, we see this tremendous flush of growth where the first cutting of alfalfa in the spring can be 50-70% bigger than cuttings later on in the year.  Why is that?”  He says it’s coming from accumulated plant-available nutrients, very absorbable nutrients in a biological form that have been released from biology throughout the entire dormant period.

Kempf explains that while soil biology dramatically slows down during winter it is still solubilizing nutrients and making them available to plants.  “What we’ve learned is that it’s possible to enhance that biological cycle through the dormant period so that we have enough nutrients not just to last for 30 or 60 days in the spring, but throughout the entire grow season.”

David Miller, education director for Advancing Eco Agriculture, says in the same No-Till Farmer article, that soil tests should not be the focus for starter programs.  According to Miller soil samples alone tend to focus on the mineral components, including secondary macronutrients like sulfur, calcium and sodium and micronutirents like manganese.  He says these indicators can neglect other critical components of the system.  He says relying exclusively on soil tests could result in unnecessary and expensive nutrient applications.

One of these critical components is biological activity.  If a producer is still seeing two-year old corn stalk residue after harvesting soybeans the biology is not breaking it down.  One way to keep the biology working is to plant a cover crop.   Miller says, “You have all of these minerals that are in your crop residue.  You have all of these root exudates.  If the soil’s bare from harvest until next planting a lot of that can be oxidized.”  He adds that seed treatments, mulching and livestock integration can also help in addition to avoiding insecticides, fungicides and herbicides.  

The increase in biological activity from a cover crop can be quantified.  Maria Villamil, Associate Professor in crop science at the University of Illinois, did an analysis of 60 field studies of cover crops vs. no cover crops and found a consistent 27% increase in microbial abundance in fields with cover crops.  The team also found microbial activity was increased by 22% and microbial diversity was increased by 2.5%.

The University of Illinois team also found that the use of burndown herbicides as a cover crop termination method had a strong moderating effect on the microbial community.  With a mechanical termination the effects were smaller.  

This fall we need to remember that soil is something we are a part of and something we nurture. As with anything, these changes can’t happen overnight. It all starts with a step. Maybe that step will be implementing cover crops,  or decreasing herbicides, insecticides and fungicides. It’s time we start taking those steps.