A carefully crafted cover crop composition, manure management, precision agriculture and the right mix of soil additives can be a recipe for improved soil health.
That was the message from three Delmarva farmers who took part in an Aug. 11 webinar on ways to improve soil health. Most of the focus was on cover crops and carefully selecting the correct cover crop mix to prevent erosion, regulate soil moisture, control weeds, add nitrogen and provide other benefits for farmers.
The Sussex Conservation District hosted the webinar which was moderated by cover crop coach Steve Groff. Participants included Aaron Thompson of Thompson Family Farm in Hartly, Delaware; Steve Kraszewski of Mason’s Heritage in Ruthsburg, Maryland; and National Association of Conservation Districts Soil Health Champion Blaine Hitchens of Laurel, Delaware.
Thompson focused on precision agriculture and manure management. Kraszewski focused on possibly transitioning to organic farming and Hitchens focused on adding soil amendments like humic acid.
“What is snake oil and what works?” asked Groff.
That’s a reference to the sometimes too-good-to-be true promises made by some biological amendments and the difficulty farmers can have in separating fact from fiction. Groff said he didn’t want to be negative, adding “biologicals have come of age.”
Hitchens said it’s important to trust and know the person trying to sell you soil amendments. They also need to be used correctly and it may be wise to test on small plots or small areas and do some research before going all in on a product.
As an example of using them correctly, you may not want to leave some compounds sitting out in the hot sun because it could kill many of the useful organisms, Groff said.
“You are working with biological life,” he said.
Hitchens is a big believer in humic acid, which he distributes, but he emphasized caution and the correct use of the product. He said the best time to apply humic acid is when planting, but that it can be applied at other times as well.
Hitchens said he has gotten the same yield with as much as 50% less nitrogen in some instances, an improvement he attributes in part to soil amendments as well as the use of cover crops like rye, vetch and radish. He said soil amendments like biologicals can increase roots, sugar and microbes and allow plants to need less fertilizer because the plants are more healthy. He said it can also buffer the sodium found in fertilizers.
Groff asked why he would need humic acid if his soil is in good condition.
“You don’t,” Hitchens said. He explained that it is a carbon source and it will provide more benefit for soils which are low in organic matter content. “Some people need a lot of it and some don’t.”
Much of the discussion was about cover crops. Thompson said that cover crops take a lot of thought and should be carefully considered.
“You have to take a thoughtful approach,” he said. “You can’t just throw it out there.”
Thompson said farmers should not expect immediate results and should not be discouraged.
“Keep trying. You will work your way through,” he said.
Thompson likes rye because some of his land is low and will grow rye, which he said also helps keep weeds under control. He also uses or considers other cover crops, including rapeseed, radish, wheat and clover.
His advice for farmers who are just beginning to seriously use cover crops is to “start with some cereal grains and keep it simple.”
“You have to treat cover crops like your cash crops,” Groff added.
Kraszewski likes to use cover crops like crimson clover to improve the nitrogen content of his soil. He said his father-in-law started to transition some land to organic farming years earlier.
Thompson stressed manure management using auto steer and carefully monitoring moisture content to help him to get a nice even spread of manure. All of his land gets manure every 18 months with wheat fields getting manure in the fall and corn getting manure in the spring. He gets poultry manure from different sources and combines it, which helps him get the best moisture content for what he is applying, he said. Although his equipment is old, much of it has been retrofitted with equipment for precision agriculture like smart boxes.
Hitchens said he needs to be careful with manure application because some of his land has high phosphorus levels, which can be a problem if more poultry manure is added.
The three farmers were asked about the possibility of using grazing livestock as part of their regular rotation. None of the three do so, although one said it could perhaps help to control noxious weeds like Palmer amaranth.
Hitchens encouraged farmers to keep learning, take a long-term approach to improving the health of their soil and limit tillage.
“Be passionate about it. Stick with it. Stick with it,” he said. “Never work it. No-till, no-till, no-till.”
Groff suggested adopting a 10-year mindset to improving soil health.
Thompson agreed, urging farmers to be patient and act like they would with a puzzle, listening, learning and trying different things until the pieces come together.