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PLEASANTVILLE, WI

The rain couldn't keep away over 50 farmers, landowners, and partners interested in soil health.

The Soil Health Field Day held on March 30, the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), along with partnering agencies, discussed cover crop benefits, soil properties, soil health parameters, provided demonstrations, farmer testimonies, and more as part of a successful Trempealeau County Soil Health Field Day on March 30.

Landowner education was a primary goal for the day to promote the importance of healthy soils by showing hands on, real time, demonstrations on the effects landowner decisions have on soil health.

'Promoting soil health education gets people thinking about what's happening to the soil below our feet, the things we can't see, and what that means to the crops we see growing,' said Ryan Swatek, NRCS Trempealeau County District Conservationist.

Living resource

Soil is a living and life giving resource. As world population and food production demands rise, keeping our soil healthy and productive is of paramount importance.

By farming using soil health principles and systems that include no-till, cover crops and diverse rotations, more and more farmers are actually increasing their soil's organic matter and improving microbial activity. As a result, farmers are sequestering more carbon, increasing water infiltration, improving wildlife and habitat — all while increasing crop yields and harvesting better profits.

Soil is made up of air, water, decayed plant residue, organic matter from living and dead organisms, and minerals, such as sand, silt and clay.

Healthy, fully functioning soil is balanced to provide an environment that sustains and nourishes plants, soil microbes and beneficial insects.

Managing for soil health is one of the most effective ways for farmers to increase crop productivity and profitability while improving the environment.

'Soil health basics come down to four main principles: (1) Minimize disturbance (till as little as possible), (2) keep it covered, (3) utilize diversity and rotation, and (4) keep a living root year-round,' said Brian Briski, NRCS Area Resource Conservationist. 'Farmers who manage their land in ways that improve and sustain soil health benefit from optimized inputs, sustainable outputs, and increased resiliency.'

Good soil benefits all

Healthy soils benefit all producers and provide financial benefits for farmers and environmental benefits that affect everyone.

Shane Goplin, farmer and Vice President of Wisconsin Farm Bureau, uses cover crops on over 500 acres and shared his success in using them to keep his fields covered.

'I push cover crops because I know they work; we've had luck with using rye and radish. We also try and do as little tillage as we possibly can,' Goplin said. 'It's not what's above the ground that really counts, it's below the ground. On a corn-bean rotation, you are not building organic matter and soil structure up in your soil; we use cover crops to help build that matter by having roots at different levels in the soil profile.'

Cover crops key

Cover crops contribute to biodiversity, which increases the success of most agricultural systems and helps prevent disease and pest problems.

Goplin is also experimenting with different cover crop seed mixes and interseeding cover crops into standing crops.

'Many fields, such as the shallow soils on hillsides in Trempealeau County, need cover crops; they keep soil loss tolerable and help maintain the soils granular structure,' said Todd Mau, NRCS Buffalo County District Conservationist. 'Cover crops can also be a more long term solution to compaction issues,' said Justin Morris, NRCS Regional Soil Health Specialist.

Soil properties

Soil properties and soil health parameters were also discussed during the field day.

'Soil texture is fundamentally the most important property of the soil,' said Dr. Francisco Arriaga, UW−Madison Department of Soil Science.

Aggregation is important for water infiltration and flow through the soil.

'Wisconsin's state soil, Antigo Silt Loam, holds about 10 inches of water. We need to make every drop count when it rains by keeping our soils healthy so they can best use the water they hold,' said Arriaga.

Healthy soils hold more water by binding it to organic matter and lose less water to runoff and evaporation. NRCS simulated rainfall slake and infiltration with tilled and no-tilled samples of soil, comparing size, color, and density. The demonstrations showed farmers that no-till aggregate samples were more stable.

'The only thing that's different here is the management; the same type of soil was used and they behave differently due to soil health. We use rainfall demonstrations to teach keeping their soil covered to help dissipate rainfall and other environmental factors,' said Briski. 'Increasing your soil by one percent organic matter can help hold a quarter inch more of rain.'

Spreading the word

'Organic matter in the soil enables it to hold its weight in water, then, it can release the water easily to give to plant roots when needed; soil life and organic matter is keeping moisture in place and drawing it in,' said Morris.

Kelly Sippl, NRCS Soil Conservationist works locally with farmers in Trempealeau County to manage soils.

'We're here to help farmers build soil health management plans and test to see how good infiltration is in their soils,' said Sippl.

Sippl suggests keeping an eye out and discussing soil health with neighbors who are using cover crops compared to previously tilled areas.

'Farmers who follow soil health principles have little to no ponding and runoff on their fields,' said Sippl, adding that following the four soil health principles will give farmers a good return on investment. 'Do what you can now to prepare the soil and keep it healthy and functioning to deal more proactively with changes in weather.'

Partnering agencies for Field Day included Trempealeau County Department of Land Management, UW-Extension, UW-Madison Department of Soil Science, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Western Technical College, Farm Service Agency, Wisconsin Farm Bureau, Trout Unlimited, and LaCrosse Seed.

Contact your local NRCS service center or visit www.wi.nrcs.usda.gov/ to learn more about soil health and the technical and financial assistance available through NRCS. Improving soil health is key to long-term, sustainable agricultural production.

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