Restoring happy soil | TSLN.com

Restoring happy soil

What's underfoot when you step out of your pickup or tractor in a field? It should be a community, crowded with varied, unseen and un-pronounceable things that are alive – a healthy, growing, working, communicating, sharing, interacting maze of activity, improving and energizing the "dirt" you see.

Participants in last week's Soil Health and Cover Crop Field day at the Rankin Ranch south of Upton, Wyoming, learned that Cover crops can return nutrients to the soil and keep it cooler.

Grass was dry and very short beyond all the fences – until I drove into the ranch, established in 1912 by patriarch Charlie Rankin's forebears. Alongside me was a dryland field sporting a good green cast on knee-high plants that looked like oats.

Rankins run a lot of yearlings and Curtis has been experimenting with management intensive grazing for some time but said, "We're strung out in six different places, so we can't put 5,000 together and move through in a group, which would be ideal and has resulted in three times greater carrying capacities in Texas. With the high price of land and the low price of cows we need to run more, and with the difficulties of intensive grazing I decided to try the cover crop angle. If you're grazing instead of harvesting you're not mining your soil."

“Take care of the microorganisms, have good living roots, keep the soil covered and remember diversity, diversity, diversity ...anything besides a mono-culture. I think soil compaction is more detrimental than we realize.” Ann Fischer, USDA/NRCS in Baker, Montana

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This formerly alfalfa and intermediate wheatgrass hayfield, untilled for seven years, was planted in late May with a no-till drill and is only in its second year of cover crop treatment. Curtis initially brush-hogged it to remove big growth, and sprayed once with Roundup saying he wasn't too concerned if a little alfalfa came back.

The first year he had some sweet clover in the mix, and didn't spray the existing clover off. "It did the soil a lot of good," he reflects, "but the sweet clover took over." He recommends, "Spray before you plant every year."

In this planting "The seeds were all different, little, big, round, oblong, hairy. They told me to throw them all in together," Curtis said, "and to set the drill for 40 pounds of oats." The growth we observed includes oats, sunflowers, corn, chick peas, some sanfoin and "maybe a few turnips." With the minimal rainfall and high temperatures Weston County has experienced this year the growth, while somewhat sparse, is impressive. However, Curtis says if it doesn't rain and grow more soon he won't even graze it this year; preserving the cover to hold snow for increased moisture this winter.

Soil temperature variations are unbelievable between bare ground and even very sparse ground cover. Caitlin Price Youngquist, Ph.D., University Extension Educator in Agriculture with the University of Wyoming, came from Worland to speak at the Field Day and led the crusade against soil compaction, dubbing it "the silent killer!" Along with a soil compaction tester which she recommends using frequently, Caitlin carried her roast thermometer – one of her recommended handy tools for soil testing – into the field. The air temperature was over 100 degrees, and several places in the field Caitlin found unshaded bare spots between plants registering 130-40 degrees. A few inches away, where plants grew, it was around 103. "I've often noticed it even feels cooler when you walk into the crop,"Curtis noted.

Ann K. Fischer, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) District Conservationist from Baker, Montana, who also spoke at the Field Day, dug up a small corn plant to show how root hairs help loosen soil and create a network where beneficial microorganisms can live and thrive. She broke off small root pieces for 'tasters' who reported "sweet" as their first impression, bearing out what Caitlyn Youngquist had said about roots secreting sugars that feed the soil. Complex sugars, polysaccharides, are produced as soil microorganisms digest plant materials and act as "glues" in the soil, cementing small soil particles into clusters or "crumbs" which allow better infiltration and retention of water.

Blake Hauptman, UW's NE Area Extension Range Educator from Sundance said he was pleased with the turnout of 40 plus, and discussion between participants. "People seemed genuinely interested in working to improve their soils and were more than willing to share their own farming and ranching experiences. "We heard from a ranch who has incorporated a winter bale grazing system to rejuvenate low-producing areas on their place, and heard from a number of folks and their experiences in using cover crops."

District Conservationist Ann Fischer with USDA/NRCS in Baker, Montana, said she and her husband have gone from mostly crop/fallow to all grass, and quit haying four years ago. They started with just 40 acres of cover cropping in 2009 but were up to 140 in 2011. One year they incorporated so many different plants Ann said "Our cows ran in there and after a while they'd all moved out to the roads! They'd never seen those plants before and I feared we had a massive, expensive failure. But they soon started sampling and ended up liking most of it." Those acres have now been converted to a native grass planting.

Ann has found that roughly 750,000 to 1 million seeds per acre for cover crops work best. Planting a warm season mix in western North Dakota and eastern Montana generally starts in mid-June and they're still planting. Ann likes BMR corn, sorghum, sudan, a couple kinds of millet, and says up to 50 percent legumes can be used to help the nutrient cycle get started. Ann noted that on a 70 degree day, the bare soil can reach 100 degrees.

"Take care of the microorganisms, have good living roots, keep the soil covered and remember diversity, diversity, diversity …anything besides a mono-culture." In closing she noted, "I think soil compaction is more detrimental than we realize."

Bud Williamson from near Moorcroft, Wyoming said he fights soil compaction with winter bale feeding. "We fed our .5 to .75 ton bales about 20 feet apart scattered all over a field, figuring 20 cows per bale and three or four days for them to consume it. Whenever they ate it down to no more than 15 percent left on the ground we'd move to a different field. By the second year they noted a "vast difference" in tonnage on hay mowed from those fields, and figured they'd "gained 150 percent on soil health." The humus left on the ground from bale feeding would be used up by the soil the third year and they'd bale feed there again. They also did some sagebrush control by feeding the bales in the midst of the biggest brush. "The cattle do the work," Bud said, "with the sage tromped down, dying out and grass coming back."

Amanda Riter represented North 40 Ag of Ballantine, Montana, a business devoted to soil health and risk management training along with providing a full variety of seed for cover cropping across this region. They're interested in helping landowners analyze their soil, moisture and weather situations and custom mix cover crops to fit their personal needs and objectives, considering such variables as if they plan to graze or hay the plantings "Chickpeas, sorghum-sudan and sunflowers are made for this country because they can stand hot and dry and reduce ground temperatures 30 degrees or more," she said. Buckwheat helps restore phosphorus and cool season mixes are a bit pricier, she said.

Amanda said mixes can cost from $16 to $60 per acre. They also offer an inoculant, "a peat-based fine black powder for legumes to help them nodulate and give them a little extra boost." One Field Day participant said they dump their seed and the inoculant powder into a six inch auger and "going fourteen foot up and into the drill the seeds are all covered."

Blake Hauptman said, "I believe the true value of the workshop was the discussion and sharing of these experiences." He's hoping for a winter follow-up meeting.

The group enjoyed a hearty lunch prepared and served by Mary Rankin.