Top of the inning | TSLN.com

Top of the inning

Megan Silveira
for Tri-State Livestock News

Since the beginning of time, agriculture has been the backbone of society, providing food, clothing, and so much more to mankind. Baseball, well. It’s kind of fun to play. And to some, exciting to watch.

Could these two activities have anything in common?

According to Ian Cunningham, the secretary and treasurer of the National Association of Conservation Districts, they do. He said in the game of agriculture, Mother Nature always bats last, and it is the job of agriculturists across the country to make sure they are prepared to win in the last inning.

Cunningham believes this preparation starts with protecting topsoil, an idea he and the NACD share.

“We want to set our operations up for success,” Cunningham said. “That begins with soil health. Mankind needs to be proactive in caring for our natural resources. Some see soil just as a medium to provide nutrients to a crop. I believe soil is a living, breathing miraculous thing that needs to be cared for.”

At the NACD’s 73rd Annual Meeting held this February in San Antonio, Texas, the NACD members expressed a stance similar to Cunningham’s statement, said Tim Palmer, NACD president. After surveying over 20 of the group’s Soil Health Champions from across the country, Palmer said the NACD was able to put together the Soil Health and Weather Extremes report.

“To keep the topsoil in place is paramount to our ability to keep a safe and plentiful food supply,” he said.

The report examined the Soil Health Champion’s take on extreme weather in the United States over the past few years and how the weather has impacted their operations. The report sums up the various methods of soil conservation the champions are currently utilizing and how those methods have altered the overall productivity of their ground.

Cunningham was one of the Soil Health Champions surveyed for the report. He said despite the surveyed individuals all being from varying states with different types of operations ranging from row crops to livestock, they were all able to agree the latest weather trends have been “unpredictable and somewhat unfavorable.”

The survey responses and the NACD report all say to win in the game of agricultural production, producers need to prioritize protecting the topsoil on their land, Palmer said.

“Topsoil is just the best soil,” he said. “That top horizon of the darkest, richest soil is from centuries of plants dying and being returned to the soil. It’s what we rely on to produce our livelihoods.”

Palmer said producers in the United States have been working hard to protect this desirable horizon of soil. With new technology and equipment, farms and ranches have been able to evolve to reach the highest levels of profitability and efficiency in regard to soil health, he added.

Cunningham said while specific methods of protecting the topsoil can be altered to match the operation’s geographic location, there are five principles of soil health consistent across the nation.

Cunningham said the soil principles are to disturb soil as little as possible, to keep soil armored, to have as much diversity as possible, to have living roots in the soil as long as possible and to integrate livestock on the land.

In addition to upholding these principles, Cunningham said there several production methods available to all producers to help protect topsoil. Topsoil is at risk of being washed away, blown away or eroded, Cunningham said, and the following practices help prevent this on agriculture operations.

One option is to utilize cover crops, he said. Cunningham said these crops are planted before and after a primary crop to help keep the soil armored and build organic matter in the soil.

Palmer said options for cover crops include cereal grains, such as wheat, rye and various legumes capable of enriching the soil naturally. All of these crops will help reduce producers’ need for applied nutrients.

To protect topsoil, Cunningham said producers also have the choice to graze livestock on the land. He said converting cropland to perennial grazing land can help protect the ground from erosion.

With grazing, livestock are able to utilize the grass and convert biomatter, Palmer added.

In areas with a lot of water runoff, Cunningham said there are several production options ranchers can pursue. At his own operation in Minnesota, Cunningham said his family looks to grass waterways and water-sediment control basins to help catch runoff rainwater and prevent soil erosion.

While there are some economic costs to executing these methods, Palmer said the effort is well worth it for farmers and ranchers at the end of the day. Helping conserve topsoil will make the ground more productive, he said.

Palmer said keeping the topsoil in place is paramount to a producers’ livelihood and ability to provide a safe and plentiful food supply.

“There are both sort-term and long-term advantages to following soil principles,” Cunningham said. “It’s money in the bank to take care of your topsoil. I think there’s no downside to caring for God’s creation.”

Palmer urges producers to reach out to the nearly 3,000 conservation districts across the country for the best soil conservation practices for their area. He said these districts house local experts that consolidate a large amount of information into one location for producers.

Cunningham said he believes if producers take the initiative to take care of their land, the land will take care of them in return. In the game of agriculture, Cunningham said it is important for ranchers to have soil on their team.

With this game, mankind can practice helping to care for the natural resources they rely on.

“Coming up the ninth inning, when Mother Nature is up to bat, you want to ensure that you’ve done all you can to be set up,” Cunningham said.

Are you and your operation ready to set up to the plate? F