Thursday, August 15, 2013

SWCS Razorback Chapter in Arkansas Cosponsors Cover Crops Conference

USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service
News Release No.: 080513-01

LITTLE ROCK, AR August 5, 2013 - Interest in cover crops has begun to surge in Arkansas over the last five years. More and more farmers and ranchers are discovering that cover crops have the potential to provide multiple benefits in a cropping system. They prevent erosion, improve soil’s physical and biological properties, supply nutrients, suppress weeds, improve the availability of soil water, and break pest cycles along with various other benefits.

Those benefits were discussed at the Southern Agricultural Cover Crops Workshop recently held in Jonesboro, AR. The workshop was hosted by the United States Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) in response to the increasing demand from farmers and ranchers for information on cover crops. It was designed to help farmers successfully adopt cover crop management systems congruent to agriculture conditions in the south.

Sponsors of the workshop included NRCS; Arkansas Natural Resources Commission; Arkansas Association of Conservation Districts; University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture Research and Extension; Arkansas State University College of Agriculture and Technology; Arkansas Agriculture Department; Farm Credit; Arkansas Farm Bureau; Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education; Monsanto; and Soil and Water Conservation Society – Razorback Chapter.

“There has been a significant increase in the number of acres being managed with cover crops as a part of the cropping system,” said Mike Sullivan, Arkansas NRCS State Conservationist. “This workshop provided a forum for farmers and ranchers to exchange information, discuss opportunities for collaboration, and learn about new and successful practices related to cover crops.”

Case study presentations identified and discussed the strengths and pitfalls of real applications. Specific sessions included discussions on cover crop management, no‐till, soil management, water management, pest management, disease management and economics. The workshop presenters included farmers, crop consultants, and research scientists who have extensive experience in cover crop management. Among them were: David Lamm, NRCS National Soil Health and Sustainability Team Leader; Dr. Don Tyler, University of Tennessee Engineering and Soil Science; Steve Groff, of Cedar Meadow Farms in Lancaster County, PA; Dr. Ray Massey, University of Missouri Agricultural and Applied Economics; and Dave Brandt of Brandt Farms in Ohio.

“Hopefully, this workshop will be the catalyst to get more farmers involved in not only preserving but also restoring our soils,” said workshop speaker Mike Taylor of Long Lake Plantation in Helena.

Cover crops enhance soil quality and keep nutrients in the fields. Although cover crops can be effective under conventional tillage, they also improve soil quality and ease the transition to continuous no‐till.

“Southern farmers cannot simply rely on the tried and proven management techniques that the Midwest employs to manage cover crop mixes,” said John Lee, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service State Agronomist in Arkansas. “Conditions in the South are different, and we need to plan to manage crop mixes according to southern agricultural farming practices.”

There were 152 participants from 12 states who attended the two day workshop July 24th and 25th coming from as far away as Massachusetts and Pennsylvania.

“I commend NRCS’s leadership for organizing an excellent conference with a lot of great information,” said workshop speaker Dr. Mike Daniels, Extension Water Quality professor at the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture Research and Extension. “It was very timely and reminded us that we all have a lot of work to do to advance cover crops in Arkansas as a key practice in the future. More and more cover crops will help with soil health, productivity, weed control and natural resource protection.”

“I thought the conference was excellent and offered farmers, researchers and educators a wide array of perspectives and opinions about cover crops and how they fit into a comprehensive soil health program,” said Keith Berns, a no till farmer with Green Cover Seeds in Bladen, NE . “The producers that I visited with were very interested and had a true desire to learn how to increase the health of their soil. That is what it is all about, regardless of whether you farm in Arkansas or Nebraska.”

Through conservation programs like the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, NRCS is working to help farmers adapt cover crop practices to their farms. Cover crops improve soil organic matter, soil moisture availability, and bring a host of other benefits to your farm. At the same time, they can reduce costs, increase profits and even create new sources of income. Farmers can reap dividends on their cover crop investment for years because their benefits accumulate over an extended period of time.

For additional information about cover crops, when and how to plant and when to terminate or incorporate the plant into the soil, visit the NRCS website at or call your local NRCS field office listed in the telephone book under U. S. Department of Agriculture.

PowerPoint presentations from the workshop are available online at the Arkansas Association of Conservation Districts Web site. 

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Southern Agriculture Cover Crops Workshop

The Arkansas Razorback Chapter of the Soil and Water Conservation Society will sponsor the Southern Agriculture Cover Crops Workshop, held July 24-25, 2013, at the Hilton Garden Inn in Jonesboro, Arkansas. The goals of the two-day workshop are to assist farmers in successful adoption of cover crops in Southern agricultural systems and to provide a forum for producer discussion and collaboration. The workshop will feature talks on soil biology, soil health, pest management, cost effectiveness of cover crops, selection of cover crops, cover crops in no-till systems, and more. Speakers include producers, university researchers, and USDA NRCS conservationists. Register by July 1 for the early registration rate of $100/person. View the agenda online and download the registration form here.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

2013 SWCS Annual Conference: Apply Now for the Student Moderator Program!

Following the success of the 2012 Student Moderator Program, we are again accepting applications for student moderators for the 2013 Annual Conference. Up to 18 awardees will spend one day working at the conference as student moderators and will assist the conference presenters and symposium organizers during the educational program. For their service, their conference registration fees and hotel room costs will be waived or covered.

Students will work one of the two education days of the meeting (Monday or Tuesday, July 22 or 23) and may attend any sessions they choose on the other. Additional information and an online application form can be found on the conference Web site.

About the conference:
The 68th International SWCS Annual Conference will be held in Reno, Nevada. Primary conference dates are July 21-24, 2013. Tours will be on July 24th. The headquarters hotel is the Peppermill Resort Spa Casino.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Voluntary Stewardship: Will More of the Same Produce Different Results?

By Tom Prout, SWCS Canadian Region Director

I write this article with the knowledge gained from more than 35 years of experience in watershed management in southern Ontario and with the anticipation that it may generate some response from conservation practitioners, farm organizations, and farm leaders.

For at least seven decades, many landowners have been implementing stewardship projects and applying a conservation ethic when making management decisions. These voluntary actions are beneficial and do contribute to the maintenance of water quality levels. However, considering our ongoing concerns with the health of our watersheds, perhaps it is time to reflect on the following questions:

  • Is voluntary stewardship taking too long and using too much money to actually achieve the water quality society desires?
  • Are changing farming practices and farming technologies outpacing the good that can be achieved by voluntary stewardship?
  • Are we using the correct Best Management Practices (BMPs) and stewardship practices in the right places?
  • Do we need new and improved BMP and stewardship practices? 
  • What are the confounding factors that prevent us from making bigger improvements in the water quality of our lakes, rivers, and streams?
  • What will the next generation of BMPs and stewardship look like?

Canada and the United States are two of the world’s leading countries, but are our societies committed to changing our lifestyles to help improve the environment we all live in and appreciate?

For decades, farmers in southern Ontario have publicly said that they would spend more time and money on stewardship projects if they received a fair or higher price for their product. However, after two consecutive years of very high commodity prices and some record yields, I am observing the opposite reaction: less conservation tillage, higher fertilizer rates to achieve record yields, increased sales of moldboard plows, and the removal of windbreaks and forests to make larger fields. With record-high farmland prices and larger equipment, farmers seem to have less time for conservation. Perhaps it is time to let farmers manage their lands as they see fit and, instead of offering stewardship grants, set water quality standards for them to meet.

Municipalities must meet water quality standards for their sewage treatment facilities, and in some municipalities there are now water quality standards for storm water discharge that developers have to meet. Local businesses have to meet discharge standards from their processing facilities. Nonpoint source pollution is really just many forms of point source pollution combined. Farmland is being systematically drained at an ever increasing rate to increase productivity. Will these tile outlets provide a way to measure nonpoint sources of pollution? Can we realistically measure nonpoint sources at the field level and tie water quality to field scale operations?

If society wants to get serious about water quality in our lakes and streams, it may be time to set water quality standards for surface and subsurface drainage from farmland. We must determine whether society can continue to afford annual payments to encourage voluntary stewardship. In making these decisions and answering the questions listed above, we will discover what the next generation of BMPs will look like.

I am not suggesting that the decades of conservation work are all for naught, and I am not suggesting that farmers intentionally pollute. However, I do believe it is time to stop and reflect on our current approach to watershed management and ask ourselves one more question: will doing more of the same thing achieve the water quality standards we want to achieve, or will doing more of the same thing get us more of the same results? We—as in the big we, society—need to decide if we want maximum productivity from farms and some of the lowest food prices in the world at the expense of the air and water quality we need to survive.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Soil and Water Stewardship Week: Where Does Your Water Shed?

It's Soil and Water Stewardship Week, and this year's theme is "Where does your water shed?" Related events and activities will be taking place across the country from April 28th through May 5th, 2013. You can read more about the stewardship program on the National Association of Conservation Districts Web site, click the links below for news from a few states, and contact your local conservation district to learn how stewardship is put into practice in your area.

If you're like me, you're probably still wondering, "But where does my water shed?" The Watershed Information Network--put together by the US Environmental Protection Agency, the US Geological Survey, and the Conservation Technology Information Center (an SWCS corporate member)--is a great resource that provides general information about watersheds, maps to locate a specific watershed, and current water quality data from each location. Information about volunteer groups that work to monitor water quality and maintain watershed health is also available. Check it out and get involved!

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Skeet Shooting in the Dark

By Pete Nowak, SWCS West North Central Director

Yes, the title of this piece describes a ludicrous situation. Imagine standing in the dark with a shotgun on your shoulder and the expectation that you are going to hit little clay disks that are flying about. Your probability of hitting any is very, very low, but that still would not prevent some people from firing away as if they knew what they were shooting at. Skeet shooting in the dark makes as much sense as do conservation programs without targeting and assessment. To what extent do we know where our shots should be aimed, and when we do pull the trigger, do they make an impact? Focusing on the number of shells we shoot or the design or make of the shotgun is of little benefit unless we also know that we are hitting the right target and making an impact. 

Traditionally, we relied on national assessment programs (e.g., the Resource Conservation Act and the National Resources Inventory) to define the target and evaluate impacts across time, but those sources of guidance are no longer treated as salient to our conservation efforts. Do we need such efforts?

Any reading of the agricultural press conveys an image of substantial changes happening across our working lands. Simultaneously, the structure of our agricultural system continues to change, and few within the conservation arena know how to deal with these changes. There is significant intensification in production due to global markets that has been accelerated by demand for alternative fuels, and in too many cases, a conservation ethic has been supplanted by greed. There is also an emergence of small farms and locally grown foods. Like some small religious sects that preceded them, local foods have a cultural halo that has limited a hard look at how they are produced. In addition, there is increasing variability in weather events such that the term “disaster” has become commonplace, and while we spend billions in remedial efforts, pennies are dedicated to exploring how to enhance the resiliency of our agricultural systems. The rate of fragmentation of our agricultural lands is matched by a growing rate of tenancy, and yet we remain blinded to the conservation implications of this structural shift by effective use of Jeffersonian images in public relation campaigns. The science of genomics continues to provide fascinating opportunities, but also reminds us with herbicide-resistant weeds that any new technology is a double-edged sword.

It is in this turbulent setting where, more than ever, we need an assessment of these dynamics coupled with a persistent question of whether our conservation efforts are hitting the target with the desired impact. Unfortunately, we do not even have a Cassandra as political decisions regarding assessment and evaluation have turned out the lights on the conservation arena. We are skeet shooting in the dark.

I have always thought that the expression “think globally, act locally” sounded a little too touchy-feely for me, but now I am beginning to appreciate some of the wisdom behind this statement. If our leadership cannot or will not act relative to the aforementioned challenges, then it is our responsibility as conservationists to act locally. A conservationist will work around programs and use experience and local knowledge to reach out and address the conservation challenges in her area. Local conservation issues are addressed by finding creative and even unorthodox ways of solving problems even if it means not being recorded in the performance systems of program managers (Nowak 2009). However, all these actions by conservationists remain insufficient unless one more element is added.

In the challenging setting I have just described, I cannot emphasize enough the importance of listening, learning, and interacting with fellow conservationists. There is no better teacher than the one found in the school of hard knocks, and most of the conservationists I know have been there. How do we deal with the trends and issues outlined earlier? Interacting with other conservationists is sure to generate some clues if not the answers on how this can be done. Creating opportunities for conservationists to talk about conservation with fellow conservationists creates, in essence, a spotlight on the target. Professional associations such as SWCS offer the opportunity to learn from other conservationists. To paraphrase John Donne, no conservationist is an island onto himself or herself as we have so much to share with each other. Turning the lights back on in the conservation arena depends on you acting locally with insights and motivation coming from global participation with fellow conservationists. Be active in your SWCS as so much depends on it!

Nowak, Pete. 2009. The subversive conservationist. Journal of Soil and Water Conservation 64(4):113A-115A, doi:10.2489/jswc.64.4.113A.

This article first appeared in the March 2013 Conservogram newsletter.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Northern Plains Chapter: Technical Meeting

On March 27 and 28, 2013, the Northern Plains Chapter of the SWCS will hold its annual technical meeting in Casper, Wyoming. The meeting will include presentations on soil health and biology, crop diversity, cover crops, and no-till management. There is no registration fee, but attendees are requested to register by March 20. The registration form and the conference agenda are available online here.