Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The Beginnings of a Paradigm Shift

By Dan Towery, SWCS President

There is a growing buzz about soil health, and I believe that this subject is going to be a game changer. I wasn’t taught about soil health in college (in fact, I was taught that one cannot increase the organic matter on cropland). However, things have changed since then. Back then, no-till was in its very early years of adoption, and if cover crops were planted, they were used as a green manure crop. When I was working as a soil conservationist with the Soil Conservation Service, if a grower planted no-till it was a major accomplishment. At that time, however, it was done as a one-year conservation practice. Continuous no-till was only being used by a small number of growers, and even fewer researchers were using continuous no-till. Rotational tillage (no-till one year and then full-width tillage for other years) was the norm. It was almost twenty years before I realized that it took continuous no-till to see improvements in soil properties. Most (but not all) researchers and those who provide technical assistance now realize that rotational tillage results in almost no change in soil properties.

The adoption of continuous no-till and a more diversified crop rotation (at least in the Great Plains) began the shift in thinking regarding soil health or soil quality. Over time, there was an increase in organic matter in the top most soil layer; infiltration, aggregate stability, available moisture holding capacity, pore space, and bulk density improved. The soil was functioning better, and growers were seeing a yield increase in dry summers. Growers then started planting cover crops to add some or even more diversity to the crop rotation, and the changes in soil properties came much faster and were even more pronounced. Scavenging or fixing nitrogen dramatically changed the nitrogen cycle. Also, the use of cover crop “cocktails” (mixes) started growing.

Due to these production advantages, soil health has become the buzz. It may not be prominent in your county or area yet, but it will be. Instead of just looking at the physical and chemical soil properties (as I was taught in college), the interrelationship with the biological properties is now emerging as a critical component of the soil functioning process. But it takes time to change the biology in the soil. It is complex and is affected by temperature and moisture (remember it is a living system). Just as we can’t see germs and viruses, we can’t always observe the actual bacteria, fungi, or other soil critters, but they are there. Researchers will sort out the scientific aspects regarding soil biology over time. Meanwhile, more and more farmers and farmer advisors are seeing the results of an improved soil. They are seeing consistently higher yields in some years because they are making their soil more resilient. And a healthy soil is a critical step in order to improve water quality and to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

The Natural Resources Conservation Service recently launched a soil health campaign that can be viewed online here. The Indiana Chapter of the Soil and Water Conservation Society held a soil health workshop on November 16th, and two cover crops conferences will take place in Iowa and Illinois this winter. Take a look at these and other events and become involved in learning what soil health is all about.

This article first appeared in the November 2012 Conservogram newsletter.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Dale Threatt-Taylor interviewed on PBS

Watch Wednesday, November 14, 2012 on PBS. See more from NC Now.

District Director for the Wake Soil & Water Conservation District in Raleigh, NC, (and SWCS Member) Dale Threatt-Taylor is interviewed on the relationship between Ken Burns' new documentary The Dust Bowl and soil and water conservation today.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Soil Health Workshop Videos

The Colorado Chapter of the Soil and Water Conservation Society is hosting a Technical Conference in Vail, Colorado, on November 12 and 13. The focus of the conference is soil health. Presentations will be streamed live and available for viewing after the conference. Access the presentations here.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Conservation Technology Information Center: 30-Year Anniversary

The Conservation Technology Information Center (CTIC), an SWCS corporate member organization, celebrated its 30th anniversary on October 25, 2012, at Monsanto's facility in Creve Coeur, Missouri. The event included panel discussions exploring the past, present, and future of agricultural conservation, as well as recognition of individuals who have contributed to the organization's mission. Read the full event summary here.

Friday, November 2, 2012

SWCS 2013 Annual Conference: Call for Presentations

The Soil and Water Conservation Society is seeking oral and poster presentations and symposia proposals for the 2013 International Annual Conference in Reno, NV.

Each year SWCS identifies topics or a theme for special attention at the Annual Conference. The overarching theme for the conference this year is Resilient Landscapes: Planning for Flood, Drought & Fire. 

At the 2013 SWCS Annual Conference, we would like to explore conservation planning, policy, and practices that, by improving system resilience, help adapt to and mitigate the adverse effects of Flood, Drought, and Fire. This may include urban, suburban and rural natural resource environments and landscapes as well as working agricultural lands. We hope that your abstracts for oral presentations, posters, and symposia submissions will address the technical, educational, and informational needs of conservationists as we work together to address the challenges encountered in creating resilient landscapes.

In the face of pressures from a highly dynamic climate, changing markets, and evolving environmental conditions, agriculture must produce not only food, feed, and fiber but also fuel and a broader array of landscape or ecosystem services. Conservation professionals need to adapt to new resource demands and changes in our client base and needs. Conservation must deal with larger spatial-temporal scales of soil and water management and conservation, such as landscape and watershed scales, and planning for extreme events. Achieving these changes will require improved collaborations with different agencies and research institutions to plan and apply on the ground conservation. It may also require returning to our conservation roots to invigorate local coalitions to prioritize and plan conservation needs and programs.

The submission deadline is December 17, 2012. Download the full call for presentations here.