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December 2020 Newsletter

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Seasons Greetings & Gratitude
During this season, we want to express our gratitude for your support of our program, your land and water stewardship, and your collaborative partnership toward protecting natural resources.

This year gave us chance to step back and broaden our perspective of the fundamental importance of our natural resources to support agriculture and producer livelihoods and the environment and natural capital we leave for the next generation. 

We hope you and yours find opportunities to rest and recharge over the holiday season. We plan to do the same, so that together, we can continue to move the needle on natural resource conservation in a way that supports livelihood & legacy.

-Beth Baker
Actively Waiting
Larry Oldham, Ph. D.
Extension Professor – Soils
Department of Plant and Soil Sciences
Mississippi State University Extension
 
After making the business decision to actively manage for soil health, producers often are frustrated that results are not immediately apparent. We did all this, and nothing happened! Alternatively, we may see some changes in soil health, but are still encountering challenges that pose a risk to production systems.

Farming is business, and finances rule in business: daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, and annual income statements are life. Most humans like the rhythm of regular returns. However, soils and other ecosystem components do not follow the same calendar. Those changes will come in their own time, and that timing differs in response to climate, geology and soil type, existing soil conditions, and  management.

Patience is necessary because the soils we farm are complex cauldrons of physics, chemistry, and biology where the results will not always fit into the ‘measurable outcomes’ timeline of financial statements, impact statements in agency annual reports, or three-year grant cycles reports. While soil health principles may be applied to any farm, the practices and applications to address soil health and quality limitations will most often always differ between farms, between fields, and possibly within a field.

Consider exactly what are we are asking the soil to do. The Natural Resource Conservation Service defines soil health as the capacity of a soil to function as a vital, living ecosystem that sustains plants, animals, and humans.

A recent webinar by Drs. Cristine Morgan and Shannon Cappellazzi of the Soil Health Institute about soil health measurements noted the functional outcomes we are ‘asking’ from soil. We need soils to:
  • Store carbon
  • Cycle carbon
  • Cycle nitrogen
  • Store water
  • Manage water infiltration
  • Resist erosion
  • Suppress diseases and pests
  • Serve as a reservoir of biodiversity
This is a lot of responsibility on the soil! These functions all depend on soil organic matter (SOM), comprised of things that were once alive, and subsequently went through some degree of ‘processing’ by a suite of other live things in the soil. As one living thing finishes its life cycle in the soil, it becomes substrate for other organisms. I once saw research that found cornstalks went from recognizable in the soil as such to not visually recognizable in about seven months.

Soil biology research is increasing understanding of roots and their activity during active plant growth in the surrounding soil (called the rhizosphere). What is root activity? As part of elongation and nutrient and water uptake, roots exude substances which recruit and sustain microbial life which carry out a variety of functions in the rhizosphere. Microorganisms and macroorganisms (the ones you can see) are natural components of soils, assisting in one way or another, to support and some drive, these vital soil functions, beyond producing food, fiber, and fuel. So, what appears benign to the human eye is actually a hotbed of action.

Tillage prepares seedbeds and controls weeds, but decreases SOM through increased aeration and disrupted aggregation. Managing for soil health requires active management to balance the inputs to achieve the desired outcomes.

The conservation principles listed below control soil erosion and nutrient movement and foster active soil biology.
  • Keeping the soil covered when possible to minimize erosion.
  • Minimizing disturbance.
  • Plants growing throughout the year.
  • Using crop rotations and/or cover crops.
  • Using nutrient management for more efficient use and minimal nutrient movement in the landscape.
However, these principles require time post-implementation to meet their potential. Alongside patience, transitioning to a production system that manages for soil health in an efficient and risk-adverse manner, also requires producer to routinely assess progress and changes.

Landowners should conduct routine soil assessments (not just soil tests, this would include biological and physical assessments) as management changes are made. Even if one implements all of the tools above to foster biology, critical reviews of soil imbalances and management activities that limit biological activity and crop production need to be continuously addressed. Time lags are inevitable as you move large systems, like your soil, to a new equilibrium – which is a fancy way to say ‘be patient’.
Conservation Webinars are back! 
Tuesday, January 26th at 12pm
We plan to shake things up by focusing webinars on the "how tos" of conservation, mixing in some virtual farm tours, and adding panelists each month to add diverse perspectives! Be on the lookout for a registration announcement in the new year!

New education & funding resources

Thinking about conducting your own on-farm research? There are resources to help you get started.  Check out SARE's resource for designing on-farm research as the perfect place to start to ensure you set up the research or trials in a way that will result in meaningful information. 
Arkansas releases farmer-led soil health webinar. This webinar features several farmers that help lead the Arkansas Soil Health Alliance as they share their experiences of changing their farming practices to include managing for soil health. Access the recording here by navigating to the "Previously Broadcast VRTs".
Soil Health Nexus houses resources for implementing on-farm research. Alongside a wealth of other information about soil health and a compilation of technical resources, the Soil Health Nexus also developed a tool kit for for farmers interested in executed on-farm research trials. The information ranges from trial design and collecting data, to hosting field days. Access the guide>>>
Partner Recognition:
We couldn't do our work without our supporters, collaborators, and friends. This month we'd like to recognize our friends and collaborators and thank the Delta F.A.R.M. for their partnership and support of our program!

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The latest conservation research & news

Research on regenerative farming practices in South Carolina explores  carbon sequestration potential 
New research explores the amount of carbon sequestered when using regenerative or cover crop management systems on farmlands in South Carolina. While not in the mid-south, this paper includes nearly 500 sample sites with varying soil types. Soil type was found to not have a significant impact on the soil's ability to sequester carbon. The research showed that implementing cover crops into a conventional crop rotation resulted in a modest, but significant soil organic matter percentage increase: indicating a 0.11% increase after 2 years, a 0.11% percent increase after 3 years, and a 0.55% increase after 4 years. When averaged per year for each sampling group, this results in an average of 622, 425, and 1584 lbs/ac/year of carbon fixed from the atmosphere and retained in soil. Studies like this not only show the conservation benefits of keeping living cover on soil year round, but highlight the potential to measure carbon storage for market trading. Read more>>>
 
Integrated nutrient management offers practical, systems approach
An article (or Chapter) in the Advances in Agronomy defined key components of Integrated Nutrient Management to include: 1) optimizing nutrient inputs by assessing all possible nutrient sources 2) matching nutrient supply in the root zone with crop requirements in space and time, 3) reducing N losses in intensively managed cropping systems, and 4) take all possible yield-increasing measures into consideration. The 2012 paper discusses the concept as a sustainability strategy for China, and is conceptually similar to other sustainable agriculture approaches, while keeping a focus on plant production and various processes of nutrient cycling. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations uses the term Integrated Plant Nutrient Management, and expands on the definition and approach they use. These examples highlight the potential for integrated nutrient management to offer a practical, systems approach toward improving nutrient use-efficiency and mitigating non-point source nutrient pollution. Read More>>>
Research projects future crop irrigation water requirements
Scientists from Mississippi State University, the University of Kentucky, the USDA Agricultural Research Service, and USDA Forest Service collaborated to determine projections of irrigation water requirements in the Lower Mississippi Alluvial Valley. The work, published in Agricultural Water Management in May 2019, projects crop irrigation water requirements under different climate changes over the LMAV and cropland areas. Results indicate that the LMAV is predicted to be warmer and drier in the future and subsequently crop irrigation requirements would increase under certain scenarios. Findings also set the stage for targeted mitigation strategies.  Read more>>>
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