Soil Health U speaker inspires attendees to restore their soil health

Soil health specialist and conservationist Jay Fuhrer presented the closing keynote address at the 2023 Soil Health U event on Jan. 19 in Salina, Kansas. Fuhrer is retired from the Natural Resources Conservation Service and works part time at the Menoken Farm, a conservation demonstration farm in Burleigh County, North Dakota.

“It’s about 160 acres and we have cropping and grazing systems and indoor and outdoor gardens,” he said. “It gives us a place to look at cover crop integration, livestock integration and gives them a place to put together a methodology and if it fails, you can adjust it and apply it on a small scale. Then when you find something that works, we get it out in the team member’s fields and out to the general public.”

Fuhrer’s keynote address focused on reinstating soil health to the soil and maintaining it for the next generations. However, Fuhrer made sure the audience understood his introduction to soil health principles was gradual and did not happen overnight. Although making changes to farm management seems daunting, each change brings more rewards.

“When I started, we were in full-tillage mode, low crop diversity, no cover crops and no livestock integration,” he explained. “Then we got into no-till systems, our stability got much better and our crop production systems got much more reliable. The first thing we observed was after we started planting cover crops our soils we’re finally able to stay hydrated.”

Re-establishing soil health

“We need to build some things back and we have more traction now than we had in the past,” Fuhrer said. “But what will we do with it? What we’ve been doing over the last few years are short-term economic gains at the expense of the resource. There comes a day when the resource won’t be there anymore.”

One of Fuhrer’s first points was to encourage the attendees to set goals for themselves. He recommended producers set a personal or company goal to helps direct the decision-making process for the end results you are striving for. Fuhrer said his goal is to farm forever and keeping that goal in mind helps guide him. However, he was quick to remind the audience reaching a goal is not all that difficult, but maintaining it is so they must stay dedicated. Once a goal is defined, producers looking to rebuild their soil must make changes to their management systems.

“A lot of our cropping systems today are not capable of building soils,” he explained. “Crop integration is so important and we have to understand every field and every green plant is a carbon inlet. If you don’t have a green plant, you don’t have a carbon inlet.”

Fuhrer said, if possible, planting a cover crop the same year as an annual crop can mean double the opportunity of obtaining carbon. However, not all cover crops are made equal. For instance, Fuhrer said planting corn, a mid- to high-carbon plant and rotating it with beans, which are a low carbon plant, will only maintain a flat line as far as carbon.

“None of these plants are evil, but they all have their own characteristics,” he said. “If you’re looking to enter into this whole carbon arena, a corn-bean rotation, even if it’s no-till, is probably not going to be enough. Too many low carbon crops over the years, even though they’re dispersed with cover crops, will make it difficult to accumulate carbon.”

Additionally, Fuhrer stressed that planting the same cover crop every year can have a negative impact as it discourages plant diversity. However, diversity does not only apply to plants and animals.

“We inadvertently shortchange crops with things we perceive to be our best management practices in our quest to become efficient,” he said. “Human beings are always trying to become efficient, that’s why people take out fence rows, tree rows, grass and old farmsteads. It’s a human aspect, there’s nothing strange about it. But when you do that, you simplify it to the point where you’ve lost your nutrient density.”

Taking baby steps toward rebuilding soil health is commendable, but Fuhrer said for the soil to reach its full potential, producers need to be able to implement multiple techniques to see major changes in productivity and profitability.

“Does no-till make a difference? Yes. Does diversity help? Yes. Is a continual plant beneficial? Yes. But alone it’s not going to move the dial.”

Lacey Vilhauer can be reached at 620-227-1871 or [email protected].