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Reduce, Cover, and Sample: 3 Environmentally Friendly Changes a Farmer Can Make

February 1, 2010

In this day and age, the environment and agriculture receive a lot of focus from all kinds of groups, including the media, the government, and privately sponsored organizations. Farmers should be aware of groups just looking to give agriculture a bad name. The following changes can help improve agriculture’s negative image. These changes are: reducing tillage, cover cropping, and sampling manure and soil. Many farmers currently do these things, but all farmers should think about making these changes.

In 2009, 56.8% of Pennsylvania farmers were using no-till and another 21% of Pennsylvania farmers were using conventional tillage. Reducing tillage is a great way to improve one’s soil, reduce the fuel and equipment usage on the farm, and reduce soil erosion.  Every time a soil is turned over the natural soil structure is destroyed. Reducing tillage helps to keep some of the natural soil structure, but no-tilling will allow the soil to completely develop its natural soil structure. Natural soil structure increases pore space, increases water infiltration rate and improves a soil’s resistance to erosion. When tillage occurs, the soil is exposed to the atmosphere. This exposure causes large amounts of organic matter to oxidize and release large amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. This process limits a tilled soil’s ability to build up organic matter. A conventional tilled soil (plowed and disked) typically has 16% organic matter, while a no-tilled soil has 31% organic matter. Organic matter increases biological activity in a soil, improves a soil’s water holding capacity, and reduces erosion. Tillage can increase erosion up to 700 times that of a no-tilled soil. That is the difference between losing 6pounds of soil per acre (no-tilled) or 4750 pounds of soil per acre (conventional tillage). So how does reducing tillage improve the environment? By reducing tillage, a farmer can: reduce the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere, increase the biological activity in the soil, and decrease the amount of soil that runs into lakes and streams.

Cover cropping is a great way to keep a soil covered and one of the best ways to reduce erosion. Erosion is primarily caused by a raindrop’s impact with the soil’s surface. This impact dislodges soil particles and gets washed away by the water running off the soil’s surface. Soil erosion is hard to see. Most soils can lose up to five tons of soil per acre per year, because these soils can regenerate five tons of soil per acre per year. One ton of soil spread over an acre is equal to the thickness of a single sheet of paper. Once soil erosion is noticeable, five tons have already been lost. So what can a cover crop do to reduce soil erosion? A cover crop slows down a raindrop’s impact. It can also reduce or eliminate the soil that is dislodged by the raindrops impact. A cover crop’s roots also help to keep the soil in place.

Sampling manure and soil helps farmers know how much nutrients need applied for each crop. Having an accurate soil sample analysis allows farmers to know how much phosphorus and potassium a crop will need. In addition, a soil analysis shows the soil’s pH. Correct soil pH increases the availability of many soil nutrients and helps crops to grow. A proper manure sample analysis determines how much manure needs to be applied for each crop. This limits the amount of excess nutrients applied to the soil’s surface. Excess nutrients waste money and can pollute the waters of the commonwealth. Knowing how many nutrients are in the soil and how many nutrients are being applied with manure helps farmers reduce the amount of excess fertilizer purchased and applied to the field.

Reducing tillage, using cover crops, and sampling manure and soil, creates many positive impacts on the environment. These impacts are greatly appreciated by all and help improve agriculture’s reputation.

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