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Soils and Profits with Gabe Brown

March 18, 2015

Yesterday I attended a meeting about connecting soils and profits at the USDA Service Center in Mill Hall. The keynote speaker was Gabe Brown. Gabe is from Brown Ranch in North Dakota. He has been utilizing no-till, cover crops, and grazing for over 20 years to improve the quality of his soils. Soil health is a key factor for improving yields, decreasing inputs, and increasing profits. The higher the percent of organic matter in the soil the healthier the soil will be. Higher organic matter means more water holding capacity, more available nutrients, more microbiology, and healthier crops. Gabe spoke a lot about the 5 keys to regenerating soil. These key factors focus on increasing carbon and organic matter in the soil.

Factor 1: Use the least amount of mechanical disturbance as possible. No-till practices are recommended. We know that when soil is exposed during tillage significant amounts of carbon, released as CO2, is lost into the atmosphere. This loss is counterproductive to our goal.

Factor 2: Keep a year round “armor” on the soil. This armor is created with living crops, cover crops, and residues. Keeping the soil covered year round not only reduces soil erosion, but it also protects the biology in the soil and reduces water loss. A covered soil will stay cooler in hot temperatures and warmer in cold temperatures. This protection from the sun and heat decreases the amount of water lost via evapotranspiration. A covered soil will help shield seeds and young plants from the weather. A covered soil also helps provide food for all the living biology in the soil.

Factor 3: Diversity. The end goal is to improve soil health and increase organic matter. The microbiology in the soil plays a big part in meeting this goal. The more species of microbiology found in the soil the better. Diversity above and below the soil surface increases the diversity of the microbiology found in the soil. Think about a native prairie, how many different species of plants would you find? You would find hundreds of different species of plants and these species provide habitats and food for hundreds of different animals, insects, and microbiology. So planting a diverse rotation of cash crops and cover crops will increase the species of the microbiology and beneficial insects found in the soil. Increasing diversity is not just recommended for the life of the rotation, it is recommended throughout the rotation. A great suggestion was to plant a cover crop mix of 3-15+ species depending on your needs.

Factor 4: Have living roots in the ground as long as possible. Living roots feed the microbiology in the soil. Living roots release exudates that bacteria, fungi, etc. feed on. We need the microbiology to convert plant materials into organic matter. The longer the microbiology are fed by plants, the more time they have to convert organic matter.

Factor 5: Incorporate animals into your management plan. This includes livestock, wildlife, insects, and soil biology. Use livestock for their manure and to even graze cover crops. Reduce the amount of insecticides used to help increase the number of beneficial insects. For every 3,500 beneficial insects there is 1 pest insect. Utilize natural predatory insects to control pest species. Consider planting crop seed without a seed treatment. Many of these treatments not only control the few bad fungi, but they also control the many good fungi too. Talk with your seed representative about varieties of seed that have good seed defenses and germinate quickly.

These 5 factors are definitely the key to increasing soil health. Soil health doesn’t improve over night, it takes many years and changes. One of the best recommendations by Gabe was to talk with someone who is already doing these things. Learning from someone who has been through the change for better soil health will be able to guide you and provide support when needed. Don’t be afraid to call your local conservation district, NRCS, or extension agent for help. You can even leave a question in the comments below!

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