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High Functioning Soils

March 19, 2018 by

High Functioning Soils

Not a grabby topic for pheasants hunters, to be sure, but one that may well set the course to high pheasant numbers and farmer profitability, once again!

Soil Not Dirt!

Back in 2002, when I first took ownership of the farm in South Dakota, I could barely spell “CRP”.  The neighbors called it “CPR”.  They also called NRCS the “SCS” or “CSC”.  Maybe if you do not know what those terms mean or what the people in those organizations do it doesn’t matter what the acronym is?  My NRCS partner used to correct me all the time when I referred to my land as “dirt”.  He would say, “No, it’s soil.”.  Either of us could have been right because I have learned the only difference between dirt and soil is how you manage it.  It is not what you are blessed with or what it says on the soil map regarding the land you purchased.  Soil was what your mother yelled at you for getting in your white t-shirt and jeans that she had such a hard time getting out in the wash.  Dirt just took a couple slaps of the hand to knock off your pants and usually amounted to a cloud of dust.

Who Put the Function in Soil?

History shows us the rise and fall of many civilizations was based on how they took care of their soils, or not.  When soil is not cared for it loses it functionality.  Once lost, the soil can no longer produce food.  When there is no food, civilization crumbles.  NRCS has done a nice job of defining what a HFS or High Functioning Soil is.  I would add that we should manage to these principles not just 6 inches below the surface but 24-36 inches below the surface.  HFS may be the most exciting, bleeding edge low tech topic in production agriculture today.  This topic is so recent that wildlife managers are not even associating Soil Health with Wildlife population health.

How are the Birds?

If I had a dime for every time I was asked that question….  Most Pheasant Biologists know what it takes to produce more pheasants.  We can all probably agree when there are enough birds and when there is not enough birds.  We can also agree that agriculture has changed the face of the landscape and we will not return it to what it was that so often produced so many pheasants.  However,  a dawning of a new era and a look of a new landscape may just produce as well if not possibly better than the good ole days.  Biologists have associated higher pheasant production with Ag terms like, “tall stubble management, crop rotations, small grains, livestock integration, grassland cropland balance, and cover crops”. 

The Problem, the Opportunity

Look at just about any watershed in the grain belt and you will find evidence of soil mismanagement and associated water quality issues.  Only recently have these issues come to a head.  In Minnesota, stream and watershed buffers have been mandated by law.  Nitrogen will now be regulated by law.  70% of Minnesota’s impaired water from nitrogen has been sourced back to farm fields.  The good news is thanks to Precision Ag technology, HFS  and conservation practices, the problem is well within our reach to solve and even profit from going forward.

Where’s the Landowner?

Long known, one of the controlling relationships in agriculture today is the absentee landowner and the tenant farmer.  I am in this relationship today as a result of trying unsuccessfully to grow a crop on my own for a few years.  It is not easy.  My experience with various tenant farmer relationships is that from the surface it appears that most farmers do a good job in taking care of your asset (the soil).  However, upon closer inspection, few have the time horizon or the resources to create HFS on your landscape.  Most cash rent lease agreements are 1 year in length as is the typical market outlook for a producer.  To create HFS the time horizon of management needs to be 2-5 years and the longer the better.  Solutions need to be found to solve the issues with this relationship as most of the production acres in a region are controlled by this short term arrangement.  Good programs and education for absentee landowners is needed to address this epidemic.

Farmers Feel Out of Control.  Solutions.

Most would agree that the general sense in agriculture today is that farmers don’t feel like they are in control of their future.  Whether that be from markets or suppliers of farm inputs or both is hard to say but I know when I was farming I was the last soul on the train to get paid, if and when the crop was harvested.  HFS have proven to reduce inputs and also reduce dependence on synthetic and chemical inputs.  Some producers with cattle have been able to be completely self-sustaining with almost no outside inputs and have maintained good profit margins even in poor cash crop markets.  One of the most successful working lands programs is available and on the grow.  CSP or Conservation Stewardship Program set a record in South Dakota last year with 7 million acres enrolled.  The most of any state in the union.  In short, CSP incentivizes farmers to produce with these soil functionality principles.  Contracts are on a 5 year time horizon.

Conclusions

Many today would say there are 2 farming systems in existence.  Conventional or Certified Organic.  HFS is neither.  It is a Biological farming system that can blend the best of both systems while giving producers a lot of freedom by not being bound by certification rules or by being dependent on high priced chemical or synthetic inputs.  Food consumers are also very interested in having more sustainably sourced food choices.

Additional Resources

Gabe Brown – Keys to Soil Health Video

Keith Berns – Carbonomics Video

NRCS – Principles of High Functioning Soils (2 pager)

CSP Info Website - Conservation Stewardship Program

Ray Archuleta (The Soil Guy) - Soil Health Principles

Posted in: UGUIDE News, Conservation, Habitat Management, Agriculture


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