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Soil health is new NRCS focus

By Janet Kubat Willette

Date Modified: 11/21/2012 1:18 PM

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Ray Archuleta says history is repeating itself across much of the nation.

High wheat prices encouraged farmers to till more and more land, but when the drought came in the 1930s, the soil blew because it's structure was destroyed by repeated tillage.

Just a year or two ago, two people were killed in Idaho because their vision was obstructed by blowing soil. In Texas, dry, bare soils are blowing.

Soils are very degraded across the United States, says Archuleta, a conservation agronomist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service in Greensboro, N.C.

People don't realize how destructive tillage is, Archuleta said last week, a day after the Natural Resources Conservation Service rolled out its effort to to improve and maintain the nation's soil.

"This initiative will help our farmers meet current and future demands for American-grown agriculture by encourage good soil and natural resources practices that are beneficial to their operations," said NRCS chief Dave White in a press release. "We understand that soils and farms vary across the country, so our job is to provide farmers the very best information available to meet their unique needs and help their business thrive."

Archuleta said there are farmers who have embraced the concept of soil health and are posting impressive results. He works with a farmer in North Dakota that spends $1.10 a bushel to raise corn. He uses no till, doesn't apply nitrogen or phosphorus and his yields are 20 percent higher than the county average. He has almost completely eliminated herbicides.

The average farmer in the nation spends $4.42 to $4.58 to produce a bushel of corn.

There are farmers out there who are eager to reduce their fertilizer and fuel costs, Archuleta said, and no till and cover crops will help farmers lower these costs.

Farmers who have moved to no till say they switched because fuel was expensive and they didn't have the time to spend in the tractor doing tillage.

The thing is, by not tilling the soil they are mimicking nature. Organic matter improves along with soil structure. Moisture holding capacity of the soil increases.

But "no till will not work without diversity," Archuleta said.

The NRCS soil health platform includes four keys, White said: keeping the soil covered as much as possible, trying to grow a living root in the soil throughout the year, managing the soils by disturbing them less and using plant diversity above the ground to increase diversity below the ground.

Some of the principles have been around for decades, some are new and some are newly rediscovered, White said.

His goal is that producers are able to walk into a NRCS office and have a laundry list of practices they may be able to utilize to increase their soil health.

It will be an educational effort, White said.

Archuleta, who was recently in Iowa, will likely be part of that educational effort. Known as Ray the Soil Guy, Archuleta uses plenty of visuals in his presentations to show the difference between soil that has been repeatedly tilled and soil that is in a no till system.

Farmers may love their land, he said, but if they don't understand it, they'll end up going broke.

Some farmers won't believe what he tells them about soil health, he admits.

"I'm not going to convince them … there'll be somebody in that crowd who will catch on, and his neighbors will watch him," Archuleta said.