By Ben Stallings |

Event held by University of Nebraska, Lincoln.

Jerry Hatfield, retired plant physiologist, USDA

  • (I came in late to this talk)
  • Challenge to increasing soil health: transformational agronomy.
    • Need to focus on quality of food produced, not quantity.
    • New tech can help with monitoring progress, but what we need to do is low tech.

Panel: Craig Derickson, moderator, NE State Conservationist

  • Paul Jasa, Extension engineer; Angela Knuth, Knuth Farms; Keith Burns, Green Cover; Charles Shapiro, professor of agronomy & horticulture
  • Looking back, Extension "didn't understand soil health" as recently as 1985. Why not do things the new way?
  • Manure management used to be thought of in terms of maximum disposal rate. Excess biological activity burns up nutrients, and monocrops feed an unbalanced biome.
  • Keeping soil covered is job #1. Corn-soy rotation becomes corn-rye-soy. But managed badly, cover crops can hurt.
  • Extension agents don't have training in how to get people to change. Often what makes farmers change is big consequences. We have a chance to not repeat history (i.e. the dust bowl).
  • Cover crop mixes depend on the time of year. In fall, cereal rye is the only thing that makes sense. But in summer, you'd be foolish to plant just one thing.
  • Crop insurance costs the same regardless of risk. It needs to be adjusted to reflect lower-risk practices.
  • You need to have healthy soil before adopting organic standards. Subsidies are driving monocropping and dependence on fertilizer.

Panel: Andrea Basche, moderator, professor of agronomy & horticulture

  • Humberto Blanco & Michael Kaiser, also profs of ag & hort; Virginia Jin, USDA soil scientist; Andy Suyker, prof of natural resources.
  • When considering net carbon movement in an ecosystem, must consider water as well as photosynthetic response rates.
  • Soil health is just a snapshot; we need soil resilience.
  • Soil biology tests depend on water, time of year, etc. Not all bio interacts with physical & chemical properties.
  • Cover crops were intended to reduce erosion, not to produce health. To get soil carbon below the topsoil, need deep rooting plants. But consider tilling once in 10 years or so; research shows no bad consequences at that frequency.
  • Kernza perennial wheat is exciting, especially in livestock systems.
  • Cannot have soil health without fungi (but no one cares to talk about it today).

Discussion: What practices are most effective for creating & sustaining soil health?

  • How can adoption be encouraged? It depends! Every field is different. Need patience; practices can take time; don't focus on just one measure.
  • First step is to reduce erosion, and no-till can help.
  • Livestock are great but not compatible with all farm operations.
  • Corn-soy rotation is difficult to break out of, so farmers need help identifying additional crops for rotation.
  • Financial incentives for carbon sequestration could help, but proof is difficult.
  • Insurance needs to allow for conservation practices, but the policing element is a concern.
  • Demonstration farms would help show what's possible.
  • Remove subsidies, and economics will help change minds.

Discussion: What are the barriers to adopting practices, and how can they be removed?

  • Weather, uncertainty in market price. Insurance and subsidies could help.
  • Need better education to get past entrenched practices.
  • Need better tools for interplanting cover crops.
  • Need markets for nontraditional crops.

Final comments

  • Craig Derickson: need to change incentives.
  • Jerry Hatfield:
    • Changing practices requires sharing info. Get the local community involved. We need more people in the conversation.
    • What is the real problem? Soil health is a means to improve profit and the passion of farming.
    • We need hands-on education, not just classroom instruction.