Soil Health in Iowa Featured on Iowa Public Radio

Today, Iowa Public Radio’s Talk of Iowa hosted a show on soil health across Iowa featuring several policy makers, researchers, and farmers involved in protecting the soil.  The show included guests Jason Weller, Chief of the NRCS, Doug Peterson, NRCS Regional Soil Health Specialist for Iowa and Missouri, Rick Bednarek, NRCS State Soil Scientist, and Steve Berger, who farms near Wellman, Iowa.

Jason Weller talked about how the push to focus on soil health has exploded in the past three to four years.  NRCS has provided cost share dollars to get cover crops on at least five million acres throughout the United States, but it’s a drop in the bucket when we consider we have over 300 million acres of row crops in the United States.  Doug Peterson and Rick Bednarek talked about how the interest in soil health has brought about recent changes to the NRCS which added a new soil health division and 16 soil health specialists located throughout the United States.  This new division will teach producers and staff about the rapidly evolving sciences and technology related to soil health.  We now have a much deeper understanding of soil as a living organism than we did 20 years ago, and our knowledge is constantly evolving on how soil microbes can change soil’s physical and chemical properties, including texture, organic matter, and pore space.  The new NRCS division will work with producers who have an interest in soil health and teach them about changes in management and how less soil disturbance will benefit the soil by keeping fungi, nematodes, and protozoa intact.

Rick Bednarek said that, as a farmer, one of the most important things you can do to begin to understand soil health is to dig a hole and look at your soil.  Many field days held throughout the state each year feature soil pits dug in a farm field that gives an up close view of soil aggregates and root structure.  Field days provide an excellent opportunity for farmers to talk to other producers about what worked, what problems they had, and what solutions might exist for those problems.

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2015 Iowa Learning Farms Field Day at the Arliss Nielson farm near Woolstock

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2013 Iowa Learning Farms Field Day at the Kent Swanson farm in rural Red Oak

Steve Berger, an Iowa farmer in Washington County, agreed that talking to farmers in your area is key when experimenting with new practices for your farm.  Berger’s advice to farmers who might be interested in trying out a new way of farming is to take it slow and be patient.  It’s important for farmers to try a new practice on a small area first to make sure it’s going to work for them instead of going big and having a failure that would make them never want to try the practice again.  Berger works with a small group of farmers in Washington County that have been with him for more than 35 years as he’s experimented with no-till and cover crops.  What keeps him farming this way?  Berger said he might not always understand what’s going on biologically in his soil, but he sees marked improvements in stopping erosion on his land.  He also knows that what he’s doing on his farm is beneficial not only to him, but also to his neighbors and everyone in Iowa.

This episode of Talk of Iowa provided a great overview of the new focus on soil health across Iowa.  To hear this episode, go to Iowa Public Radio’s Podcast and RSS Feed webpage.  If you’re interested in learning more about cover crops, consider attending an upcoming Cover Crop Workshop Series with the Iowa Learning Farms.

-Julie Whitson

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