Partnerships emerging to improve soil health in Oklahoma
Agricultural producers, Extension officials, conservation, and government leaders converged in Norman recently for the annual Oklahoma No-till Conference. Gary O’Neill, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service state conservationist, said, “Soil is a living and life-giving substance, without which we would perish. As world population and food production demands rise, keeping our soil healthy and productive is of paramount importance. So much so that we believe improving the health of our nation’s soil is one of the most important endeavors of our time.”
Ray Archuleta, conservation agronomist at the NRCS East National Technology Center, in Greensboro, N.C., and a speaker at the conference, said, “The No-till Conference made a compelling case that cover crops and no-till will get you more from less: requiring less fuel, less machinery, fewer chemical inputs and less acreage. These ecological farming practices lead to improved profitability, better soil health, more jobs, improved environmental stewardship and a better quality of life.”
Rick Haney, soil scientist from the USDA-Agricultural Research Service Grassland Soil and Water Research Lab in Temple, Texas, agrees. “Soil is made up of air, water, decayed plant residue, organic matter from living and dead organisms, and mineral matter. Increasing soil organic matter typically improves soil health.” Haney is part of a team that has developed an integrated approach to soil testing using new methods that focus on integrating soil biology and chemistry.
Haney said that he and Will Briton, scientist at the Woods End Lab in Mt. Vernon, Texas, teamed up to develop an open-source, nonproprietary soil fertility method that goes beyond traditional chemical and physical methods used in most soil tests. It’s called the Soil Health Tool. It uses an integrated approach to tell how alive the soil is and it measures the most important nutrient variables.
According to Clay Pope, executive director of the Oklahoma Association of Conservation Districts, this push to increase the health of our soils not only benefits overall agricultural production, but also helps the environment as well.
“The most exciting thing for me is when you look at the practices we want to encourage to improve soil health, more often than not they are the same practices we are pushing to help address environmental concerns,” Pope said. “When we want to reduce erosion, reduce non-point source pollution in water, fight climate change or improve wildlife habitat, more often than not we ask producers to do things like switch from conventional tilled cropping systems to no-till crop production.”
Archuleta is a spokesman for the NRCS soil health campaign “Unlock the secrets of the Soil.” He said, “If a farmer wants to improve their soil, there are a few simple guidelines they should follow. These include not disturbing the soil or disturbing it as little as possible; growing as many difference species of plants through rotations and a diverse mixture of cover crops; planting cover crops around harvest to keep living roots growing in the soil for as much of the year as possible, and keeping the soil surface covered by residue year round.”
Mike Thralls, executive director of the Oklahoma Conservation Commission agreed saying that soil health is the place were production agriculture and natural resource protection intersect.
According to O’Neill, NRCS and the conservation partnership of local conservation districts and the Oklahoma Conservation Commission are just beginning to tell Oklahoma producers of the benefits of improved soil health. He said, “The Oklahoma No-till Conference served as a focal point for telling the message of the benefits of soil health. This is an exciting message and we are glad to be part of the team spreading the message across Oklahoma.”