Organic speaker gives the breakdown on soil health management

Keynote speaker Jay Fuhrer tackles his five principles of systems-based soil health during the 2018 Prairie Organics conference. Photo: Alexis Stockford

The first keynote speaker of the 2018 Prairie Organics conference in Brandon tuned the conversation to soil health

By Alexis Stockford
OrganicBiz staff

It’s time to stop thinking about soil piecemeal and take a more systems-based approach to soil health.

That was the message from Jay Fuhrer of Bismark’s Natural Resources Conservation Service at the recent 2018 Prairie Organics conference in Brandon.

One of three keynote speakers during the event in Brandon Feb. 23-24, Fuhrer earmarked five broad principles to building soil.

Residue, or armour, is the farmer’s friend, he told the audience, adding that bare soil is at higher risk for erosion and compaction as water hits soil without vegetative matter to slow it down or roots to keep it from floating topsoil downstream.

Fuhrer’s arguments against soil disturbance may have landed on less-than-fertile ground, however. Minimal soil disturbance has been a rallying cry for decades, and the rise of no till has been claimed as a good news story in most corners of agricultural conservation. It is a harder sell in the organic sector, however, where mechanical weed control is the main source of weed management.

We have to recognize our environment. Our environment is winter, long winter, so that shortens up our season. – Jay Fuhrer

Regardless, Fuhrer is a strong advocate of avoiding tillage when possible, the room heard.

Fuhrer’s other lessons may be easier to swallow for organic producers. The speaker highlighted plant diversity, both above and below ground, continually green fields (often using cover crops during early or late periods when the field would otherwise be black) and the integration of livestock, an idea often been floated by industry groups, but that faces challenges as increasingly large, specialized farms may be reluctant to branch back out into livestock.

Mob grazing advocates argue that livestock might be shared, with a livestock producer taking advantage of a neighbour’s cropland while that neighbour reaps the benefits to the landscape. In practice, however, few cash crop growers have opted for a grazing agreement, Fuhrer acknowledged.

The speaker noted neighbours must have a similar vision if grazing agreements are to be successful.

“Usually, the livestock portion of it comes later,” he said. “I’ve seen more working on the armour, getting some residue on the surface, working on diversity, working on lowering some disturbance, taking some disturbance out of the system. I’ve seen these as more of the starting principles for people.”

That was the case with his work on the Menoken, North Dakota demonstration farm, he said, with cover crops and livestock becoming the last piece of the puzzle on his management plan.

“Initially, I think the livestock don’t start out as the most important principle, but someday they kind of end up as the most important principle,” he said.

Advocates of livestock integration argue that intense grazing, followed by rest, can encourage forage growth, add soil organic matter and benefit the land through the nutrients from livestock manure.

Cover crops also had a spot in the backbone of Fuhrer’s argument, although Manitoba’s shortened growing seasons may have some producers questioning if there is enough time to get anything out of a cover crop.

“We have to recognize our environment,” Fuhrer said. “Our environment is winter, long winter, so that shortens up our season. We have longer days in the north than the south, but we have a shorter season and we have a cold, wet spring and we typically have a dry fall, and so what we’ve gone to more recently is some efforts in terms of establishing a fall biennial and so, even if it’s a monoculture, we’re using rye in a lot of these cropping systems.”

The system is normally paired with a later-seeded crop, like soybeans, to maximize rye-growing window in the spring, he said.

Fuhrer was the first, but not the last speaker of the 2018 conference to feature soil health. The speaker was followed by farmer testimony on many of the management practices he described, including reduced tillage and livestock integration.