Farmers and ranchers are still looking for ways to improve their stewardship. The latest buzzword in agriculture is “soil health” which covers planting as well as grazing practices.
“Think about soil as a whole ecology,” says Pat Hatfield, professor and department head in Animal and Range Sciences, Montana State University. “There is a lot of life and activity in the soil that goes beyond organic matter. Soil has microbes, earthworms, soil mites and more that complete the cycle of the soil.”
Hatfield explains that if you tear up an old hayfield, you lose about 30 percent of organic matter. “Not that that is necessarily bad, as it releases nutrients. But if you constantly plow, you need to think about what’s going on with those soil microbes. Is consistent plowing helping or harming them?”
Some practices to improve soil health include using no-till, planting cover crops and rotating crops.
“Whether you are grazing cattle or planting crops, understanding soil health can actually make you more productive with less,” the MSU professor says. “You can often reduce your input costs, like fertilizer. By feeding that soil with organic matter, we can get more grass for grazing and an increase in crop production.”
Hatfield adds that while working with soil nutrition, diversity of crops is also wise. “By using a variety of plants and grasses, you’re improving the soil health, plain and simple. Healthy soil is productive soil.”
Gil Gasper is a Circle farmer who takes stewardship seriously. “We don’t do much tillage,” explains Gasper, who is the Montana Farm Bureau Young Farmer and Rancher Chair and McCone County Farm Bureau president. “I use a no-till drill so I disturb the soil as little as possible. We use rotational cropping. We don’t want to put wheat on wheat, as that doesn’t give you diversity. We will rotate a pulse crop in, whether it’s lentils or chickpeas. For instance, we’ll grow a spring wheat, then peas, then another spring wheat then a winter wheat. Sometimes we will also rotate with oats or barley.”
Gasper explains that by using a pulse crop, the disease cycle is broken up. “Pulse crops are broad leaf, where wheat isn’t, so you are planting two different types of plants,” he says. “In addition, pulse crops put nitrogen back into the soil. That increases the organic matter in the soil and the microbes, so that increases your soil health and can reduce your use of chemical fertilizer.”
Gasper adds that using no-till also keeps the soil cooler throughout the year, which keeps it from drying out as quickly.
“Our land is not only what we make money from, but we want it to be sustainable,” the young farmer says. “We want to be able to pass the farm on to the next generation of farmers. Using minimal tillage and crop rotation and working on soil health is good business sense and good land stewardship.”
- Farmers and ranchers make up less than two percent of the U.S. population. They are diverse growing conventional, biotech and organic crops.
- One U.S. farm feeds 168 people. There are 2.1 million farms and 27,500 in Montana.
- Ninety-seven percent of farms and ranches are family owned. Just 3 percent of America’s farms and ranches are owned by non-family corporations.
- China is America’s top ag trade partner receiving $24.6 billion in U.S ag exports. Canada is a close second with $21.9 billion and Mexico, $19.4 billion.
- Ag programs equal 11 percent of the U.S. Department of Agriculture budget. Food Assistance and Nutrition programs make up 75 percent.
- Farmers receive only 16.7 percent of your food dollar. The rest of that dollar goes to marketing, processing, wholesaling, distributing and retailing.
- The U.S. continues to have the least expensive food in the world with consumers spending just 10 percent of their disposable income on food compared to 20 percent in Venezuela and 47 percent in Kenya.
- Montana’s 27,500 farms and ranches producing 1.5 million head of cattle. Those farms planted 5.5 million acres of wheat.
g Wire News.