Ag Week Time To Promote Land Stewardship

Agriculture Week, March 13-19, is a time to celebrate agriculture in classrooms and communities across the country. The 2016 theme is “Agriculture: Stewards of a Healthy Planet.” Ag statistics show that farmers have used careful stewardship that has spurred a nearly 50 percent decline in erosion of cropland by wind and water since 1982.

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 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. 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.”


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