June 23, 2023 at 8:50 p.m.

Building soil structure for the future

Creating systems that foster stability against weather events

By Danielle Nauman- | Comments: 0 | Leave a comment

COLBY, Wis. – For most of the past month, central Wisconsin has been dealing with drought-like conditions, and while rain has fallen to relieve the pressures, crops and farmers alike may be feeling the strain.
“Tracking weather trends, we have been due for a drought for several years,” said Matthew Oehmichen, of Short Lane Ag Supply in Colby.
By utilizing certain conservation farming practices, Oehmichen said, a system can be created within soil to mitigate the impact of future drought events.                                              
“There are certain practices that can be implemented to build a system that will help your soils react to the conditions brought on by both too much and too little rain,” Oehmichen said. “Some practices can show a benefit quickly, while others take time to build, but together they will create stability for the long term.”
Practices such as minimal tillage, no-till, adding small grains into rotations and using cover crops can all work in tandem to create consistency in the soil profile and the surface of the soil.
“One practice can help, but stacking practices can create that system that allows better water management,” Oehmichen said. “Not only will it allow for the conservation of water during periods of extended dryness, it will allow the soil to more easily remove excess water during periods of too much rain.”
One key to creating that system, Oehmichen said, is to employ a manageable residue program.
“Residue left on the field can look like a mess, but when you really get to looking at it, it does so much,” Oehmichen said. “The key is keeping it manageable.”
Leaving a manageable residue intact helps keep the soil and surface temperatures more consistent, Oehmichen said. Residue allows for moisture retention and increased microbial growth as well as helps prevent soil erosion.
“The way we look at our soil has changed greatly over the last century; farmers used to look at a field and see an empty vessel, like a sandbox, that needed them to create something,” Oehmichen said. “Now we see the soil as a living entity, something complex with all this great stuff happening, and we see that what we do adds value.”
Oehmichen said unprotected soil has little to no natural protection against the elements.
“When a rain drop hits the soil, it is traveling anywhere from 50 to 70 mph, and it hits the ground with great force,” Oehmichen said. “Soil that has no structure is decimated. Then when the sun beats on that soil, it basically bakes it.”
A cover crop slows down the impact of the water droplets and also slows the evaporation of the water.
“The Dust Bowl early in the last century happened when that structure was destroyed as the prairies were tilled up,” Oehmichen said. “The soil structure became unstable, and one dry season created a huge problem of erosion.”
Implementing conservation practices does not only make environmental sense, Oehmichen said. It also has agronomic advantages.
“Most of the soil fertility and agronomic needs of crops happen in the top 4-5 inches of the soil,” Oehmichen said. “That is the highest zone of fertility.”
For that reason, not only protecting but building and developing that level of topsoil should become a paramount concern for farmers, Oehmichen said.
“It takes 10 years to create and develop about the width of a dime’s worth of topsoil,” Oehmichen said. “Not only are you protecting the environment, you are making an investment in future profitability and efficiency.”    
Oehmichen said improving soil structure and consistency is vital economically to future endeavors, and he said dairy farmers are the largest demographic of farmers embracing conservation and soil system-building practices.
“The increased trafficability on their fields is an important benefit to dairy farmers; keeping the fields in stable condition allows for a timelier harvest,” Oehmichen said. “Cover crops help with manure management, whether you broadcast or inject. Having that living root in the soil and the cover on top reduces the risk of manure escaping its target.”    
With all of the benefits to dairy farmers, Oehmichen offers advice to someone who wants to begin protecting both their soil and themselves from weather events.  
“Grab a shovel and start digging – get really active out in your fields (and) see what is out there,” Oehmichen said. “It is easy to say things look good on the surface, but you really need to see what is happening in that fertility layer.”
Farmer-led watershed groups are a great resource, Oehmichen said, due to the increase in state funding received by these groups. His advice to those starting their journey in building a consistent soil structure is to begin locally.
“In Wisconsin, we are developing a great network of watershed groups, and that local knowledge is the best resource you have,” Oehmichen said. “Those groups are great places for outreach and education, learning locally what works and what doesn’t, from other farmers and from the research data available in that area.”
If local data is unavailable, then Oehmichen recommends finding the nearest expert.
Oehmichen also said not to be afraid to try something new and to start small. Starting out small helps keep the program manageable and easier for detailing the results, he said.
“A grower I work with, who has been interseeding the longest, started out seven years ago interseeding 16 acres,” Oehmichen said. “Now he interseeds between 800 and 900 acres of corn.”
While the desire for instant gratification is common, Oehmichen said the greatest results may not be witnessed immediately.
“When you try something new, there is no failure, only a learning opportunity,” Oehmichen said. “Start tracking the patterns you see. Monitor the compaction layer you see. Look for changes. Keep that shovel handy and keep digging. That is where you’ll see your results.”


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