NRCS can help farmers and ranchers with a number of conservation practices that build healthy soil. Diverse crop rotations, cover crops, nutrient management and conservation tillage are examples of practices that feed the soil, reduce erosion, improve soil structure, and enhance nutrient cycling and water retention. By using NRCS soil health principles and systems, farmers can sequester more carbon, increase water infiltration, and improve wildlife and pollinator habitat —often with better yields.

FOUR SOIL HEALTH PRINCIPLES

I. Use plant diversity to increase diversity in the soil.
II. Manage soils more by disturbing them less.
III. Keep plants growing throughout the year to feed the soil.
IV. Keep the soil covered as much as possible.

By rotating crops across their fields from season to season, organic farmers add biodiversity and increase resilience in their operations while increasing their soil’s organic matter. Organic no-till systems, such as the roller-crimper, have also helped organic producers reduce the intensity of soil disturbance in annual crop rotations.

LEARN HOW NRCS CAN HELP ORGANIC FARMERS BUILD HEALTHY SOIL

download the healthy soil ebook

INSTEAD OF RELYING ON CHEMICALS, ORGANIC FARMERS CAN WORK WITH NRCS TO DEVELOP SYSTEMS THAT USE COVER CROPS TO BUILD HEALTHY SOILS.

COVER CROPS

An essential element of any organic farmer’s crop rotation system, cover crops increase soil organic matter, keep the ground covered to slow erosion from wind and water, suppress soil diseases and pests, enhance water availability, smother weeds and provide significant contributions to a farm’s biodiversity.

Cover crops (using a mix of grasses, legumes and forbs) can provide benefits for both organic and conventionally managed systems. These include increased biological nitrogen fixation, minimization and reduction of soil compaction; decrease of particulates escaping into the atmosphere, and in some cases cover crops can even be used to provide livestock with a source of supplemental forage. “The NRCS is kind of a best-kept secret, says Richard DeWilde of Harmony Valley Farm in Viroqua, WI. “They have a really good cover program that encouraged us to diversify. We were planting two species and now we’re planting five, There’s just a lot to learn. Not just about seed, but how to do it organically.”

HOW DO CERTIFIED ORGANIC FARMERS LIKE SIMON BUILD SOIL FERTILITY WITHOUT THE USE OF CHEMICAL FERTILIZERS? BY PLANTING COVER CROPS.

“If you don’t cover crop your soil,” notes Simon Ziegler, an organic farmer at Sun Sprout Farm in Chester, NY, “there’s nothing holding it together.” Cover crops increase soil fertility through the addition of organic matter, break pest and disease cycles, allow the ground to rest, increase soil moisture, suppress weeds, and minimize erosion. These benefits collectively increase farmers’ crop yields. NRCS helps farmers plan and plant cover crops throughout the year as part of a planned rotation.

CROP RESIDUE

Vegetation intentionally left to decay in the fields begins as a living mulch to keep soil covered and prevent erosion and later becomes a valuable amendment that builds soil organic matter.

COVER CROPS

Instead of leaving land fallow after each harvest, organic farmers keep the ground covered with cover crops. Throughout the growing season, the cover crops act as a green manure, providing an additional source of nutrients that build soil organic matter and reduce the need to bring in additional inputs from off-farm sources. Legumes and grasses or forbs (like the buckwheat shown here) grown in rotation with cash crops help manage erosion and improve soil health.

SOIL ORGANIC MATTER

When living microbes break down and decompose plant residues, they release nutrients like nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium and trace elements which improve the soil’s fertility and builds soil structure that increases water holding capacity.

ROUTINE SOIL TESTS CAN PROVIDE INFORMATION ABOUT A SOIL’S PHYSICAL AND CHEMICAL PROPERTIES, LIKE TEXTURE, OVERALL ORGANIC MATTER, AND PHOSPHORUS.

Organic farmers use composts, cover crops, crop rotations and other practices to build soil organic matter and meet their crops’ nutrient requirements. “In our lab we look specifically at soil properties governed by biological activity,” Liz says, “such as how rich the soil is in microorganisms, food is available to them, and how efficient they are at turning soil organic matter into plant nutrients.”

THE POx-C TEST

In this lab, scientists look more specifically at soil properties governed by biological activity – such as how rich the soil is in microorganisms, what food is available to them, and how efficiently they turn soil organic matter into plant nutrients. With the POxC test, soil is mixed with potassium permanganate. This chemical acts like a hungry microbe, and the amount of color change, from dark magenta to clear, indicates how much active carbon is in the soil that microbes can use as “food”.

“We use the POx-C test to see how aboveground management practices, like cover cropping and tillage, affect below ground biology and nutrient cycling.”

Liz Perkus
M.S. Candidate
Applied Plant Sciences
Grossman Lab, University of MN.

 

THE USDA’S NATURAL RESOURCES CONSERVATION SERVICE CAN HELP PRODUCERS ACHIEVE GREATER YIELDS WHILE ALSO EFFECTIVELY STEWARDING THEIR NATURAL RESOURCES.

“We help producers see the whole picture by gathering good quantitative information and establishing a NUTRIENT BUDGET that turns what they may be observing into actual numbers they can fine tune to shape their nutrient application and management needs.”

Emma Chow
NRCS Soil Conservationist
Sonoma County, CA

“Beginning with a soil analysis helps set a benchmark,” Emma observes. “From there we check what’s in the irrigation water, then look at the soil amendments a farm applies. Organic growers have fewer nutrient choices, but they often include compost, cover crops, fish emulsion, and lime. Our goal is to minimize the over-application of these nutrients and excess nitrogen and phosphorous, because this can have negative impact on water quality.”

SOIL CONSERVATIONIST

Possesses a practical knowledge of natural resources, and environmental conservation methods and techniques. Provides farmers and ranchers with conservation planning assistance from initial evaluation through project completion, and plan evolution.

NUTRIENT MANAGEMENT

If crops need additional nutrients, NRCS can help producers develop a nutrient management plan that incorporates organic plant, animal, and natural mineral-based fertilizers, most of which release nutrients gradually through the action of soil organisms.