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When you think about conservation, what comes to mind? Saving water, recycling or picking up trash at your local park are likely first thoughts. But have you ever thought about conserving soil? It should come as no surprise that soil conservation is a top priority for farmers and something they practice every day. That’s because healthy soil plays a critical role both on and off the farm.

To break down some of the technical aspects of conservation, we sat down with Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Agronomist Brandt Underwood. He has worked with Texas farmers for more than 20 years as they implement conservation practices that protect natural resources while enabling them to grow an abundant food supply. Let’s take a closer look at three common soil health conservation practices Texas farmers use on their farms.

1. Crop Rotation

Crop rotation is a soil health practice whereby a farmer grows more than one species of crop in a planned sequence on the same plot of land.

“For example, we may have three crops that we grow – corn, wheat and cotton. The way we would implement that is in our first growing season, we would grow a corn crop. We would harvest the corn crop. Then, in the second year we would grow a wheat crop and then we would harvest the wheat. In year number three, we would grow a cotton crop. This is a set sequence of crops, and it takes us three years to get through this particular crop rotation,” Underwood explained.

There are several factors that go into a farmer’s decision of which crops to rotate. Underwood said it is typically based on the farm’s location, local weather patterns, soil types and processing facilities or available markets.

One of the biggest benefits of crop rotation he said is helping farmers build the diversity needed for healthy soil.

“Crop rotation gives us lots of benefits – different residues, different plant materials, different root structures,” he said.

Crop rotation also helps farmers manage pests on their farms as the new crop each year inhibits the ability of any one pest species to become entrenched.

2. Residue Management

Residue management is a soil health practice where farmers maintain prior crop residues on the soil surface of their fields. Underwood said there are three residue management systems farmers use, including minimum till, no till and strip till.

He explained that farmers implement residue management by limiting or not plowing their fields after harvest to leave as much crop residue standing on the soil surface. This allows the residues to break down naturally, which leads to several benefits.

“When we leave that natural mulch there on the soil surface, it creates a blanket. When we get rainfall, it protects the [moisture in the] soil from evaporation because the residue from that prior crop just lays on top and holds that moisture in the soil longer,” Underwood said.

Secondly, as tillage is eliminated and crop residues are added into the soil, soil structure begins to redevelop, especially when combined with crop rotation.

“This allows water to infiltrate much faster, whether it be from a rainfall event or irrigation. So, it also allows our irrigation to become more effective as it’s applied and allows us to harvest that water in a better manner,” Underwood said.

Keeping the soil surface covered also reduces the chances of runoff, which protects the quality of water downstream.

3. Cover Crops

Cover crops are crops that are grown in between a farmer’s primary cash crop for the sole purpose of improving soil quality and not for harvest. For example, Underwood explained that if a farmer is growing wheat or cotton, they may grow a smaller grain crop like wheat cereal, rye or oats in between their two summer crops.

“That winter [cover] crop will provide soil surface cover, hold the standing residue in place, it prevents wind erosion, and it adds more residue to the system,” he said.

Cover crops also add diversity to the soil. Underwood said if a mixed species cover crop, or multiple plant types, is planted it adds even more residue and varying root structures to the soil, aiding in microbial development.

“This microbial development helps feed the microbes below ground that are so precious in helping to build our soil structure,” he said.

A Combination for the Win

When farmers combine these three soil health practices as part of a system, it provides additional key benefits. First, Underwood said it allows farmers to capitalize on different markets for their crops on a yearly basis.

“It also breaks pest cycles and allows some different opportunities for pest management programs and crop protection products,” Underwood explained.

The combination of these practices will also help safeguard against any soil pathogens that could become crop specific.

Of course, any time farmers apply a combination of soil health practices, Underwood said this helps create even healthier soil, which in turn creates better growing conditions for plants. These improved conditions help plants utilize nutrients and moisture in the soil more efficiently, often leading to a more bountiful harvest for the farmer.

The Cornerstone of Sustainability

Underwood said conservation is the cornerstone of sustainability. When farmers utilize conservation practices and manage natural resources, it yields a twofold benefit.

“It helps the person out there that’s actually growing a crop hopefully become more economically sustainable,” he said. “It also brings that farm sustainability to a higher level. Bringing all components of conservation, we’re going to not only maintain, but hopefully improve the overall health of the farm, which makes it sustainable.”

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