Ag Secretary Focuses on Replenishing Soil Health During South Dakota Visit

Replenishing and sustaining soil health is a priority of U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue’s and one of the issues he discussed while visiting Brown County Thursday afternoon.

Perdue visited with the Ochsner family, owners of Concord Farms, and visited two fields on the family’s property near Aberdeen.

After looking over the complex Prairie Pothole Region north of town, Perdue and Matt Ochsner discussed the importance of soil health and ways to offer incentives to farmers to employ more sustainable land practices.

“Mr. Ochsner and I were really talking about soil health and how we ought to use metrics of soil health as potential metrics for payments to farmers. I agree with him,” Perdue said.

“We’ve had so many improvements to genetics and technology, I think we need to get back to the basics of soil health. It has to do with organic matter. It has to do with cover crops. It has to do with how we care for the land each year and replenish it rather than mining. We’ve mined land for higher crop yields and that’s economically advantageous. But over the long term we can mine away that organic matter.”

Perdue used the practices of a farmer from his native state of Georgia named Randy Dowdy as examples of the benefits of soil health related to higher yields.

“He really cracked the barrier of genetic capacity, breaking the 500-bushel (mark) in corn and 170 bushels in soybeans. He’s only been farming 10 years but he’s showing from a scientific basis what we can do with soil health. It’s a lesson we can take and hopefully the (U.S. Department of Agriculture) can communicate that across the land,” Perdue said.

In media accounts, Dowdy talks about the importance of timely fertilizer application and making sure that plants rise from the ground at the same time as keys to his hefty yields.

“We want to communicate with the scientists how they can be better soil scientists themselves — by caring for it in a different and new way. And that’s part of the education part of the (Natural Resources Conservation Service) and USDA — to teach farmers better techniques through research and Extension services so that they can be effective and efficient as possible.”

Perdue’s first stop was at a cornfield north of Aberdeen. He stayed in his vehicle as wind speeds outside reached 36 mph. The field was scarred by ground depressions — a trait of the Prairie Pothole Region.

The Prairie Pothole Region covers much of eastern South Dakota. The land is dotted with depressions, left behind by glaciers, in which water often stands year-round. Wetlands are a prominent feature of the region.

After 15 minutes at the cornfield, Perdue was on the move to the main Concord Farms site west of Aberdeen.

The Ochsners employ no-till farming techniques and plant cover crops, such as spring wheat, radishes, turnips, oats, crimson clover and flax.

While tilling the soil disrupts weeds and pests, it leaves land more susceptible to erosion and the loss of nutrients. No-till farming prepares the land without overturning the top layer of soil.

Cover crops are often planted improve soil fertility and quality for future crops.

Perdue was taken to a field of turnips where Matt Ochsner showed him the plant and even offered a taste of the vegetable. Perdue obliged.

The cover crops are also used to sustain the family’s grass-fed cattle.

Perdue went into a closed meeting with Todd, Jake, Matt and Adam Ochsner at the Concord Farms main building for about 15 minutes.

The meeting finished and Perdue took time to talk about what he’d learned during his Brown County stop and how that information will help sustain farms and conserve the land. He focused on ways to improve the wetland determination process.

Wetland determinations are done by the Natural Resources Conservation Service. Wetlands are protected for conservation purposes under so-called “Swampbuster” regulations in the farm bill that were designed to protect highly erodible ground. If property is determined to be a wetland, certain changes – such as laying drain tile in a field – are not allowed without the landowner losing the ability to participate in federal farm bill and crop insurance programs.

After a meeting with Natural Resources Conservation Service staff from South Dakota and North Dakota earlier Thursday afternoon, Perdue said improving the wetland determination process was the most pressing topic.

“That’s what our farmers want to know is how these determinations are made. It’s a very technical business. It’s maybe 90 percent science and 10 percent subjective in a way that’s hard,” Perdue said. “We need to make sure these lands are sustainable. We don’t want to be draining areas that don’t need to be drained.”

Farmers have long been critical of the timeliness, consistency and transparency of the conservation service concerning wetland determinations. Perdue said he is working to make the process more consistent by using scientific and soil health improvement methods.

“We’re looking at wetland determinations and helping to make sure we – the USDA and NRCS – deal with our customer farmers in a way that’s consistent and transparent so they can make the best decisions for their farms and their livelihood and their families,” Perdue said.

“The Ochsner boys have shown me the benefit of cover crops and how they can benefit the salinity level of some of these potholes where water stands, and how cover crops can reach down and drain those in a way that is healthy and safe — not by drain tiles.”

Source: Shannon Marvel, Farm Forum

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