Thursday, March 22, 2012

Cover Crop Root Dig

Guest post by Logan Garner:  
Logan Garner is a graduate of Butler University with a B.A. in Science and Technology Societal Studies with a focus on environmental policy.  At Butler University he worked for the biology department and wrote and edited for the Butler Science Magazine.  Before joining the ISDA Logan worked in agricultural research and development at Dow AgroSciences on herbicide development and soil degradation studies.  He is a resource specialist for the Tippecanoe River Watershed and is located in Warsaw, IN at the Kosciusko County SWCD office. 

I visited my first cover crop root dig this week.  On an unseasonably warm March morning I arrived at a dig just south of Huntington to join a convoy of trucks and SUVs parked on the shoulder of state road 5.  Ag owners and operators, Indiana State Department of Agriculture (ISDA), Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) staff  and Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) personnel and a sprinkling of Cisco seed reps made up the small crowd of thirty or so folks enjoying coffee and donuts on the side of the road…I think the refreshments may have attracted a few stragglers as well.  At any rate, it wasn’t long before Scott Haley, an NRCS soil scientist, introduced himself and one Dave Robison from Cisco Seeds.  He then hailed everyone to the first root pit—or rectangular hole in the ground as it appears.  

As an introduction, the presenters highlighted gains to soil health and water quality as well as the logistic and economic benefits that generally accompany a field in a no-till/cover crop regimen.  Farmers chimed in opinions and shared experiences while county, state and federal staff gave their two cents as well.
Dave Robison took things from there, discussing the strengths and weaknesses of each cover crop species as well as their useful mixes and pairings.  

As the morning progressed we moved from one pit to the next.  Terms like “nodules”,” nutrient management”,” tilth”, “water retention” and “biotic function” arose as the familiar buzzwords of the day; rye grass, crimson clover, hairy vetch, cowpeas, radishes and oats were the species in evidence.  For a seasoned cover crop academic, the event was both a refresher and a discussion board.  To fledgling land owners and operators of the cover crop world it was an introductory course in soil health conservation farming.  For newer employees like me it was a great opportunity to pick apart the dos and don’ts of management, species selection and rotation.

After all the pits were examined and the roots and soil clods were passed around the crowd for examination, a brief Q&A drew the field event closer to an end. The only thing left was the infamous soil demonstration, wherein we see the difference between bacterial driven soil systems (tilled soil) and fungal driven systems (no till/cover crops). I’d seen this demonstration nearly a dozen times so far in my less than three months with ISDA. But just when I thought I could give the presentation myself, I learned something new and important yet again. As I listened and watched Scot Haley drop two dried samples of soil into glass cylinders of water, an unfamiliar word (that I’ve somehow missed all this time…don’t judge me) escaped his lips: GLOMALIN!! Glomalin-related soil proteins are a significant component of soil organic matter and act to bind mineral particles together, improving soil quality.

For more information on Cover Crops, check out the Conservation Cropping Systems Initiative (CCSI) website

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