ARGYLE — No-till farmer and soil health leader Barry Fisher visited southwest Wisconsin recently, speaking to farmers about the principles of soil health and how better understanding the soil’s natural functions can help them implement key management strategies to build soil health on their own operations.
“It’s been fun so far,” he told a group of about 40 gathered at the Corner Pub and Deli on April 12. “There are lots of innovative things happening in Wisconsin, and I’ve learned more from you already than maybe you’ve learned from me.”
Fisher’s family farm in west-central Indiana has been in continuous no-till and cover crops for more than 20 years, and his “side gig” with the U.S. Department of Agriculture allows him to try various practices before recommending them to others through his job as Central Region leader for the Soil Health Division of the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, serving as a “soil health spokesperson.”
He has spent the last 38 years with NRCS, and he doesn’t think there has been a single year when the organization hasn’t held a cover crop and no-till field day. These concepts aren’t new, but the idea of better understanding them continues to evolve, with Fisher providing technical exchange for soil health strategy implementation training and assisting with state and regional initiatives that advance the technology of quality no-till, cover crops, adaptive nutrient and pest management and crop rotations with precision technology.
However, he acknowledges that humans are hard-wired with a self-preservation instinct — one that makes them averse to risk and change. Farmers, in particular, tend to want to stay with what worked last year, Fisher said, but what if a management change could build function back into the soil? It’s something he wants farmers to think hard about.
Healthy soil does some incredible things, like cycling nutrients and allowing water infiltration. Healthy soil also filters and buffers and provides stability and support for roots, as well as a habitat for biodiversity lurking just under its surface.
Because of this, Fisher believes that the soil should be managed like livestock, arguing that the organisms beneath the surface of the soil may be the most important livestock on any farm. When considering management, think of the soil as a living thing, as it’s been proven that as much as half of the nutrients farmers apply don’t go into the crop; it’s assumed they are being assimilated into something else, Fisher said, and that something else is the organisms working for the farmer.
Fiscer reviewed the four principles of soil health, asking farmers to keep them in the back of their minds as they decide on management practices to improve soil health on their own farms. He recommended minimizing disturbance, and not just physical disturbance but also chemical and biological disturbances; maximizing soil cover, not just during the growing season but at all times during the year; maximizing biodiversity so organisms in the soil have a diverse diet; and maximizing the presence of living roots, as roots feed organisms, and organisms, in turn, feed roots. The first two principles aim to protect the soil while the second two principles aim to feed the soil, Fisher said.
He used the example of “the fence line effect,” displaying an aerial photograph of a cornfield. On the perimeter, a dark green shade could be seen — a former fence line that had been removed but was still visible and thriving as the fence line had little disturbance, maximum soil cover, a diversity of plants growing within it and living roots.
“This is real — it’s not foo-foo,” Fisher said. “I wouldn’t be here talking about it as a farmer if I didn’t believe it.”
He recommended farmers interested in building soil health each come up with their own “game plan” that considers nutrient management, termination of cover crops, pest management and the weather. Nutrient-management plans should be adaptive, and the biological aspect needs to be considered.
“If you don’t think about the living ecosystem, you’re missing half the picture,” Fisher said.
If working with cover crops, a termination plan will need to be detailed, he said. Farmers should also select cover crops that complement the next crop that will be growing there, understanding the carbon-to-nitrogen ratio of cover crops and how they can benefit other crops such as corn and soybeans.
Pest management also needs to be integrated and adapted, Fisher said. Limit pest opportunities by using a crop rotation instead of always relying on chemicals. Chemicals can hurt the beneficial organisms needed to maintain good soil health, with some of those beneficial organisms eating the unwanted insects.
“If you have a healthy ecosystem, they can really help you,” Fisher said.
Fisher said he doesn’t claim to be a local expert for Wisconsin, in particular, but in a room full of creative and innovative farmers, it wouldn’t be hard to find someone who is. He encouraged those in attendance to connect with others in the room, some who may already be experimenting and would be willing to share what they are doing on their own farms.
“Farmers are different than any other business owner in that they are usually willing to share how they did it,” he said.