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One-of-a-Kind Books Guide Farmers on Their Way to Better Soil

December 5, 2012

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resource Conservation Service recently launched a soil health initiative entitled, “Unlock the Secrets in the Soil.” The initiative aims to help farmers enhance soil health by raising awareness and sharing methods and success stories. 

This is the third post in a five-post series on sustainable soil management, research, and demonstration, with a specific focus on USDA’s Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program.  SARE has over two decades of experience in helping farmers and agencies like Extension and NRCS focus on soil quality.  

Guest Post by Andy Zieminski, SARE Communications Associate

A small-grain and vegetable farmer in Oregon’s Willamette Valley used an intensive, carefully timed cover cropping program for 20 years. The result: little to no soil erosion from his farm into the Willamette River, and significant fuel savings from reducing tillage.

Building Soils for Better Crops

An organic corn and soybean farmer in Kansas relies on tillage for weed control, but balances out any loss of soil organic matter by applying manure from his pastured hogs and incorporating “green” manures such as alfalfa into crop rotations.

A Lancaster County, Penn., farmer used no-till, rotations and cover crops on his 215-acre farm to reverse the severe erosion on his sloping terrain. Today his farm is a nationally recognized showcase for successful farming using ecologically based soil-building techniques.

These are just a few of the thousands of American farmers and ranchers using ecologically based soil management methods to build soil health, improve profitability and leave a lighter footprint on the land. Taking real steps to improve your farm’s soil health—reducing tillage, avoiding soil compaction, growing cover crops, using crop rotations, etc.—is a challenging process because each farm represents a complex web of chemical, biological and physical systems. Plus, no two farms are alike.

For farmers and ranchers setting out on the path toward better soil health, USDA’s Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program offers two one-of-a-kind guidebooks that have long served as indispensable reading: Building Soils for Better Crops and Managing Cover Crops Profitably.

Since 2000, SARE has put nearly 60,000 copies of these in-depth books into the hands of farmers, ranchers, researchers and educators, who are using them to get practical, step-by-step guidance on the many practices that contribute to good soil health. Thousands more have been downloaded for free.

Managing Cover Crops Profitably

The 244-page Managing Cover Crops Profitably “is the best book I have ever read,” says farmer Wolfgang Rougle, of Cottonwood, Calif. “It uses science to explain complex concepts, lays out options for different systems and climates, and allows innovative farmers to digest the information and make their own intelligent decisions.”

Along with detailed information on the most commonly used cover crop species—including grasses, grains, brassicas and mustards, and legumes—Managing Cover Crops Profitably offers chapters on management topics such as crop rotations, pests and conservation tillage. It also has appendices on seed suppliers and regional experts.

The 294-page Building Soils for Better Crops, updated in 2009 and now in full color, provides rich detail on a wide range of soil health topics, including organic matter, soil properties and the most critical soil-improving management practices. Written in easily accessible language, it’s a perfect addition to any farm library, university course syllabus or ag training manual.

Hard copies of both books can be ordered online, or downloaded as a free PDF.

Along with these comprehensive books, SARE’s Learning Center offers many other educational resources to help farmers and ranchers as they work to improve their soil, available at www.SARE.org/covercrops. Or, visit SARE’s database of funded grants to discover more than 25 years of research and education projects on cover crops.

Read the Rest of the Series

Categories: Conservation, Energy & Environment, Research, Education & Extension

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