Loran Steinlage’s field day this past week in West Union, Iowa was an event unlike most. Granted, I haven’t been to many field days other than our own, but I was incredibly impressed. The speakers were incredibly diverse, ranging from relay cropping to microbial populations, to how soil health and human health have a direct correlation. I also think this event attracted more than just the average farmer. It attracted people from all over the country, wanting to learn more about the regenerative agriculture space, and how to save our soils for future generations.
Day 1 was very helpful for the newer farmer to the regen ag space. We started the day hearing from Liz Haney, with Soil Regen, about the trials they are conducting, with open-pollinated corn and different fertilizers. Loran also stood up and told us about his Ground Zero field, which I thought was interesting. It was basically starting over and seeing what practices will make the most positive impact in the least amount of time, which is valuable for the just-starting-out farmer. After lunch, Mitchell Hora, CEO of Continuum Ag, spoke about his soybean and corn programs. This was helpful to me because, as a farmer who wants to start implementing regenerative practices on her land, this gave me a good idea of what covers would work well with my crop rotation and would work well in my area. Use cereal rye (about 45-60 lbs) before soybeans. Wait to terminate until after the soybeans have grown up a bit because that feeds the nutrients back into the system right when the soybeans need it. For the corn program plant a mix of about 25-35 lbs of cereal rye and 3 lbs of hairy vetch directly after soybean harvest. If that freaks a farmer out, winter wheat with a rate of about 25-35 lbs would work as well. Plant green into the cover, then wait about ten days to burn down the cover. The key thing is, spray before the corn emerges, or you will end up killing your corn.
We transitioned from the programs to just some helpful tips and statistics that I found interesting. One thing a farmer said from the audience that made sense to me was, “Don’t think aesthetics, think profitability”, meaning, your field might look crazy with the cover, planting green, and not having the soil bare all year, and that’s okay. Think of feeding the system, the yield benefits, and overall helping your soil health to ensure use for years to come. We then transitioned to talking about carbon, saying most farms in the US are carbon positive, which makes sense. One way to reduce a farm’s carbon footprint is to plant cover. Another way, which I got from Rick Clark’s “Change is Good” speech in Kearney, NE, is reducing passes on your field. Rick has a three pass system, which is not practical for most farmers, but reducing the times you fire up the tractor, sprayer, or any other piece of equipment will have a positive impact on the environment. Also, Mitchell shared 70% of the carbon footprint of a bushel of corn comes from synthetic fertilizers. While feeding the system, we can reduce the use of synthetic fertilizers, further bringing down our carbon footprint.
Sitting down with Lance Gunderson in a smaller group was very beneficial for me. Because everyone knew the basics of the Haney Soil Test, we could dive deep into the topic of microbial populations, and other topics that might have confused others. We started off the morning by discussing the US map at night, and how it pertains to microbial colonies in the soil. The bigger cities are each colony, and they seem disconnected. However, if you look closer, you can see the headlights from the cars on the interstate, connecting the cities. The same goes for each colony. There are channels within the soil that help the microbes move from one colony to another to help create healthy soil. I am currently taking a Soil Microbiology class, and this analogy helped me picture what my professor was saying. Overall, all of Lance’s analogies helped me visualize and understand the topics we were talking about.
After the chat of microbial populations, that posed the question, does our soil ever have a true balance? I noticed everyone in the room took this question very seriously, and we had to sit in silence for a minute to form a true answer. The final answer? No. Our soils will never fully be in balance. Nature fluctuates constantly, but by managing soil correctly, we can minimize the swing, continuing to feed the environment, keeping it healthy and alive. We truly cannot completely control the soil, but we can work to make the microbes happy. Farmers need to learn to work with nature, or in the end, they are going to lose.
What plant in the field competes most with corn? When Lance asked this question, I started thinking, marestail or any other common weed. Once Lance said corn, it all started to make sense. Say we are studying just one corn plant in the field. All the corn plants will need the exact same nutrients at the exact same time as my corn plant. This will cause competition between plants in the field. Therefore, we don’t usually plant corn closer than 30-inch rows, and why seeding rate varies between regions. Seeding rate is based on what your system can hold. Corn does not like a certain shade of green, as Loran and Lance put it, growing next to it. However, clover and corn are friends. Clover has the right shade of green, making it an ideal cover crop to grow before corn, or interseeding it within 60-inch rows. 60-inch rows allow for diversity of plants within the fields, stimulating a diverse group of microbes.
Next, we dove deeper into microbes and how they can cause problems within the soil environment. Every substance has a microbe in the soil that can break it down. However, when adding fertilizer, it stresses the microbes, giving them everything they want at once. If you stun or kill the microbes that mobilize nutrients, it creates a nutrient deficiency in plants, even though the soil shows adequate amounts of nutrients. If the plants don’t get the correct nutrients, eventually that will affect the animals and humans consuming the plant, creating deficiencies within them as well. This is how soil health relates to human health. With the use of tillage, cover crops, herbicides, fertilizers, and any other practices, it selects the microbes that will live in that environment and creates a stress in the environment. Using less harsh practices such as cover and no tillage, it helps create a diverse microbiome in the soil and only causes an acute stress in the soil. Tillage and bare soil can have a destructive impact on the habitat, causing more of a chronic stress. Major problems happen when you combine stresses, making it harder to reverse the effects.
Lance told us to think of soil as a supply, transport, and demand/output system. Supply is the nutrients, transport is the microbes, and demand/output is the yield. Microbes want paid (in carbon) therefore will not work if they don’t get paid or will end up eating your organic matter. To make sure we keep the microbes happy; we have to continue to feed them WEOC (Water Extractable Organic Carbon), which is measured on the Haney test. Both the CO2-C and the WEOC parameter on the Haney test will give the farmer a good idea on the microbial population in the fields. We walked through a scenario where one field has 30 ppm of phosphorus, but plants are still showing a deficiency, and the other field has 14 ppm of phosphorus, but the corn is thriving. What’s the difference? System one has microbes who aren’t transporting the nutrients, causing the deficiencies. System two has an efficient system, therefore they make up for the phosphorus deficiency, and no extra fertilizer is needed. This can be applied to any nutrient within the system. An easy way to spot this is seeing an abnormally high result on the soil test. Lance used another analogy that said, “We Feed our soils Flintstone Vitamins” which means, we feed our soil nutrients, not energy, causing lots of these issues. So, to add onto this analogy, I would say, feed your soil vitamins and green tea. Give it the energy and the nutrients to help it thrive.
The two days I spent at the field day were packed full of knowledge. I was grateful the crowds were smaller, allowing me to ask my questions, and we all had the opportunity to voice our thoughts and opinions. I liked going into the field and seeing the rye experiment firsthand, because that allowed me to see the visual difference between the open pollinated vs the hybrid. Multi-Cropping Iowa’s Ross was very knowledgeable about the trial, and answered all the questions from the group, and let us explore the field a bit, to look at anything we wanted to. The meals both days were amazing, and I particularly liked that I knew where my food was coming from, how it was prepared, and who prepared it, coming from a person with severe food allergies. Bison was out of my comfort zone, but I enjoyed everything I had. The fact that each day was split by a theme was also helpful, because, like me, people could choose what events to go to that would help them the most. This made reaching the target audience much easier. I would 100% recommend this field day to ANYONE, whether they are in the regenerative ag space or not. The presentations given ranged from the brand-new farmer, to the guy who needed a little more challenge. I am excited to teach what I have learned and continue to learn about this space. Regenerative Ag is the future, and I’m excited to be a part of it.