This years historic drought has provided a prime opportunity for a special focus on a most precious resource, our soil. Though we tend to think first of the extreme weathers effect on our 2012 crop yields, its effect on feed supplies and the health of our fields could easily extend the damage into next season and well beyond.
The state Department of Agriculture encourages our farmers to minimize this effect by spending some time this fall considering their opportunities to improve soil health.
One way to address soil health and make the most of these conditions is by establishing cover crops such as oats, clover, rye grasses and/or radishes. These can provide emergency forage (livestock feed), reduce soil loss, scavenge (help retain) precious nutrients, improve water quality for drinking water and recreation, offer wildlife habitat, and rehabilitate pastures, all while developing soil health at the same time. Its a win-win for everyone.
Specifically speaking, cover crops improve soil health by creating more organic matter in the ground and increasing water-holding capacity. They help to reduce soil compaction and erosion, and can ultimately suppress weed pressure (establishing better weed control) while increasing the yields of subsequent crops. They can also provide critical forage for grazing (for cattle, goats, sheep, horses, etc.), chopping or haying at a time when livestock producers everywhere are facing cost-related challenges and having to reassess how to manage feed sources for their animals.
As evidence of the interest in cover crop benefits from our farmers, we witnessed overwhelming response to emergency cover crop cost share assistance from recent announcements of federal and state programs. In spite of the fact that the interest from Indiana landowners proved to be much greater than the availability of funds, many landowners are choosing to continue with these conservation efforts on their own.
There are a host of resources that can assist these efforts, including the Conservation Cropping Systems Initiative, Purdue University Extension, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, Soil and Water Conservation Districts Certified Crop Advisors and numerous online chats, blogs and message boards, just to name a few.
Much time will be invested in the recovery from this years drought, and we will find solutions to minimize the challenges of 2012, with a deliberate focus on improving our soil.
Many different avenues can offer help, arming producers with the essential tools they need to get to the best position for the future.
What is most exciting is that Indiana has proven over and over again that by focusing on our strengths and constantly innovating, especially in difficult times, we continue to propel Indiana agriculture forward.