Louisiana: Soil Health, Cover Crops Discussed at Conferences

    Agriculture experts from five states joined farmers and others in the industry to address soil heath and cover crops at two recent conferences.

    The first conference was Jan. 23 in West Monroe and had 80 participants. The second, held Jan. 24 near Alexandria, drew a crowd of 90.

    LSU AgCenter conservation agronomists James Hendrix and Donna Morgan and soil microbiologist Lisa Fultz helped plan the events, which were funded by a Natural Resources Conservation Service grant.

    “These conferences are more than just meetings on soil fertility,” said AgCenter associate vice president Rogers Leonard. “They present comprehensive strategies to improve soil health and crop productivity.”

    That is important as the agriculture industry tries to keep up with the demands of a growing world population. Louisiana agriculture commissioner Mike Strain said food production must double by 2050.

    About 60 percent of agricultural commodities grown in Louisiana are exported, Strain said.

    While some innovators have successfully incorporated cover crops into their operations, such conservation practices are largely missing from Louisiana farms, said Kevin Norton, NRCS state conservationist.

    He said it has been a challenge to get out information about those practices — something the conferences aimed to improve.

    Conference topics included soil and water management, cover crops for row crop production and pasture management, and a rainfall simulator demonstration. The West Monroe meeting also featured panel discussions with producers from the area.

    Mike Hubbs, a soil health specialist with the Tennessee Association of Conservation Districts, was the keynote speaker at both meetings. Hubbs said it is essential to spend as much effort on managing cover crops — which are planted in the off-season to curtail erosion and enhance soil nutrients — as is spent on cash crops.

    “We are treating the soil like dirt, and we want to treat it like soil, which is a living organism,” Hubbs said.

    Hubbs outlined four basic principles to improve soil health. Farmers should disturb the soil as little as possible, keep the soil covered in both crop and forage uses, keep roots growing by planting cover crops and plant a diverse mix of cover crop species, he said.

    “If you need deep tillage, do it once and then let the roots do the rest of the work,” Hubbs said. He said plowing diminishes the organic matter in soil, decreases porosity and causes compaction.

    NRCS soil scientist Michael Lindsey and agronomist Chris Coreil demonstrated water infiltration and run-off impacts on soil samples for both pasture and crop production systems using a rainfall simulator. They showed how rainwater moves into and through soil on both conventionally tilled fields and those with improved soil health.

    Beth Baker, assistant extension professor with Mississippi State University, said farming can help solve environmental issues like air and water quality.

    Baker works with a program called Research and Education to Advance Conservation and Habitat, or REACH, which is an on-farm conservation research and demonstration program that looks at conservation practices to improve agricultural stability and protect natural resources. It is similar to the AgCenter’s Louisiana Master Farmer Program.

    “It does no good to make money if it ends up in your ditch,” Baker said, adding that soil health is central to keeping topsoil and nutrients in the field.

    University of Arkansas agronomist Bill Robertson said there are ways farmers can improve their environmental footprint while staying profitable.

    “No-till and cover crops are the two things we can do to make a significant change in the environmental footprint, and that’s what our supply chain wants,” Robertson said.

    Farmers who have never tried cover crops should start out planting a single species, said Tim Smith, a crop consultant and owner of Southern Soil Solutions in Clarendon, Arkansas. Smith said farmers looking to plant cover crops have several considerations, including the cash crop going in to the field as well as the last crop planted, soil types in the field, planting method, rates and cost.

    Kip Balkcom, U.S. Department of Agriculture agronomist from Auburn, Alabama, said benefits derived from cover crops are generally enhanced if more biomass is present. Biomass can be maximized, he said, by focusing on soil fertility, quality seed selection, timely planting and using planting methods that achieve good seed-to-soil contact.

    AgCenter scientists reviewed key issues concerning soil and water management issues.

    • Rice specialist Dustin Harrell discussed soil testing protocols and how analyses vary with different soil sampling methods. He explained how tests are calibrated, interpreted and modified based on grower information.
    • Soil fertility professor Brenda Tubaña reviewed the essential nutrients that support soil fertility and factors that affect nutrient uptake and removal.
    • Microbiologist Lisa Fultz examined the physical, chemical and biological factors affecting ecosystems that support microbial biomass populations needed to improve soil organic matter.
    • Agronomist Syam Dodla showed how cover crops increase soil moisture content and improve water infiltration to a greater soil depth.
    • Soil and water quality assistant professor Changyoon Jeong addressed best management practices for control of nutrient loss to lessen environmental impact due to erosion and reduce financial loss for producers.
    • Economist Naveen Adusumilli discussed cover crops, crop insurance and regulations for meeting criteria for program payment support.

    AgCenter researchers discussed control measures specific to incorporating cover crops in row crop production.

    • Research associate Brandi Woolam spoke on winter weed control in cover crop management, looking at weed spectrum identification, emergence and growth patterns, herbicide applications and termination schedules.
    • Plant pathologist Trey Price talked about potential issues with diseases in cover crop species and effects on cash crops.
    • Entomologist Sebe Brown covered insect management in cover crops and the use of insecticide seed treatments on cash crops.
    • Nematologist Charles Overstreet looked at the impact of nematodes, specifically the reniform and Southern root-knot nematodes, on cash crops in cover cropping systems.

    AgCenter experts on pasture and forage concerns talked about cover crops in livestock production.

    • Forage specialists Buddy Pitman and Ed Twidwell presented information on using cover crops to improve soil health in pastures.
    • Beef cattle researcher Guillermo Scaglia explained how cover crops, specifically brassicas, can increase available forage when animals are grazing.
    • LSU doctoral student Katy Bridges shared results from a study on soil microbial community structure, organic matter and nutrient availability and soil density.

    East Carroll Parish farmers Robbie Howard and Jamie Howington joined Marty Ernest, of Caldwell Parish, to answer questions and share results on the use of cover crops in their farming operations.

    Cattle producers Chris Hightower, of Claiborne Parish, and Ted Miller and Roy McIntyre, both of Franklin Parish, discussed how they have used cover crops for supplemental forage and in pasture management systems.

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