By Olivia Taylor-Puckett
Workshop & Bus Tour focus on Developing Resilient, Productive Ag Land Through Use of Cover Crops and Mycorrhizal Fungi
In creating the Mycorrhizal Fungi Connections workshop and Cover Crops in Action bus tour, Kansas Farmers Union hoped to open the eyes of farmers and ranchers to many different means of investing in health of their soil.
The need for investing in soil health – and ways to do so – were presented by the speakers of the Mycorrhizal Fungi Connections workshop while real life implementation examples were showcased by farmers who graciously allowed attendees to visit their fields the next day.
During the workshop participants learned what mycorrhizal fungi is, its key role in the absorption of water and nutrients, how to encourage its presence in soil, and various means of employing cover crops and manure thus furthering the vibrancy of beneficial micro-cultures.
The next day, while on the bus tour, participants could see these tactics in action; best summarized by Dale Strickler’s “Five Steps to Restoring Soil Health”. Attendees were able to see examples of how mycorrhizae inoculation reduced the maturation time of Charlie Smies’ eastern gamagrass from 3-5 years to just 18 months; how flash grazing of fields allows cows to spread manure evenly and without need of machinery on Dale Strickler and Ryan Calgren’s lands; how cover crops increase soil fertility and keep the ground covered year round while still allowing cultivation of a cash crop in Robin and Kelly Griffith’s sunflower field; how employing no-till practices allows for additional organic matter to be incorporated into the soil and allows for roots to break up and add oxygen naturally in Chad Simmerlink’s summer sorghum rotation.
In attending this combined two-day event, farmers and ranchers were exposed to ways of investing in soil health and then were able to get their boots dirty in fields whose farmers were profitable examples of how focusing on soil health can only improve their bottom line. Farmers were able to walk through soil pits and see roots extending beyond conventional depths, were able to touch rich restored soil, and were able to walk through beautiful fields of gamagrass sprinkled with purple and blue wild flowers.
MYCORRHIZAL FUNGI CONNECTION WORKSHOP
The Mycorrhizal Fungi Connection Workshop in Salina on August 21st featured Dale Strickler, Gail Fuller, Dr. Christine Jones of Australia, Dr. Alok Adholeya and Larry Simpson of Mycorrhizal Applications, and a tour of the Land Institute with Wes Jackson. The speakers aimed to inform attendees of the usefulness of mycorrhizal fungi to increase crop yields and reduce the need for irrigation and chemical fertilizers.
Mycorrhizal fungi are an important component of land-based plant root systems as they more efficiently absorb water and break down nutrients than a plant’s own roots. Mycorrhizae increase a root’s surface area 100-1,000 times and secrete enzymes aiding in the breakdown of phosphorus, organic nitrogen and other less soluble nutrients into more easily absorbed particles.
These organisms are commonly found in undisturbed areas and are the natural partners of most plants, but conventional modern practices–such as tillage, fumigation, site preparation, removal of topsoil and leaving fields fallow–often reduce or eliminate the existence of this beneficial fungi.
Dale Strickler was the first to take the stage with his presentation on “Restoring Life to Your Soil” which included a five step program to restore soil health. These steps, Strickler pointed out, may seem labor and capital intensive in the beginning but in the end they will lead to higher yields and better soil health to hand down to the next generation.
Dr. Christine Jones followed Strickler and focused on how poly-cultures solve modern farming’s dependence on chemical fertilizer. She said the world’s most productive landscapes have no need for outside sources of nitrogen or phosphorus, and implied that our dependence on chemical fertilizers is actually depleting our food of essential minerals. According to a study by David Thomas, “You would need to eat twice as much meat, three times as much fruit, and four to five times as many vegetables to get the same amount of minerals as available in the same foods in 1940.” The decline in nutrition in our foods is due to lack of biodiversity and microbial diversity in the soil, which in turn is due to our use of chemical fertilizers, fungicides, herbicides and pesticides. The solution to increasing the amount of minerals in our food is to reincorporate natural bioactivity into the soil by reintroducing beneficial microbes such as mycorrhizal fungi, and utilizing cover crops and polyculture practices.
Dr. Alok Adholeya and Larry Simpson both work with mycorrhizae professionally; for Dr. Adholeya it is his area of specialization in academic work and Simpson through his employment and research at Mycorrhizal Applications.
Dr. Adholeya’s presentation focused on climate change and how the use of mycorrhizae can help answer many of the challenges climate change poses. He calls the use of mycorrhizae bio-fertilizer an “under-earth revolution” that has the potential to form the frame work of green and sustainable agriculture for social, economic, and environmental benefits. Mycorrhizae bio-fertilizer aids in better uptake of nutrients; increased rate of photosynthesis; improved disease resistance; increased tolerance of salt, heat and drought while simultaneously decreasing the need for nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium fertilizers.
Simpson focused on the real life impacts of the use of mycorrhizae inoculants, highlighting the differences between inoculated seeds and control groups concerning root system size, yields, weed suppression, and water retention. He showed numerous examples of corn, soybean, sorghum, wheat and barley crops that exhibited significant differences between the controls and those treated with mycorrhizae, in states ranging from Kansas to South Dakota to Indiana to Maine and even Manitoba, Canada. In a 2012 study by North Dakota State University, Mycorrhizal Applications’ liquid inoculant increased soybean yield by 10% compared to a control, out performing every other commercial inoculant tested. In a follow up study the following year, the liquid inoculant increased soybean yield by 19% and continued to out perform other inoculants tested. Simpson explained that the best way to use their product is to apply it in a liquid form to their hard seeds before planting, but that one could also use a powder form directly on the seeds or into the furrows after planting and still see considerable results.
COVER CROPS IN ACTION BUS TOUR
After the all-day lectures in the Mycorrhizal Fungi Connections workshop, farmers boarded a bus to see the previous day’s strategies in action. In attending the workshop the participants were better informed and able to understand the value of the practices being used by the farmers.
Dale Strickler, in his workshop opening presentation and closing remarks, made an effort to hit home the point that incorporating practices which increase soil fertility will affect every part of a farmer’s operations and that these practices do not have to break the bank. Each step of Strickler’s five step program was seen in action on the tour.
Participants boarded the bus at 8am Saturday and headed out to the first stop, Chad Simmerlink’s farm. Simmerlink runs a bred-heifer operation and employs no-till farming and continuous rotation of cover and cash crops. On display were this summer’s sorghum rotation and a five-foot deep soil pit, the first one of the day. While walking through the soil pit, participants were able to see how deeply the roots extended past the first four inches of soil into a layer of clay, which Strickler and Simmerlink attributed to the diverse rotation of cover crops and continuous presence of living roots aerating and breaking up the soil. In addition to the soil pit, Simmerlink had drilled several soil cores from fields that had been tilled conventionally to contrast with his no-till/cover crop practices. These cores demonstrated how continually having living roots allows for more oxygen to be available at deeper levels in the soil.
Strickler’s farm was the next stop and where he discussed incorporating eastern gamagrass into his cow-calf operation. Instead of harvesting his fields traditionally, he allows his cows to harvest it for him by having them consume it as fodder. Strickler joked that the only reason he has cattle is so he can keep experimenting with cover crops and grasses. He explained that when he first attempted to increase the health of his soil and decrease the erosion his land was experiencing, he took soil core samples. He found that his soil had an almost impenetrable layer of clay which inhibited the spread of oxygen to lower soil layers. After planting grasses, whose roots grow deeper, and keeping the ground covered all year, he no longer has that problem.
Third stop was Ryan Calgren’s cow-calf farm. Calgren supplements feed and haying by allowing his herd to flash graze his fields. The bus first stopped at Ryan’s soybean field that was planted on last year’s grazed out sorghum crop. At the second stop, Ryan was getting ready to move his electric fence to allow his cattle to move into a new area of the field of sorghum Sudan grass. By grazing his cattle on the sorghum Sudan grass, he needs to feed them less. Additionally, their manure is widely dispersed over his fields, reducing and/or eliminating the need for supplemental fertilizers.
Next up was Charlie Smies’ ranch where he runs 50 head of buffalo. Smies showed participants his field of gamagrass mixed with various types of wildflowers. The average gamagrass stand requires four to five years to fully mature to be used for grazing purposes, yet Smies has been able to help his gamagrass develop into waist height stands in eighteen months with the help of mycorrhizal fungi. When the tour visited this field, it had been grazed by his herd only weeks earlier and had already regrown to be four feet tall. The mix of wildflowers and other grasses allows for the field to be constantly covered by either warm or cool growing season plants.
The last stop was Robin and Kelly Griffeth’s farm. The Griffeths use of cover crops is extensive. At the field the tour visited they distributed a list of everything that was being grown in the field, divided between warm season and cool season plants, all of which were planted at once. The warm season plants included sunflowers, sun hemp, cow peas, Sudan, flax and buckwheat. The sunflowers are the cash crop and, come harvest time, will be significantly taller than the other plants, thus the mixed planting does not affect the harvest procedure. Included in the cool season plants were berseem clover, chick pea, yellow clover, alfalfa, spring oats and mustard.
After the last field stop, every one piled on the bus to head out to Lake Wilson and dinner. Attendees sat on picnic tables discussing what they’d learned and their own farming practices. People ranged from conventional cash crop farmers looking to improve their practices to small-time goat and dairy operations to progressive farmers who have not tilled their land in years.