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Over the past several years, Iowa’s soil has been losing its value due to overfertilization and the loss of beneficial microscopic organisms which occur naturally in the soil. This is according to Alisha Sedlmayr, a Northeast Area Soil Health Specialist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service. Sedlmayr presented this information at an educational event titled “Soil Biology: Nutrient Cycling and Alternative Fertilizers,” at Fillmore Bar & Grill. The event was the third in a series of four talks organized by Dubuque County Watershed, with previous topics covering organic farming and small grains production economics. The final event will take place Tuesday, April 5 at Swiss Valley and talk about connecting recreation and the watershed.Marissa Waldo, a conservation agronomist with Dubuque County Watershed, explained “We’re just trying to get farmers to start discussing different topics related to soil health and conservation. We’re trying to help them build relationships and learn from each other, give them opportunities for discussions and we’re having them in different locations so we can reach all the farmers in the county.”Sedlmayr’s chief message was the importance of natural soil biology, or the beneficial microbes, in keeping crops healthy. With rising prices in fertilizer, as well as concerns for water quality, soil erosion and the economic bottom line, farmers need to return to the soil’s natural methods of fertilizing itself to be more sustainable and less reliant on synthetic fertilizer inputs.
According to Seldmayr, the crops grown by Iowa farmers require a balance of bacteria and fungi in the soil to create optimal conditions.“The crops we’re trying to grow are mid-successional,” she said, “meaning they need equal amounts of fungi and bacteria in the soil. If we go too highly fungal we start promoting shrubs and trees, but if we go too bacterial we’re promoting annual weeds that put all their energy into seed production like ragweed. We’re focusing on the mid-successional because that’s where the corn, beans, wheats and grasses are going to be optimal with biology.”Seldmayr said the proper biology in the soil allows plants to absorb more nutrients, making them healthier, more flavorful and more resistant to extreme weather and pathogens through creating more complex proteins. These natural benefits have been slowly depleted in the soil over the years through plowing and fertilization, but it’s only in recent years that the extent of the damage has been more widely known since these methods seemed to bring only positives when they were first used.“It was great,” said Seldmayr. “We were getting big yields and weren’t seeing a big hit until all of a sudden stuff went down. Now we’re getting lower and lower organic matter, Co2 is rising in the atmosphere, our plants are becoming more resistant to pesticides and our fertilizers aren’t working as they’re being leached into our waters.”Due to the repeated disturbances in the soil, most fields have lost the fungi necessary to hold off weeds. Thankfully, livestock and compost can be used to help restore the soil health for long-term benefits. This topic was covered by Ryan Gibbs, a local farmer and owner of Gibbs Field Ag.Gibbs said farmers need to bring in beneficial bacteria, fungi, protozoa and nematodes to fend off the microbes that harm crops.
“Every bad one has a good one that eats it,” said Gibbs. “It’s a predator prey-relationship. If we can bring in and incorporate these biologicals in the soil, it will make it healthier, maintain more moisture and not need fertilizer because the soil is producing its own fertilizer.”Gibbs cautioned against cutting out fertilizer right away because the soil has become accustomed to it over years of fertilization. He said the soil has to be slowly weaned off the fertilization and advised starting on a small scale to experiment with finding the right compost at first.“A good compost is made of three things: carbon like wood chips or sawdust, greenery, such as grass clippings or alfalfa, and nitrogen in things like livestock manure or food scraps. There are all sorts of ratios to use depending on what you want with your compost.”Gibbs said a healthy compost needs oxygen to keep the healthy microbes alive. If it gets over 160° it goes anaerobic and the beneficial microbes die off. Many people stir their compost to keep the temperature down or use devices like Johnson-Su compost bioreactors with tubes to allow air to flow in naturally. Proper moisture can be determined from its ability to form a ball when squeezed.For farmers interested in using compost this growing season, Gibbs said it’s not too late, depending on the method used.“If a farmer is going to use the Johnson-Su method of compost it takes a year, so you’ll want to be starting right now for next spring. If you’re doing a thermal compost pile, they take roughly six weeks, so it’s something you could do right now and have ready by spring to put on crops around the end of April or first of May. A farmer could also go out and source compost from somebody who’s making it correctly. There are all sorts of companies out there.”According to Gibbs, a farmer should use two to three pounds of compost extract per acre, which is running water through the compost and pulling off the beneficial microbes. This method can put billions of microbes in the soil per gallon. If a farmer wishes to lay down the full compost, it takes 2,000-3,000 pounds per acre.Gibbs said healthy soil will also promote earthworms and beneficial bugs to live there, as well as promoting the growth of other crops besides just cash crops. Restoring the soil’s natural fertilizing methods will reduce the need to spend money on fungicides and pesticides, and some fertilizers. While it’s not an instant weed fixer, Gibbs said it’s an investment in the future that will be earned back over time.
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