By Matt Reese and Dusty Sonnenberg, CCA, Ohio Field Leader
The tidy whities hanging outside of the Ohio Federation of Soil and Water Conservation Districts display at Ohio’s largest farm show generated plenty of attention at the 2019 Farm Science Review and the sullied unmentionables inside the confines of the building were, well, almost unmentionable. But, mentioned they were. That, after all, is the point of the clever “Soil your undies” program.
“We are encouraging farmers around the state to ‘Soil their undies’ by planting 100% cotton underwear in their fields for about four weeks to see what the level of soil health and soil activity is within their fields. When you pull them up, if they look about like they did when you buried them, you probably need to go into your local SWCD office and start some conversations. If you pull them up and there is nothing left but elastic, you probably have some pretty good soil health,” said Janelle Mead, OFSWCD chief executive officer. “I’m pretty sure we’ve talked more about underwear this year at the Farm Science Review than any point before.”
Kris Swartz, a Wood SWCD board supervisor, planted some Fruit of the Looms a couple years ago to test the fruits of the soil health improvement efforts on his farm and was surprised at the results.
“It really demonstrates how much soil biology is going on in your soil and how many microbes and animals are living there that will degrade that cotton material. It is amazing how fast those underwear melt away to almost nothing,” Swartz said. “The No. 1 thing we talk about on soil health is cover crops and getting diverse biology out there. It really helps when we have green on the ground more of the year. I have Hoytville heavy clay and those soils need organic matter and the cover crops really increase that. The main benefit we see with more organic matter is our water holding capacity. When you increase the organic matter, it helps out with water quality and everything else in agriculture.”
With the extensive planting challenges in his region of the state this spring, there was more talk about cover crops than usual in 2019.
“The one good thing with the prevented planting acres we had is that conversation about cover crops have really increased with farmers. People are talking about cover crops who have never talked about them before. We are getting people in our doors that we have never seen before and we are getting a bigger audience to talk to,” Swartz said. “It can be a difficult conversation about water quality. I don’t think our urban neighbors really understand what a challenge we are under. I think some data is showing that phosphate levels in the streams are going down. I am hopeful we will see some significant progress in the next year or two. Farmers are doing a better job all of the time and taking on the challenge more. People are using best management practices and incorporating them into their operations. People are finding out
they can be successful environmentally and economically with these practices.”
Though it is late in the year to do it now, Mead and Swartz would encourage every farmer in the state to take a few pairs of 100% cotton underwear and bury them in the top few inches of soil during the growing season. Compare different fields with different management practices to see where the soil is more biologically active and hopefully gain some insights into a healthier, more profitable farm heading into the future. In fields where the underwear looks about like it did when it was buried, systems that manage no-till combined with cover crops have been found to have the greatest benefit to improving overall soil health.
“It takes commitment and a systems approach,” said Jim Hoorman, owner of Hoorman Soil Health Services in Jenera.
No-till and cover crops, however, may be more challenging than normal this fall due to the wet harvest in 2018 and continued saturated soil conditions this past spring in many parts of the state. Every situation is unique, and last year’s harvest caused obvious compaction issues from equipment traffic. While long time no-till fields typically held up better than conventionally tilled fields, the resulting damage to the soil was not kind in many cases.
“Heavy farm machinery can create subsoil compaction, even for no-till fields,” Hoorman said. “What farmers really want to know is how to heal the soil. Looking at the current situation for a lot the fields, it’s not good.”
The stakes can be high with the decision to till or not in some situations. According to research by Don Reicosky, a retired UDSA-ARS soil scientist, upwards of 80% of the benefits of continuous no-till can be lost with a single tillage pass. The degree of the benefits lost due to tillage depends on a number of factors, Hoorman said. Those options include shallow vertical tillage or lightly tilling 2 to 4 inches deep to level small ruts and relieve shallow compaction, versus deep ripping a field 12 to 18 inches and then working the soil back down with several tillage passes to level it and prepare a seed bed.
Deep tillage, such as subsoiling, has been used to break-up subsoil compaction issues. The idea behind the deep tillage (running rippers at a foot to a foot and a half deep) is to loosen the subsoil, break compaction, and increase water infiltration and aeration.
“While some no-till fields never need to be subsoiled, for other no-till fields, deep tillage has increased yields, especially if equipment traffic occurred over a large portion of the field while soils were wet,” Hoorman said. “The problem with using tillage to break up compaction is that a new hardpan forms under the lowest point of the last tillage pass. Subsoiling just lowers the hardpan.”
When subsoiling is done, a break occurs in the soil profile. The tilled soil above the break is aerated and oxygen is introduced (aerobic). Below the new hardpan however, an anerobic condition exists (lack of oxygen). Tillage cannot eliminate the hardpan down deep in the soil.
“Cover crops have been effective at restoring the soil over time,” Hoorman said. “Restoring soil health takes time. Cover crop roots restore porosity to the soil. Grass cover crops with fibrous root systems work to eliminate shallow compaction, while deep rooted cover crops like tillage radish reduce the deeper compaction.”
As the radish decays, it mellows the soil. Cover crops also enhance the environment needed to promote earthworm growth. The earthworms benefit from a soil that has sufficient organic matter, as well as oxygen and water movement. The decomposing plant residue provides organic matter as a food source to the worms.
“The more food they have, the bigger they get and the quicker they will reproduce,” Hoorman said.
The biological processes earthworms perform enhance the soil quality. As the organic matter is digested, the castings the earthworm releases as waste contain many nutrients useful to plants. In addition, as the earthworms tunnel, they aerate the soil. These tunnels allow air, water and nutrients to move deeper in the soil profile and, ultimately, move soil health in a positive direction.
A good place to start for farmers interested in learning more on how to improve their soil health, long-term profitability and environmental sustainability could be with a pair of underwear paired with a follow-up visit to the local SWCD office.
“We have talked to a lot of people about soiling their underwear this year. We have great staff out around the state to work with,” Mead said. “Go in to the local SWCD offices and have the conversations and find solutions to keep nutrients in your fields. They are ready to help you and they want to help you, even if it starts with a dirty pair of underwear.”
Ohio Field Leader is a project of the Ohio Soybean Council. For more, visit ohiofieldleader.com.