Having no-tilled for 36 years and cover-cropped for five, Don Gasper has invested a lot of time and effort into soil health. He's made a habit of keeping his spade on hand in the field, and is finding more earthworms than he did when he first started on his farm near Lindsay.
That's why Gasper has helped organize a soil health seminar for the last two years to keep other growers informed on cover cropping and no-till practices.
On Sept. 5, the latest Soil Health Seminar will be held in Fullerton at the Loup River Inn.
"I want to share it with other people, and want other farmers to look at it and change their ways. We saw the dust storms this spring on I-80. I don't think it happened on a no-tiller's farm. I've got residue from cover crops and wheat. I cut down on my water erosion and retain more water and cut down on the dirt wind erosion," Gasper says. "I think we're gaining a little bit. I see more people with cover crops and no-tilling. I do still see some people going out and working the ground, but I feel we're gaining."
The event, which kicks off with registration at 8 a.m., will feature keynote speaker Allen Williams, who previously taught at Louisiana Tech and Mississippi State universities, and is now a private farming and ranching consultant and manages a grass-fed beef operation in Mississippi.
Williams will cover different components of adaptive grazing, cover crops and soil health, including properly stocking perennial and annual pasture for improved soil health, adaptive grazing of annual cover crops, and selection of the right species for different goals, including grazing, nutrient sequestering and fixation, and weed suppression.
Williams notes his presentation will start with a discussion of three underlying principles of adaptive management — compounding, diversity and disruption — and how these principles work in different places and climates. At the core of these three principles is the integration of grazing ruminants, he says.
"All grasslands and prairies have evolved through the impact of grazing ruminants," he says. "When you remove ruminants, you remove the core of the ecosystem."
It starts with hoof impact. "It de-compacts the soil, it aerates the soil, it stimulates the seed bank and helps additional plant species start growing. This helps support a much broader microbial population," Williams says. "You get natural fertility in the soil from manure, and that attracts dung beetles and other beetles. Their degradation process helps break it down for fungi."
"Every bite cattle take and every step they take they are spreading microbes from saliva, from their coat and from their manure. Those are the same microbes in the soil," he adds. "Finally, the act of ruminants biting plants stimulates photosynthetic processes, and it stimulates plants to create root exudates. Plants grow much more vigorously when they're routinely bitten off."
In this part of east-central Nebraska, where soils on the rolling terrain are prone to wind and water erosion, there is a budding interest in cover crop and rotational grazing practices, notes Dave Reilly, resource conservationist with the Nebraska Natural Resources Conservation Service, and one of the event's organizers.
"A lot of the people around here overgraze. Properly grazed areas have better soil health and infiltration rates. I want to bring that to peoples' attention. After the first event we held two years ago, we've had quite a bit of interest in cover crops in the area," he says. "I think a lot of it is coming down to commodity prices are low and input prices are high. People are trying to figure out how to grow crops for less money. Cover crops can help with weed suppression. If you do it long enough with a diverse mix you'll, hopefully, be able to cut down on your fertilizer cost as well."
Attendance is free, but preregistration is required by Aug. 24. Anyone interested can register by contacting Reilly at the Fullerton NRCS field office at 308-536-2456, ext. 3.