Soil health continues to top hot topics in conservation

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By Josie Dallam

The National Association of Conservation Districts’ president, Lee McDaniel, knows a few things about soil health. He owns Indian Spring Farm in Darlington, Maryland, where he has raised dairy and beef cattle, and now farms row crops. Everything he’s done there relates back to soil health, he told an audience of conservation leaders in Tulsa, Oklahoma, last summer.

“Hopefully you all have a conservation plan and… a nutrient management plan,” McDaniel told attendees of NACD’s South Central Region Meeting. “You probably have an equipment management plan – whether it’s written or not – and if you have livestock, you have a livestock management plan.”


Grassed waterway on Lee McDaniel’s Indian Spring Farm in Harford County, Maryland.

But “do you have a soil management plan?” he asked them. “Because all the other management plans depend on having a healthy soil to start with. All the others don’t matter if you don’t have a healthy soil.”

Soil health is a hot topic right now. One that’s going to stick around, according to Dean Cowherd, Maryland’s assistant state soil scientist for the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).

“I think we’ll be discussing soil health and embracing the issues of soil health surely for the rest of my life and way beyond that,” Cowherd said.

Together, NRCS and NACD are promoting soil health across the nation through two new initiatives.

The first way the agency and association will work together is through NACD’s Soil Health Champions Network, a program that supports and celebrates soil health leaders nationwide. State associations of conservation districts – and individual districts too – are charged with nominating farmers, ranchers, and forestland owners for the NACD award. Producers selected for the honor actively use soil health-building practices on their land and advocate for the adoption of these practices within their communities.

By the end of fiscal 2016, NACD expects to have 150 Soil Health Champions from all around the country added to the network. Today, the organization has honored over 120 producers as champions.

The second component of the NRCS/NACD soil partnership will take place in the Midwest. Datu Research is going to spend three years in the region working with four farmers to calculate the economic impact of soil health practices – a topic of research never tackled before now.

This information will be instrumental in advancing the adoption of soil health practices, McDaniel said.


Lee McDaniel discusses soil health as it relates to his farm, using the Web Soil Survey map.

“It’s been 80 years since the Dust Bowl hit the U.S. and Congress created the Soil Conservation Service – now called NRCS – to mitigate the damage,” McDaniel said. “For the last 80 years we’ve spent time trying to control wind erosion and water erosion to keep soil from leaving farmers’ fields. Managing for soil health is taking the next step. We’re still interested in conserving the soil, but we’re now working to enhance it, to give it the properties it had when it was in its original state, and at the same time, making it more productive.”

Cowherd agrees that over the years, the focus for conservation has shifted. He says, “Our problem is not runoff and erosion, our problem is infiltration.”

When a soil is healthier, it has more organic matter, which absorbs and stores water, helping rain percolate into the soil profile instead of running off the field.

“When the first drop hits, you’ve predetermined by your best management practices what will happen,” McDaniel affirms.

Ensure that your fields are ready for that rain drop. Contact your local NRCS office.

(Feature photo caption: Members of the Maryland Conservation Partnership visit NACD President Lee McDaniel’s farm in Harford County, Maryland, to discuss conservation practices and soil health. From left to right: Josie Dallam, MD NRCS intern; Gene Umbarger, retired Harford County Soil Conservation District Supervisor; Bill Tharpe, Harford County Soil Conservation District Manager; Lee McDaniel, NACD President; and Dean Cowherd, MD NRCS Assistant State Soil Scientist.)


Josie Dallam interviewed Lee McDaniel at his farm last summer as a student volunteer with NRCS. She grew up on Broom’s Bloom Dairy, a small dairy farm in Harford County, Maryland, and in May, graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison with degrees in life sciences communication and agronomy.

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Tags: Conservation District, Agriculture, NRCS, Soil, water filtration, NACD, conservation districts, conservation education

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