There’s consensus that healthy soils with higher organic matter deliver a range of benefits from supplying nutrients, to building soil structure, to increasing water-holding capacity, and reducing erosion.
But are enough farmers taking the required steps to increase soil health and organic matter? United States Department of Agriculture research agronomist Shannon Osbourne believes a stronger working relationship between farmers and researchers will play a key role in turning more talk into action.
Osbourne has been studying soil health and organic matter since 2000. Last month at the annual Southwest Agricultural Conference (SWAC) in Ridgetown, ON, she discussed ways to build organic matter and addressed some of the challenges that growers face when trying to make it a priority in their cropping system.
In this interview, Osbourne tells RealAgriculture’s Bernard Tobin there are five primary ways to build soil organic matter: crop diversity, cover crops, organic inputs, reducing tillage and converting to grass. She says there are a number of reasons why farmers are reluctant to adopt some of these practices.
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Adding cover crops, for example, requires a new dimension of of management, explains Osbourne. “You just can’t plant a cover crop and forget about it. You have to plan what it is you are planting, the species you are going to choose, and how you are managing it so it doesn’t have a negative effect on the following crop.”
Osbourne says many growers are reluctant to use these alternative practices for a number of reasons: they may not have the right equipment; new crops may not fit their rotation; it’s hard to change their current system; or they simply don’t know where to start.
Osbourne says conferences like SWAC play a key role in helping scientists like her connect one-on-one with farmers and share insights. She notes that scientists have a lot of work to do to give farmers the knowledge and confidence to turn words into action. This includes finding ways to better measure soil health and how organic matter contributes. Researchers also have to do relevant research that is relatable to real on-farm management challenges.