Grant aims to improve soil health

Andrew Reuschel, who farms near Golden, looks over a field of rye Monday. When the weather changes the plant will die and the nutrients will go back into the soil. The Reuschels have about 1,000 acres of land they farm, and all are planted with cover crops that feed the soil. | H-W Photo/Michael Kiple
Michael Kipley 1|
By Herald-Whig
Posted: Dec. 6, 2017 8:40 am

GOLDEN, Ill. -- Andrew Reuschel doesn't see enough green in fields this time of year.

"When I drive around, I see a lot of fall tillage, but I don't see a lot of green fields," the Golden farmer said. "I'm not saying cover crops work on every single acre, but they definitely should be thought about for highly erodible land."

Reuschel has 1,000 acres planted this fall to cover crops, primarily cereal rye, annual ryegrass and radishes -- providing valuable benefits in erosion control, weed suppression and boosting soil microbial life.

"The living root of a cover crop is better than anything else. It just keeps that soil moving," he said. "Reducing tillage and having that moving root at all times in the soil is just exactly what millions of organisms in the soil love.

"You're creating the habitat of growth for those organisms. In turn, long-term, (they) should improve the soil and hopefully increase not only water-holding capacity and increase yield, but should increase soil organic matter."

Spreading the word about what Reuschel already understands is the goal of a $9.4 million grant from the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research to the Soil Health Institute, the Soil Health Partnership and the Nature Conservancy.

The grant was announced this week. It was matched by General Mills, Midwest Row Crop Collaborative, Monsanto, Nestle Purina PetCare Co., the Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation, the Wal-Mart Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation and individual donors for a total investment of nearly $20 million. The initiative focuses on improving soil health and ultimately supporting positive economic and environmental outcomes for farmers.

A news release said the project will help the industry adopt standardized measurements to evaluate and improve soil health while expanding education and tools for local farmers, agronomists and landowners.

The Soil Health Institute will develop and test soil health measurements. The Soil Health Partnership will implement and evaluate soil health promoting practices on working farms, and the Nature Conservancy will work with nonoperator landowners to encourage use of science-based soil health practices.

"American agriculture has made extraordinary strides in technology and productivity in this century, but the next frontier is in soil health," Nick Goeser, director of the Soil Health Partnership, said in the release. "This grant represents one of the largest investments ever made in soil health, one of the best tools we have to optimize productivity while minimizing environmental impact."

Reuschel sees long-term benefits from investing in soil health, thanks to the grant.

"Any additional funding to promote soil health and water-holding capacity within the soil would definitely be advantageous not only in crops that we grow, but in the water that we drink," he said. "Just getting people aware of cover crops and what they can do, how to implement them and manage them should be a good starting point."

Reuschel got his own start in cover crops and conservation, thanks to his grandpa, Louis Reuschel, and his dad, Jeff Reuschel. Now he's part of the Soil Health Partnership, a National Corn Growers Association initiative to test, measure and advance progressive farm management practices.

"My grandpa played around with cover crops in the '70s. My dad in the '90s, and here we are again, another 20 years later trying cover crops again," he said. "Now we're finally almost starting to understand what we're actually doing."

Working with cover crops requires a "whole system" approach throughout the year.

"It's not just something you can think of later in the season. It's something you should be planting and managing throughout," Reuschel said.

On his farm, for example, cereal rye and radishes are planted into standing corn in August, so they already have quite a bit of growth by harvest. Then in the spring, he no-tills soybeans into the still standing green cereal rye, spraying to kill off the rye either the day before or the day after planting.

"When that cereal rye is still green, the planter goes right through it," he said. "That cereal rye will fall down and create an armor for that soil for any weathering throughout the year. The soybeans just pop right up."