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  • Writer's pictureKriss Marion

Follow up to Conservation Summer Camp Lunch #2: Build Healthy Soil

How many microbes in a teaspoon of soil? We've got that answer and many more!

A teaspoon of healthy soil contains more soil microorganisms than there are people on the earth! And there are 5,000 different types of bacteria in each gram.

We learned that and so much more at our last Conservation Summer Camp Lunch Zoom, from Conservation Coach Rachel Bouressa, beef grazier, and from UW Extension Nutrient Management Specialist Jamie Patton. It was tough to keep up with the rapid-fire information sharing, and the rambunctious chat running at the same time, so we are publishing the resources from our presenters, and the answers to the chat questions, below.

You can also WATCH BOTH PRESENTATIONS again on the Michael Fields Agricultural Institute YouTube channel, as well as the previous Summer Camp Zoom on Increasing Pollinator Habitat. Sign up NOW for the next WiWiC Summer Camp Zoom on Restoring Native Habitat, July 29, noon to 1pm. The final Zoom will be on August 25, from noon to 1pm, on Exploring Regenerative Agriculture. We'll be launching our in-person field days in early August, so stay tuned by signing up for our newsletter and/or following us on Facebook/Instagram/Pinterest.

As women landowners, we are the stewards of our soil and can ensure a healthy landscape for generations to come. We saw just how seriously women landowners take this responsibility when over 125 attended the Zoom on June 24. Here's what we learned:

Resources shared from chat:

Rachel Bouressa contact info:

Jamie Patton contact info:

Jamie’s PowerPoint:

Soil Testing Agencies and Resources

Conservation Reserve Program for building healthy Soil:

From Myha Ewoldt, FSA Agent: One awesome way to build and preserve healthy soil is the Conservation Reserve Program! There are four Conservation Reserve Signups going on right now:

  • There is the General CRP signup which runs until July 23rd. The General CRP signup is a competitive process where producers are ranked across the nation and are selected based on their Environmental Benefits Index, which is influenced by location, soils, and cover type.

  • The Continuous CRP signup is ongoing, but interested producers should contact their local office by August 6th if they want to have an opportunity to get in the program this year. Continuous CRP is non-competitive and selection for the program is based on need and feasibility.

  • The Clean Lakes, Estuaries, and Rivers CRP signup (also known as CLEAR30) runs until August 6th. This signup allows expiring CRP contracts with water-quality focused cover types to re-enroll into a 30 year term.

  • Lastly is the CRP Grasslands signup which runs until August 20th. The CRP Grasslands program helps landowners and operators protect grasslands and pastureland while maintaining them as grazing land.

Changes to CRP:

  • It should be noted that there are many changes that benefit individuals wishing to participate in the Conservation Reserve Program this year, including significantly increased maximum rental rates, Climate-Smart Practice incentives, water quality practice incentives, signing incentive payments, and practice incentive payments. It is also easier to enroll with SAFE practices, such as pollinator habitat, moving from the competitive General Sign-up back to the non-Competitive Continuous Sign-up. Similarly, highly erodible soils that meet certain requirements may be eligible for tree practices as a Continuous Sign-up where they would otherwise only be available under competitive General Sign-ups. In short, it is easier and more financially appealing to participate in CRP thanks to these changes. Contact your local FSA office for more info!

2021 Farm Service Agency County Committee Nomination Period -

  • Also wanted to mention that the 2021 Farm Service Agency County Committee Nomination Period is open now. Farm Service Agency (FSA) county committees (COC) are a critical component of the day-to-day operations of FSA and allow grassroots input and local administration of federal farm programs. Farmers and ranchers who are elected to serve on FSA county committees apply using their judgment and knowledge to help with the decisions necessary to administer FSA programs in their counties, ensuring the needs of local producers are met. Rachel Bouressa has served as County Committee member for Waupaca County in the past and serves as a Minority Advisor this year. So important to have female members on the COC to represent us and be at the table when decisions are made for area farmers and landowners.

Questions & Answers:

  1. How does livestock work as a tool for soil health? Manure producers? Light tilling action? Density...etc.

Here’s an awesome resource from Grassworks, a non-profit supporting graziers.

  1. Manure producers – livestock on pasture eat healthy grass and legumes, and so their manure is a healthy addition which breaks down, providing nutrients for plant growth, and organic matter.

  2. Light tilling – different livestock do act as “ tillers,” walking on the soil and breaking up compaction, cycling nutrients and soil microorganisms. Also, tilling lightly can mean tilling very shallowly and infrequently to allow existing forage to remain, and to not disturb the microbes in soil as much as possible, maintaining good soil tilth or physical condition.

  3. Density – is the amount of plants in an area. A dense and diverse stand of pasture is ideal so the livestock have a lot of plant variety to graze in each area.

Rachel says, “I farm for roots! The advantages of having deep and diverse roots really showed in the drought conditions.”

  1. When you say "building the soil" can you be specific about what that means?

Much of our soil is depleted from continuous tillage and lack of cover or plants on it year-round. Building soil refers to practices used on the land and amendments added to the soil to improve its health – the ability to sustain plant and animal life, regulate water and filter carbon. Healthy soil is teaming with billions of bacteria, fungi, and other microbes that work together to give life. Building soil feeds those bacteria, fungi and microbes.

  1. Please share full names of acronyms.

Click on the links below to go to each agency’s or organization’s website and learn more.

Here’s a great resource with many of the program acronyms used within the Natural Resources Conservation Services (NRCS).

Here are a few NRCS program acronyms mentioned in the series:

EQIP - Environmental Quality Incentives Program - provides financial and technical assistance to agricultural producers and non-industrial forest managers to address natural resource concerns and deliver environmental benefits such as improved water and air quality, conserved ground and surface water, increased soil health and reduced soil erosion and sedimentation, improved or created wildlife habitat, and mitigation against drought and increasing weather volatility.

CSP – Conservation Stewardship Program – helps eligible farmers build on existing conservation efforts while strengthening farm operation.

CRP – Conservation Reserve Program - provides technical and financial assistance to eligible farmers and ranchers to address soil, water, and related natural resource concerns on their lands in an environmentally beneficial and cost-effective manner.

  1. Could you share information about what to do to build soil?

  1. Are there any specific practices you are doing because of any gender based knowledge?

Women landowners are a growing demographic. The 2017 Census recorded 38,509 female producers in Wisconsin, showing that women make up 35 percent of all producers in the state. But women have been and still are underserved by NRCS and other federal and state conservation funding and support agencies. Women conservationists are also underrepresented in media and historical content. ​

WiWiC is here to connect women, empower women, educate women, and inspire women-- for the sake of the land but also because of the great satisfaction and healing we experience through stewardship. We are here to nurture our land and ourselves. Join us!

  1. How do you balance creating richer soil for crop production with maintaining a sandier soil for native flora in order to attract enough native pollinators to pollinate those crops?

Native flora should thrive in any healthy, rich soil with high organic matter. Generally a farmer will have production fields for veggies, or whatever crops are grown, and the soil in those fields will be built according to the production needs. Other areas can be focused on perennial natives for pollinators. Here’s an NRCS resource on practices and programs to increase pollinator habitat. Check out WiWiC Summer Camp Lunch #1: Increase Pollinator Habitat recording for some great ideas on how to increase pollinator habitat. Join Michael Fields Agricultural Institute as they host a webinar on “How to start your own pollinator garden” at a home scale level on August 10th at noon.

  1. Where do folks get their soils tested?

Soil Testing Agencies and Resources:

  1. Should we mow weeds, or pull them if we are using the weeds as a' cover crop'?

It depends on what your goal is for the field. If you are using the weeds as a “cover crop” for the whole season it makes sense to keep mowing them before they go to seed. This can be tricky as you’ll have many different varieties in an area, and they may flower and seed at different times. If you want to plant into the area where they are growing, it might make more sense to pull them, then prep your soil and plant your desired crop.

  1. Combined cover crop questions: What sort of cover crop seeds can be interseeded with pasture so we don’t have to till or drill? Any recommended suppliers of cover crop seeds? Resources for low input propagation of cover crops?

Rachel says, “Seed to soil contact is important when planting, so make sure you can achieve that. You can also rent a small no-till drill from most County Land and Water Departments or NRCS offices.”

The most effective way to interseed an existing pasture is to rent a no-till seed drill to ensure that the seed is effectively placed in the soil. Here’s an awesome resource about the process including best varieties for interseeding from Grassworks. Also, Holm Girls’ Dairy will host a Field Day on September 28, and one of their NCRS-supported programs involves interseeding to restore pasture.

Albert Lea Seed has a lovely selection of cover crop seeds, and are so helpful and knowledgeable

From Rachel – “A lot of the things you could use for cover crops can be bought at local co-ops - same as deer plots - turnips, rape, buckwheat, rye, etc… There’s also a lot of seed distributors. Green Cover is one, but many local seed dealers can help you too.”

  1. Suggestions for dealing with weeds?

The best weed control is soil preparation before planting. It also depends on the crop you are growing. Here’s a great resource on weed management for specialty crops like veggies. If you are an organic farmer, cultural and mechanical practices are the only option and cover crops in interspaces can be a great way to manage the weeds.

From Rachel – “It depends on your system and the life cycle of the weeds - annual vs biannual vs perennial.”

  1. Is there a cost to creating a Conservation Plan for my farm?

Please email and we can help you find resources. We have some funding to create small conservation plans for women and we can see if yours can fit into ours. Or we can connect you to NRCS staff who can give you options without involving a cost at the outset. Involving professionals can give you better insights and there is no cost involved for having them (NRCS conservationist) do a site visit.

  1. Do you have a picture of good soil? Vs. the poor soil pictures.

Please see the last slide of Jamie’s PowerPoint. She added a photo of good soil to answer your question. :)

  1. Has anyone had success with fire control of invasives in preparation for planting cover crops or cash crops?

“Prescribed burning, or controlled ground fires, can be an effective and inexpensive means of removing or reducing vegetation and preparing a suitable seedbed. Burning can also improve soil nutrient levels and ectomycorrhizal development. Prescribed burning, however, can reduce the effectiveness of pre-emergent herbicides and can increase solar heating at ground line, leading to seedling mortality. The use of fire as a vegetation management technique is very appealing to many small landowners because it appears "natural," but it can be dangerous. Effective and safe use of prescribed fire requires appropriate equipment and training.”

Please contact Britta Petersen, Pheasants Forever, for more information on fire control as a site prep.

  1. I’m curious if there are any women out there interested in farming industrial hemp both as a tool for conservation and to diversify your row crop rotation.

We do not have information about women landowners interested in industrial hemp as a tool for conservation at this point in time but we can surely give your contact info when someone expresses an interest. Email to be connected.

  1. What to do in order to not attract bugs when making your own compost in a suburban area?

There are good bugs that will help break down your compost like Fruit flies and some beetles. Generally, bad bugs are present if the carbon and nitrogen levels are off in your compost. Here’s a great resource to help with common compost problems.

What not to add to compost: Black walnut leaves or twigs, coal or charcoal ash, diseased or insect-ridden plants, dairy products, fats, grease, lards, oils, meat or fish bones and scraps, pet wastes and yard trimmings treated with chemical pesticides.

  1. What is the percentage of brown and green matter for compost and what are different options for both?

Great question – see the info below from Modern Farmer.

“The magic that is composting rests on the interaction between carbon compounds (browns) and nitrogen compounds (greens). Any pile of organic matter (translation: this means formerly living things, including all compost ingredients) will eventually decompose and feed the soil, but when the ratio of carbon to nitrogen in a compost pile approaches 30 to 1, the decomposition process rapidly accelerates as “thermophilic” bacteria move in and the pile heats up to over 160 degrees Fahrenheit.”

“Greens” include: Grass clippings, coffee grounds, plant, vegetable and fruit scraps, eggshells, animal manure, seaweed

“Browns” include: leaves, straw, dead trees, branches, twigs, sawdust, pine needles, newspaper

A rule of thumb is to put in two to four parts brown materials for every one part green materials.

Fun Facts!

  • Humans are more sensitive to the smell of soil than sharks are to blood in water based on ppm. “Geosmin”

  • “Petrichor” = smell of rain

  • 1 Tablespoon of soil has more organisms in it than there are people on the Earth!

  • 5,000 different types of bacteria in one gram of soil!

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