Bioenergy’s Role in Enhancing Soil Health

When more than 6000 agricultural leaders and innovators come together to develop ideas on soil health and cover crops and come away with position statements and action items, you know they are serious and focused on their vision.

That was the case at this summer’s National Cover Crops and Soil Health summit. These topics have been capturing the attention and involvement of farmers and organizations across the country—and their interest is not limited to a discussing the topic and creating a vision statement on paper.

Back at the farm, producers have been implementing a systems-based approach to enhancing bioenergy feedstock production, protecting soil and water resources, and being stewards of the land. They stand on, work with and depend on soil each day.

You can imagine that the health of the soil on a farm is a critical component in how profitable the operation will be now—and in the future. One way to enhance soil health is to plant cover crops such as rye, red clover, arugula, mustard or oats, to name a few. Thanks to improvements in net farm income driven in part by new bioenergy feedstock markets, farmers are increasingly investing in practices that improve soil heath and simultaneously improve soil, water and air quality.

The benefits of cover crops are many from adding active organic matter to soil and reducing surface crusting, to suppressing weeds and protecting soil from rain and runoff. Cover crops benefit not only commodity crop producers, but also those in the livestock sector by providing grazing and haying opportunities. And, they provide habitat and forage for wild pollinators and honeybees.

These critical plantings capture and sequester carbon dioxide and retain nutrients, such as nitrogen, even at times of the year when crops are not in the field—by covering the soil and creating living roots that help build healthier soils.

Farmers manage nearly half of the land in the United States, and while the practice of planting cover crops primarily benefits the soil, it is one of a suite of stewardship practices that also improve water and air quality. The positive actions have benefits now, and help ensure that the farm operation will exist into the future.

These positive actions being taken by farmers demonstrate a commitment to sustainability that also benefits all of us in the larger community.

A letter signed by more than 40 producer, agriculture and conservation groups to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) outlined the common vision statement on cover crops and soil health and included reference to the many initiatives and projects underway across the country demonstrating the strong momentum to continue progress in these areas.

The statement provides encouragement for USDA to continue further work on cover crops and soil health through its agencies and major program initiatives such as the Natural Resource Conservation Service’s soil health campaign. While momentum in the area is strong, the groups know there is still work to be done to encourage adoption of cover crops and soil health practices. For example, in Maryland more than two-thirds of corn and soybean farmers now use cover crops. Nationwide, the 2012 Ag Census reported 10.3 million acres of cover crops, but that figure can and should increase considerably, perhaps reaching 20 million acres or more by 2020.

Implementation of these conservation practices is paying off for thousands of farmers and for our country, in the form of increased crop yields, better resilience to weather extremes, less soil erosion, improved nutrient management, greater carbon sequestration, and enhanced cropping system diversity, said the letter’s signers.

Ultimately, support and innovation from decision makers in both the public and private sector is needed to ensure that this great opportunity to transform American farming reaches its full potential, benefiting as many farmers, communities, and families as possible. The groups recommend that USDA seek to broadly support cover crops and soil health—including through a comprehensive strategic plan with diverse, outcome-based goals that cover many different areas from research, education, extension among other relevant policies and programs.

Gathering federal and community support for these stewardship-based production practices in conservation and soil improvement will contribute to the achievement of the 25x’25 goal and a productive and profitable U.S. agricultural system well into the future.

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