MONROE COUNTY - At their June 2 meeting, the Monroe County Climate Change Task Force heard from renowned soil scientist Jay Fuhrer. Fuhrer, who made presentations to farmers and interested citizens in Viroqua and Mt. Sterling in 2017, conducts his research and innovation at the Menoken Farm near Bismarck, North Dakota.
“I spent years building structures to try to conserve soil, but became frustrated with trying to conserve a degraded resource,” Fuhrer explained. “So, I stopped building and began focusing on building soil with multi-species covers that mimic the prairies that originally built our soils, and ample pore spaces in the soil that can hold the water when there’s too much or too little available.”
Fuhrer extolled the concept of ‘biomimicry,’ which is the design and production of materials, structures, and systems that are modeled on biological entities and processes. He said that it was an integrated system of multi species cover and bison that originally built the soils, and mimicking that is the best way to build it back.
Soil health defined
Fuhrer defines soil health as the continued capacity of soil to function as a vital living ecosystem that sustains plants, animals and humans.
The five soil health principles that Fuhrer emphasized are:
• Minimize soil disturbance
• Armor your soil by keeping it covered
• Maximize the diversity of plants in the rotation, with at least four crop types
• Maintain living roots in the soil through cover crops
• Integrate livestock
“It is a human tendency to try to simplify things, such as agriculture,” Fuhrer said. “But to build soil health, to have a resilient agriculture that withstands the extremes of climate change, and to sequester carbon in the soil, we have got to focus on building back diversity.”
Fuhrer explained that farmers are going to get their best results by practicing all five soil health principles in their farming system. He said that all five is best, but two or three of the five is better than none.
“Animals are mobile soil food web movers, and I strongly encourage farmers to bring them back into their farm rotations,” Fuhrer said.
He explained that farmers can’t increase soil inflitration of water without maintaining a living cover of roots in the soil year round. Beyond that, he monitors the biology in his soil and tests it periodically using the phospholipid fatty acid test. He has also moved to planting 60-inch corn with a multi-species cover between that will later be grazed once the cash crop is removed.
“When thinking about keeping carbon in the soil, it is important to remember that a third of the corn crop is in the grain, a third is in the residue left after harvest, and a third is in the root mass,” Fuhrer explained. “Although I highly recommend leaving the residue after harvest, from a soil building perspective and a carbon storage perspective, most of the carbon in the residue oxidizes and is lost.”
Fuhrer told the task force that “every green plant is a carbon inlet.” He said that because a third of the carbon fixed in the plant in photosynthesis is exported in the grain yield used for food, animal feed and ethanol. This means, he said, that agriculture is a carbon exporter from the landscape.
Monroe County Conservationist Bob Micheel asked Fuhrer what he views as the main limitations to adoption of soil health principles.
“For us, it is the cold temperatures – often it is cold and wet, but this year we have an event worse combination of cold and dry,” Fuhrer said. “Salinity in the soil may be the best method for motivating farmers to adopt cover crops, and focusing the discussion on loss of yield is the best avenue for getting the conversation started.”
“The thinking about nutrient management plans over the years has not been so much wrong as imcomplete,” Fuhrer said. “NMPs have addressed the chemistry but neglected the biology.”
LaCrosse County Conservationist Matt Hanewall asked Fuhrer what he saw as the best standard to determine the level of carbon sequestration in the soil for the purpose of determining how to pay farmers.
“Carbon in the soil can be very variable, and the real question is how long the carbon is stored in the soil,” Fuhrer explained. “Since the process of determining payments for soil carbon sequestration will require tangible measurements, I propose determining whether the farmer is applying the five soil health principles in the farm system.”
In other business
In other business, the task force heard reports on the other major initiatives being pursued:
• All of the weather monitoring stations purchased to date have been deployed – three in the Little LaCrosse River watershed and two in the Upper Kickapoo River watershed. Micheel reported that the stations have been “surveyed in,” and his team is working with John Wetenkamp of the National Weather Service-LaCrosse to upload them to the NWS Southwest Wisconsin Hydrology Monitor page. Micheel also reported that his team will know soon whether they have received another large grant, which would allow them to move ahead with the purchase and installation of more monitoring stations in the two watersheds.• Fred Clark, Executive Director of Wisconsin Green Fire, reported that since the May 5 kickoff of the Monroe County Climate Readiness and Rural Economic Opportunity Assessment, the core team and host team have met and are planning for next steps. He said that the four sub-teams are beginning to work independently now on fieldwork and analysis. The group has hired a support specialist to build the effort’s data library. Clark said that the goal is to conduct public focus groups and field tours later in the summer, with a target of a mid-fall roll out of the assessment at multiple venues within the county.
• Micheel reported that two interns, Lily Adams and Mykel Yancey, had been hired to do the summer project of inventorying stream crossings in the county. He said they are using the ‘Great Lakes 1-2-3’ tool for the assessment. According to Micheel the Monroe County Highway Department is assisting with the effort, and funding has also come from Coulee Region Trout Unlimited and Oakbrook Trout Unlimited for the project. In addition, Monroe County Supervisor and task force member Ron Luethe has requested a donation from each township in the county toward the effort of $50.