The term “conservation” is thrown around by farmers and urban residents alike. We all want to save land and resources but often this shared interest is lost when communicating with each another.
Farmers can be accused of poor land management, depleting soils of necessary nutrients, allowing top soil to be washed away and contaminating watersheds. But this is rarely the case. Farmers understand the importance of maintaining soil quality because it directly affects their ability to grow crops and sustain the farming enterprise. Farmers also understand the importance of maintaining water quality and conservation practices to ensure soil and fertilizer stay in the field and not in the stream.
Some of the common conservation practices you can see around Delaware County include crop rotation, cover crops, filter strips, grass waterways, manure storage and manure management. There are more than 50 conservation practices that landowners can receive financial assistance to implement, ranging from buffer strips to manure management to wetland restoration.
Crop rotation is practiced by nearly every crop farmer. Rotation maintains soil quality, reduces erosion and reduces risk of resistant plant diseases. When corn is planted after soybeans, less nitrogen fertilizer is needed because the soybean crop works with soil microbes to increase nitrogen levels in the soil. By rotating between crops with different root systems, soil is held in place and helps prevent runoff. Plant health is also improves by preventing plant diseases from building resistance. Cover crops, like grasses and legumes, are used after fall harvest to increase soil health over the winter months.
Filter strips and grass waterways are used to reduce soil erosion, run off, and can help maintain water quality. Strips are located between a field and a body of water and planted with native grasses to help trap sediments, fertilizers and pesticides that can wash off the field and leech into the water. Grass waterways serve the same purpose but are located within fields. A slight downhill slope allows water to drain into a grassy gully. Both practices require grass planting and grassland management to maintain effectiveness.
All livestock farmers, no matter how small, have to make decisions on how to manage manure. Storage methods can include manure pits, above-ground structures and compost piles. Once the manure is properly stored, farmers can develop a management plan based on the nutrient content. While many farmers spread manure on crop ground as part of their fertilization practices, new options, like a methane digester, convert the waste into a renewable energy source.
Many conservation practices are dedicated to restoring wetlands, animal habitats and forests. Wetlands help by improving water quality, reducing soil erosion and providing animals with a safe habitat. Select species can be drawn to an area through proper habitat design, i.e. pheasants seek grass lands. Creating and managing forests support the agroforestry industry and allow for a number of ecological benefits.
Conservation is not just for farmers. Homeowners can get involved in landscape stewardship, water conservation and creating wildlife habitats. When landscaping or fertilizing a lawn, plan accordingly to prevent soil erosion and potential chemical runoff. The same methods farmers use on their fields can be applied to yards. Avoid using fertilizers close to waterways, and plant trees or grass to prevent runoff. When landscaping, select plants that require less water and are native to your area. This will help conserve water and encourage growth as native plants often grow better than non-native species. You can also choose plants that attract birds, bees and butterflies.
The next time you drive past a farm, see if you can identify any conservation practices. Do they have grasses or trees planted? Are they rotating crops? Maybe they have cover crops. Or just ask a farmer about conservation practices. If you’re interested in learning more, attending a workshop, or implementing conservation practices around your home, contact Delaware Soil and Water Conservation District at 740-368-1921 or Delaware County Extension office at 740-833-2030.
Carol Keck is program coordinator for ag and natural resources for the Ohio State University Extension in Delaware County, writing on behalf of the Delaware County Farm Bureau.