SPRING GREEN — We can’t control the rain, but we can control how much rain is absorbed into the soil.
This was the main takeaway of attendees to the July 27 Uplands Watershed Group Farm Tour, which included stops at Stapleton Grain, Hay and Livestock Farm and Cates Grass-fed Beef Farm. Demonstrations at each location showcased practices that can help water infiltrate soil and ways farmers can test to see if their practices are making a difference in their own fields.
Standing on the edge of a no-till bean field at Stapleton Grain, Hay and Livestock Farm, Brian Hillers of the Richland Center Area Office of the Natural Resources Conservation Service was the first to show attendees how simple tools can be used to determine the health of soil.
One of the simplest tools is a shovel; dig up a sample of soil and take a look, he said. Look at the color; if it’s a dark brown, it’s a good sign. A lighter color can indicate there isn’t enough organic matter in the soil.
Crumble the soil in your hands and smell it — it should have a good, earthy smell. It shouldn’t crumble into sand, silt or flour; it should have some structure to it, indicating good aggregate stability. You may even be able to see organisms in the soil, like worms; this is a good sign of healthy soil.
“The key is the biology, and a lot of times we don’t think about that,” Hillers said. “A good soil should be about 50 percent soil — the mineral part. The other 50 should be air or water — making up the pore space.”
An easy way farmers can test the aggregate stability of their soil is by placing a piece of soil into a Mason jar of water, observing how the soil reacts over time with the water.
Kaitlin Schott, soil conservationist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service in Iowa County, demonstrated another way farmers can test how well water infiltrates their soil by using two infiltration rings, buried about 3 inches into the ground. For her demonstration, one ring was buried in the field while another was buried in a compacted area used for an access road. Pouring a simulated inch of rainfall on each plot, Schott timed how long it took for the water to infiltrate the soil — an easy test farmers can do in their own fields.
“The first inch soaked up pretty well here,” she said, “but all the rain not infiltrating will be lost as runoff.”
At Cates Grass-fed Beef Farm, Francisco Arriaga, an assistant professor of applied soil physics, soil and water management and soil conservation at UW-Madison, stood in a large soil pit, dug partly into two pastures to demonstrate differences in the soil from one to the other. One side of the pit had been under managed grazing for many, many years while the other side was a pasture that had formerly been enrolled in CRP.
Samples from each side were dark in color, indicating good organic matter, but did show differences in structure. The managed side showed more deep, finer roots, and even some worm activity.
“It shows that we can have very nice soil, even under managed scenarios,” Arriaga said, crumbling a sample of soil in his hand.
He also demonstrated an oxidation test using hydrogen peroxide. Taking an inch of soil from three different samples, Arriaga added 12 milliliters of peroxide into each cup of soil, watching as the substance reacted with the carbon organic matter in each sample. The bubbles indicate the presence of organic matter — the more bubbles produced, the more organic matter in the sample.
For Dick Cates, whose family owns the grass-fed beef operation, using best practices to maintain healthy soil is very important.
Cates said he feels blessed to have dedicated public servants in Iowa County in the offices of UW-Extension, NRCS and the Department of Natural Resources. Every office has been helpful, he said, encouraging attendees to reach out to their local offices for guidance on conservation practices and how to perform simple tests like the ones demonstrated during the field day.
“To me, conservation is a partnership,” he said. “I’ve held that dear and run our farm that way.”