Beery: Build soil to be able to build farm for long term

Special to The Delmarva Farmer

MT. CRAWFORD, Va. (May 9, 2017) — Like other farmers in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, Anthony Beery is under constant pressure to carefully manage nutrients he applies on his 450-acre farm — whether it’s manure from the 300 cows his cousin milks on the farm; litter from 24,000 layers; or fertilizer he applies to the alfalfa, corn, soybeans and small grains he produces.
But Beery’s thinking extends far beyond his state-required nutrient management plan.
“The most important thing is trying to recognize that it’s a system — that term hints at its complexity,” Beery said. “It’s not one bucket. It’s not one shelf you stick something on. In a system, things work together.”
Cover crops are a major part of Beery’s system.
“I think having that cover crop out there, capturing nutrients, is essential,” he says. “Secondly, we’re seeing that cover crop not only as a trap crop [for nutrients] but as a soil health beneficial. You’re growing the soil profile, feeding that biology.
“We’re going to treat this crop not like a red-headed stepchild, but like we mean it to be there,” he adds. “What we’re trying to do is capture sunlight and turn it into dirt.”
Beery says a blend of triticale, hairy vetch, crimson clover and winter peas extends his forage-production window. The cover crop also expands the opportunity for the microbes in his soil to create more organic matter. With the legumes in the mix, crude protein levels in his cover crop forage range from 11 to 15 percent.
“Cover crops fit a great niche in our forage picture,” he says. “Instead of farming summer annuals only, I can farm a winter annual. From mid-September until April or May, I’ve got something out there that will grow anytime it can. I’m catching all the goodies in the soil and I’m harvesting that.”
Daikon radish dies off in the winter, Beery said, but seems to boost organic matter production with its huge, fleshy roots.
Beery said his focus is firmly on his soil. “I’m trying to have a soil that’s balanced,” he says. “Eventually it will be more resilient, more able to hold water. If I can capture another week’s worth of rain in the soil, that’s gold.
“The paradoxical situation with good soil is that it percolates better, but also holds water better,” Beery adds. “It doesn’t become this pool of wet soil—the water goes into the profile, but it’s also retained there so it’s available to the crops.”
He points out that healthy soil also helps improve water quality in local streams and groundwater, which ultimately aids in achieving nutrient reduction goals in Chesapeake Bay.
“Soil is a great water filter,” Beery says. “The more we can get water to go into the soil and filter through rather than running off the top, the less there is to over-tax the rivers and waterways, and we’ve cleaned it up by running it through the soil.”
Short, three-to-four-year rotations of alfalfa also play a key role in Beery’s soil-building program.
“I want different species on the same acre as often as I can,” he said. “When you shorten that rotation, you spread that alfalfa out over more acres, mine out some phosphorus, and put in some nitrogen for the corn crop.”
Chad Watts of the Conservation Technology Information Center, a national, public-private partnership focused on environmentally beneficial and economically viable natural resource systems in West Lafayette, Ind., said improving soil health has been a key element in water quality projects nationwide, from the Great Lakes to the Chesapeake Bay. Watts says the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s National Rivers and Streams Assessment notes that the Southern Appalachian ecoregion — which includes the Shenandoah Valley — is home to some of America’s greatest aquatic animal diversity. It is also home to high levels of stress in rivers and streams, including phosphorus, nitrogen, riparian habitat damage, and sediment.
The NRSA found that 65 percent of the region’s river and stream miles have excessive levels of phosphorus (significantly higher than the 46 percent national average) and 45 percent of the region’s river and stream miles are high in nitrogen (close to the national figure of 41 percent). In addition, 25 percent of the river and stream miles in the Southern Appalachian region were graded “poor” for habitat in EPA’s report.
To improve water quality, farmers like Beery are being tasked with reducing the amount of phosphorus and nitrogen entering rivers and streams in the Chesapeake Bay watershed by nearly two-thirds.
“Most states are relying heavily on agriculture because it’s the biggest land use and it’s much more cost-effective to reduce a pound of nutrients in agriculture than to do an expensive urban retrofit,” Watts notes. “In fact, farmers have reduced nutrients in water since the ‘80s—agriculture and wastewater treatment plants are responsible for most of the reduction we see today. What is especially exciting is seeing farmers like Anthony Beery developing conservation systems that are profitable as well as environmentally beneficial. It’s a real win-win.”
Beery believes building his soils — not just complying with his nutrient management plan — will be the best path to both economic and environmental sustainability on his farm.
“When I’m farming, I’m looking forward — I’m looking forward to spring crops, forward to building soils,” he says. “I’m not looking at just this year’s crop or next year’s crop, I’m looking long-term. If my kids are going to farm this piece of ground, will it be better?
“It’s a win all the way around: cleaner water, healthier soil, farms that are more sustainable,” he says. “These benefits are not only good for us, but for our culture as a whole.”