Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

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February 9, 2014

Va. forage conference focuses on soil health

WEYERS CAVE, Va. (AP) — Joshua Dukart stood in front of an audience and posed a question.

“How many of you would like to leave the land better than when you found it?”

Every hand was raised.

During the Virginia Forage and Grassland Council 2014 Winter Forage Conference held at the Weyers Cave Community Center, Dukart talked about best practices for good soil health.

Dukart is a holistic management consultant from North Dakota and was one of two speakers at the conference.

The conference focused on forage plants and preserving soil. Forage plants grow continually and can either be harvested for feed or grazed by livestock.

Dukart said the key is how farmers treat the soil. If the soil isn’t healthy, the crop isn’t going to be.

“Land can put on a game face,” Dukart said. “Until we start digging below the surface . we’re not getting into that internal creature and really seeing what’s going on.”

Good soil comes from a good water cycle, mineral cycle and diversity of plants, he said. For example, having just one crop in an area could cause the plant to become dormant.

“Diversity rules,” Dukart said. “More diversity aboveground breeds more diversity belowground.”

Dukart said farmers also need to focus on feeding the soil.

“You wouldn’t expect your animals to perform unless you’re feeding them the nutrition they need,” he said.

Bacteria, fungi, protozoa, nematodes, anthropoids and earthworms, which can all sound like bad things, actually help plants thrive.

Good soil needs five things: armor, diversity, continual plant root, appropriate disturbance and adequate recovery time.

Armor, which is land covered with vegetation, allows more nutrients to go back into the earth to the bacteria and other organisms within the ground, said J.B. Daniel, state grazing land specialist for the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

“In the past, we’ve focused so much on the mineral content of the soil or the organic matter,” Daniel said. “Basically, we’ve somewhat ignored how our inputs and our management affect these living component, like these little microbes.”

More canopy or plant cover allows more organic matter to be deposited into the soil, creating a constant cycle — plant to soil to microbes back up through the soil to the plant.

Other factors are important, too.

“One of those things is longer rest periods, which allow the plants to grow,” Daniel said.

Rotating grazing allows the soil to recuperate and gain more nutrients, Daniel said.

That practice has been growing, said Matt Booher of the Virginia Cooperative Extension.

“There is some set of people that are really changing the way they operate,” he said. “People’s awareness in this kind of practice, like rotational grazing, has increased more for everybody. There’s been more exposure.”

Laura Peters writes for The News Leader.

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