Soil functions as a medium for growing plants, recycling organic materials and nutrients, and storing and purifying water. Healthy soil has an enhanced capacity to provide these ecosystem services. Soil management decisions at the farm level can also drastically impact crop productivity and environmental outcomes. Moreover, soil management practices that improve soil health lead to enhanced resiliency, both on an agroecosystem and individual level.
Francisco Arriaga, Extension Soil Specialist with the University of Wisconsin-Extension, is working to educate farmers, crop consultants, state and federal agencies, and private sector professionals on the importance and impact of soil management practices on crop productivity, and the environment. Since 2013, he has developed several research projects focusing on soil health and secured over $750,000 in funding for these projects, some of which are done in collaboration with private sector professionals. All total, these efforts and collaborations have resulted in 154 field days and seminar presentations, multiple extension conference presentations, newsletter articles, extension publications, and YouTube videos with over 100,000 views to date.
One project Arriaga is leading is looking to quantify the potential benefits of using cover crops in dairy forage production systems. The project is a collaboration between the University of Wisconsin-Extension, agricultural agents, industry, and the University of Wisconsin’s Nutrient and Pest Management Program.
“Dairy is a large component of Wisconsin’s agricultural production, contributing $26.5 billion to the state’s economy annually. And currently, many dairy producers use corn silage as a feed source for milking cows, however, corn silage production can negatively impact soil properties and long-term soil productivity due to the lack of crop residues left on the soil surface after harvest,” explains Arriaga.
Moreover, manure is commonly applied to corn silage fields in the fall, which has implications for water quality. The current recommended method for manure application to agricultural fields is deep injection, however, many producers in the region are exploring alternative manure application methods that create less soil disturbance when using cover crops, such as surface application and low-disturbance injection equipment. Arriaga and collaborators are examining the impact cover crops have on soils used for corn silage, and the impact various manure application methods have on soil composition. They are planning to hold a number of field days in 2019 to discuss their findings and observations.
When soil health is improved, crop production systems become more resilient, which in turn reduces some of the environmental and economic risks associated with farming. For Arriaga, that is what drives his work. “The benefits of soil health are well-known, but what is sometimes not as well-known is how soil health can make a farmer more resilient in the face of change. To me, that’s the most important thing, and if I can connect with farmers through my work and communicate that through my research, I’ve done my job.”