Soil Matters

Soil Health Yields Rewards for Farmers and Community

Raylene Nickel
Keith Badger

Keith Badger farms in Osage County, Kansas. He works in partnership with his wife, Martha, and brother David and his wife, Karen. The Badgers no-till corn, soybeans and cover crops. After harvesting corn and beans, they plant cereal rye, turnips and radishes as cover crops. They graze cattle on the fall-seeded cover crops until December. Because the rye overwinters and regrows in the spring, they’re able to graze cattle in early spring as well.

Despite the fields being prone to soil erosion because of the rolling terrain, the combined practices of no-till, growing cover crops and grazing cattle have minimized soil erosion. “I don’t see soil washing and eroding like I did before we started no-tilling in the early 2000s,” says Keith Badger. “Organic matter has increased, our soils are more resilient in weather extremes, and crop yields have steadily increased.”

The elimination of erosion on the Badgers’ farm – and on the farms of other farmers who have adopted similar soil-building practices – is a noteworthy achievement in light of the present rate of soil erosion in the United States. According to the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), soil erosion from cropland in the United States in 2015 was 1.69 billion tons.

To give that number a visual perspective, soil scientist and private consultant Kris Nichols did the math: “A train carrying topsoil lost from cropland in the U.S. on an annual basis would have to be of a length to wrap around the equator over seven times,” she says.

Lost topsoil equals lost organic matter and the carbon stored within it. Conversely, the conservation and building of organic matter within soil sequesters carbon from the air.

“Organic matter is essentially carbon dioxide taken from the atmosphere,” says Nichols, who through her consulting business KRIS-Systems works to educate farmers and others about regenerative agricultural practices. “Through the process of photosynthesis, plants take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and put it into plant tissue. Their leaves and roots give off exudates both above and below ground, feeding microorganisms such as insects above ground, and fungi and bacteria above and below ground.”

A train carrying topsoil lost from cropland in the U.S. on an annual basis would have to be of a length to wrap around the equator over seven times.Kris Nichols

These organisms create a soil food web that breaks down residue, fixes nitrogen, metabolizes phosphorus into plant-available forms, and builds the aggregates that give the soil stability and porous structure. The microorganisms help to store carbon within the aggregates.

Badger’s soil-building farming system is paying off financially as well. “We’ve got to make money, or we can’t survive farming,” he says. “We’ve made all the systems prove themselves economically, and that’s been the bonus – that the systems are paying for themselves.”

Like other farmers in his community, Badger is able to obtain a share of the cost of growing cover crops through a local water conservation project called the Pomona Watershed Restoration and Protection Strategy (WRAPS). As chairman of the Osage County Conservation District, Badger led his organization in launching WRAPS using federal grant funds obtained through the Clean Water Act.

The goal of WRAPS is to clean up the water in Pomona Lake, a 4,000-acre manmade lake located within the county that had been experiencing sedimentation and eutrophication from phosphorus running off farmers’ fields. The lake is a popular spot for boating and fishing, but excess phosphorus can promote harmful algal blooms that can deprive fish of oxygen. In 2018 a large bloom of harmful blue-green algae landed Pomona Lake on the Kansas Department of Health and Environment's ‘watch’ list for seven weeks.

The WRAPS project promotes and helps pay for such conservation practices as the establishment of grassed buffer strips and waterways, the growing of cover crops, conversion to no-till, and nutrient management practices involving grid soil sampling of fields and variable-rate fertilizer applications.

Area farmers and ranchers are adopting WRAPS' cost-shared conservation practices on a scale large enough to make a difference. “A recent report showed that the quality of water coming into the watershed is improving,” says Badger.

For the Badgers and other farmers, boaters and anglers on Pomona Lake, and even the fish in the lake, that is good news all around.

Raylene Nickel is an author, freelance journalist and farmer who raises cattle near Kief, North Dakota.

Cover photo: Keith Badger, courtesy NRCS.