Recommendations to benefit farming operations
Whether working with pastureland, woodland, cropland or a garden, implementing a few simple practices can help an operation run more efficiently and sustainably. Some of the recommendations come with minimal out-of-pocket costs to producers.
Know the Soil
The recommendation for producers to utilize soil tests likely doesn’t come as new information to most farmers. However, producers may not have considered the practice as a way to make their operation more sustainable and efficient.
If farmers are applying fertilizers without a soil test, then there is a chance they are over applying the fertilizer or under applying it. “If you are over applying you can be causing some environmental issues downstream in regard to water quality on lakes, streams and ultimately the Gulf of Mexico or you are not applying enough and your place is not living up to its full potential,” Nathan Bilke, district conservationist with USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, said.
Experts recommend producers test their pastures an average of every two years because the nutrient levels will vary over time. A soil test in the Ozarks many times reveals the soil has an acidic pH. “Our soils are in general acidic. You wouldn’t think they would be with all the limestone and calcium but that’s how soil dynamics work,” Bilke stated. Applying ag lime to pastures will help neutralize the pH.
Another factor to consider is when pH is low in the soil it can inhibit nutrients already contained in the soil profile. “If your pH is low all the nutrients that are banked are locked up and not available to the plant. So, that’s why neutralizing that pH will allow that soil to release those nutrients to the plant roots,” Bilke explained.
According to Bilke, there are instances in which producers continue to apply fertilizer year after year without getting a soil test. They hope the fertilizer application will cause their grass to grow but they see little or no results. Bilke says many times this is due to the low pH in the soil binding the nutrients. Lime will help neutralize the pH, thus creating a pathway for the uptake of nutrients into the plant.
Livestock – Forage Balance
Finding the proper stock density can help an operation become more profitable and sustainable. A livestock – forage balance creates an environment to assist a farm in difficult times. When the stock density is out of balance the operation may be running at a less efficient rate. A too high stock rate forces producers to buy more inputs in the way of feed and hay to get their herds through summer and winter months. When the stock density is out of balance it can be more difficult to survive a drought and other environmental stressors.
The proper stock density varies from one operation to another and depends on multiple factors. The local Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), Soil and Water Conservation Districts (SWCD) and county extension offices all have staff available to help producers determine optimal stock density for their operations.
Rotation is Key
Whether its crops, garden plot vegetables, or livestock there is value in rotation. Rotation benefits the soil and breaks pest and disease cycles. Additionally, rotational grazing can bring benefits to livestock producers. “If you are wanting to be sustainable, efficient and increase your profit margin rotational grazing in some form is what you need to shoot for,” Bilke stated.
Rotational grazing is achieved through proper water distribution and fence layout. District conservationists encourage producers to install water and fencing systems that are flexible. Due to market fluctuations, family dynamics or other factors having a flexible system creates easier adaptability.
Additionally, utilizing cover crops in an operation protects the soil, adds nutrients to the soil and creates weed suppression. “Cover crops are a really important thing to inject into your operation whether it is a garden or a commercial cropping operation,” Bilke added. Cover crops utilized in a livestock operation provide additional forage and protect soil.
Get a Plan
Farmers managing acres of woodland for nut crops, recreation, tree harvesting or other uses have the opportunity to receive expert advice on how to best care for their woodland. Forestry management experts will assess the woodland and develop a plan. The plan outlines what steps are needed to make the woodland healthier. This is a service provided at little or no cost by the Missouri Department of Conservation, NRCS or SWCD programs. Additionally, keep in mind most every county has an office with agricultural experts who are available to give technical advice specific to the region and to offer cost-share programs.