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Cover Crops Improve Soil Ecosystem

MAGNOLIA, Ill. — Soil health is among the most important foundations for sustaining plants, humans and animals.

Only living things can have “health,” so viewing soil as a living, breathing ecosystem reflects a shift in the way soil is observed and managed.

“We’re really looking at the soil function. Those are things like nutrient cycling, water infiltration and storage, plant protection, preventing erosion and storing carbon within our soils. All of these functions are the things we look at when we talking about soil health,” said Stacy Zuber, Illinois Natural Resources Conservation Service soil health specialist. “So, how we can take advantage of that and use those functions to help us in our systems?”

Zuber was among the speakers at the Nutrient Stewardship Field Day hosted July 6 by the Marshall-Putnam Farm Bureau and partners at a cover crop demonstration site.

There are various tools recommended in the state’s Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy that focus on preventing phosphorous and nitrogen loss into streams, rivers and eventually the Gulf of Mexico.

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Cultivo en pastos: el innovador sistema “no matar, no labrar” desarrollado por agricultores australiano

La agricultura regenerativa es una revolución agrícola global que ha tenido una rápida aceptación e interés en todo el mundo. Hace cinco años, casi nadie había oído hablar de ella. Ahora aparece en las noticias casi todos los días. Esta revolución agrícola ha sido liderada por agricultores innovadores en lugar de científicos, investigadores y gobiernos. Se está aplicando a todos los sectores agrícolas, incluidos el cultivo, el pastoreo y la horticultura perenne.

En artículos anteriores hemos descrito cómo la agricultura regenerativa maximiza la fotosíntesis de las plantas para capturar el dióxido de carbono de la atmósfera y aumentar la materia orgánica del suelo. La materia orgánica del suelo es un buen indicador de la salud del suelo, ya que es importante para mejorar la fertilidad y la captura de agua en los suelos, mejorando así la productividad y la rentabilidad en la agricultura.

Muchos agricultores regenerativos siembran sus campos con mezclas de plantas solo para capturar dióxido de carbono y mejorar los niveles de materia orgánica del suelo. Estos se denominan cultivos de cobertura y son distintos de los cultivos comerciales. El cultivo de cobertura aumenta la fertilidad del suelo. El cultivo comercial genera ingresos.

Cultivo de pastos: el sistema “no matar, no labrar”

Australia tiene muchos agricultores regenerativos innovadores. Los dos agricultores que les presentamos a continuación son pioneros de un sistema de cultivo de cobertura llamado cultivo de pastos (CCPP) o pasture cropping. Bajo este método, el cultivo comercial se planta en pastos perennes en lugar de sobre el suelo desnudo. No es necesario arar las especies de pastos como las malezas o matarlas con herbicidas antes de plantar el cultivo comercial. El pasto perenne se convierte en un cultivo de cobertura.

Esta técnica fue desarrollada por primera vez por Colin Seis en Nueva Gales del Sur, Australia, y se basa en el sólido principio ecológico de que las plantas anuales crecen en sistemas perennes. La clave es adaptar este principio al sistema de gestión apropiado para los cultivos comerciales y el clima específicos.

Primero se pasta o se corta el pasto para asegurarse que esté  muy corto. Esto agrega materia orgánica en forma de estiércol, pasto cortado y raíces al suelo de manera que aumenta su fertilidad y se reduce la competencia de raíces del pasto. El cultivo comercial, por ejemplo la avena, se planta directamente en el pasto.

Aquí está la descripción del propio Colin Seis del cultivo en pastos:

Imagen cortesía de Colin Seis

“Una cosecha de avena de 20 hectáreas (50 acres) que se sembró y cosechó en 2003. . . El rendimiento de este cultivo fue de 4,3 toneladas / hectárea. Este rendimiento es al menos igual al promedio del distrito, donde se utilizan métodos de cultivo que alteran el suelo por completo”. 

“Este beneficio no incluye el valor del pastoreo adicional. En Winona, la granja de Colin Seis, cuesta entre 50 y 60 dólares por hectárea porque los pastos se pastan hasta el momento de la siembra. Cuando se usan prácticas de cultivo tradicionales en las que se utilizan métodos de preparación del suelo y control de malezas durante períodos de cuatro a hasta seis meses antes de sembrar el cultivo, no se puede lograr un pastoreo de calidad”.

“También se aprendió que sembrar un cultivo de esta manera estimulaba a las plántulas de pasto perenne a crecer en número y diversidad, de manera que se conseguía más toneladas / hectárea de crecimiento vegetal. Esto produce más alimento para ganado después de la cosecha y elimina totalmente la necesidad de volver a sembrar pastos en las áreas cultivadas. Los métodos de cultivo utilizados en el pasado requieren que se elimine toda la vegetación antes de sembrar el cultivo y mientras el cultivo está creciendo”.

Imagen cortesía de Colin Seis

“Desde el punto de vista económico de la granja, hay un enorme potencial de generar buenos ingresos porque el costo de cultivar de esta manera es una fracción del del cultivo convencional. El beneficio adicional en el caso de una granja mixta es que se logra hasta seis meses más de pastoreo con este método en comparación con la pérdida de pastoreo debido a la preparación del suelo y el control de malezas requerido en los métodos de cultivo tradicionales. Como regla general, un principio subyacente del éxito de este método es el 100% de cobertura del suelo el 100% del tiempo”.

 

Otros beneficios son más difíciles de cuantificar, como la gran mejora en el número de plantas perennes y la diversidad de los pastos después del cultivo. Esto significa que no hay necesidad de volver a sembrar pastos, que pueden costar más de 150 dólares por hectárea, y considerablemente más si se utilizan contratistas para el establecimiento de los pastos.

Estudios independientes en Winona sobre el cultivo de pastos realizados por el Departamento de Tierras y Agua han encontrado que el cultivo de pastos es un 27% más rentable que la agricultura convencional; esto va unido a grandes beneficios medioambientales que mejorarán el suelo y regenerarán nuestros paisajes.

El cultivo de pastos es una de las mejores formas de aumentar la materia orgánica del suelo. Los campos están cubiertos de hojas fotosintetizadoras durante todo el año, que capturan CO2, y que son enterradas profundamente en el suelo por las raíces de los cultivos de cobertura perennes. La Dra. Christine Jones ha realizado una investigación en la propiedad de Colin Seis que muestra que se secuestraron 168,5 toneladas de CO2 por hectárea (170.000 libras / acre) en el transcurso de diez años. La tasa de secuestro en 2009-2010 fue de 33 toneladas de CO2 por hectárea por año.

Esta gran adición de materia orgánica del suelo ha estimulado el microbioma del suelo para que libere los minerales encerrados en el material del suelo ya existente, aumentando drásticamente la fertilidad del suelo. Los siguientes aumentos en la fertilidad de los minerales del suelo se han producido en diez años con solo la adición de una pequeña cantidad de fósforo:

Una comparación de suelos entre la granja de Colin Seis (Winona) y una finca cercana muestra niveles de carbono del suelo significativamente mejores en áreas que han sido cultivadas con pastos. 10 cm = 4 pulgadas. Imagen cortesía de la Dra. Christine Jones.

Calcio 277%

Magnesio 138%

Potasio 146%

Azufre 157%

Fósforo 151%

Zinc 186%

Hierro 122%

Cobre 202%

Boro 156%

Molibdeno 151%

Cobalto 179%

Selenio 117%

 

 

 

El sistema Soil Kee 

Un excelente ejemplo del desarrollo del cultivo en pastos / “no matar, no labrar” es Soil Kee, diseñado por Neils Olsen.

Primero, la cobertura del suelo / pastos se pasta o se cubre con mantillo para reducir la competencia de raíces y luz. Luego, Soil Kee rompe la masa de raíces, levanta y airea el suelo, cubre la cubierta del suelo / pastos en franjas estrechas y planta semillas, todo con una alteración mínima del suelo. Las semillas de los cultivos de cobertura / comerciales se plantan y simultáneamente se alimentan con un nutriente orgánico como el guano. Cuanto más rápido germina y crece la semilla, mayor es el rendimiento. Es fundamental llevar la biología y la nutrición a la semilla en el momento de la germinación y eliminar la competencia de las raíces.

Un pastizal perenne unos días después del Soil Kee se usó para romper la masa de raíces y plantar las semillas del cultivo de cobertura.

Un pastizal perenne unos días después del Soil Kee se usó para romper la masa de raíces y plantar las semillas del cultivo de cobertura.

El cultivo de pastos es excelente para aumentar la materia orgánica del suelo / el carbono del suelo. A Neils Olsen le pagaron por secuestrar 11 toneladas de CO2 por hectárea (11.000 libras / acre) por año, bajo el Programa de Agricultura de Carbono del gobierno australiano en 2019. En 2020, le pagaron por 13 toneladas de CO2 por hectárea (13.000 por acre) por año. Es el primer agricultor del mundo al que se le paga por secuestrar carbono del suelo bajo un sistema regulado por el gobierno. 

 

Niels Olsen con un cultivo de cobertura multiespecie para el ganado a base de leguminosas, pastos y cereales. Esta mezcla crece con fuerza a mediados de invierno. Se pueden plantar cereales, legumbres y otros cultivos comerciales en los pastos y así producir cultivos comerciales de alto valor.

Los sistemas agrícolas regenerativos, como los cultivos de cobertura y los pastizales, están cambiando radicalmente el enfoque convencional del manejo de malezas. Han demostrado que la creencia de que cualquier planta que no sea nuestro cultivo comercial es una maleza y necesita ser destruida ya no es correcta. El hecho es que la diversidad vegetal genera resiliencia y aumenta los rendimientos, no al revés. La clave es desarrollar sistemas de manejo que cambien la competencia de otras plantas en mutualismo y simbiosis que beneficien al cultivo comercial.

 

Los cultivos de cobertura de múltiples especies producen más biomasa y nutrientes que los monocultivos de una sola especie. En el ejemplo del sistema Soil Kee, la cantidad de alimento para ganado que se consigue es más del doble de los pastos perennes o anuales habituales en el distrito.

 

Se están desarrollando variaciones de estos sistemas todo el tiempo y se están utilizando con mucho éxito en la horticultura, el pastoreo y la agricultura a gran escala. Para citar a Colin Seis, “como regla general, un principio subyacente del éxito de este método es el 100% de cobertura del suelo el 100% de las veces”.

 

Andre Leu es el Director Internacional de Regeneration International

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Pasture Cropping—The Innovative No-kill, No-till System Developed by Australian Farmers

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Regenerative agriculture is a global farming revolution with rapid uptake and interest around the world. Five years ago hardly anyone had heard about it. It is in the news nearly everyday now. This  agricultural revolution has been led by innovative farmers rather than scientists, researchers and governments. It is being applied to all agricultural sectors including cropping, grazing and perennial horticulture.

In previous articles we have described how regenerative agriculture maximizes the photosynthesis of plants to capture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to increase soil organic matter. Soil organic matter is a good proxy for soil health, as it is important for improving fertility and water capture in soils, thus improving productivity and profitability in farming.

Many regenerative farmers sow their fields with mixtures of plants just to capture carbon dioxide to improve the levels of soil organic matter. These are called cover crops and are distinct from the cash crop. The cover crop builds soil fertility. The cash crop earns an income. 

Pasture Cropping—the No-kill, No-till System

Australia has many innovative regenerative farmers. The two farmers below are pioneers of a cover cropping system called pasture cropping. This is where the cash crop is planted into a perennial pasture instead of into bare soil. There is no need to plough out the pasture species as weeds or kill them with herbicides before planting the cash crop. The perennial pasture becomes the cover crop.

This was first developed by Colin Seis in New South Wales. The principle is based on the sound ecological fact that annual plants grow in perennial systems. The key is to adapt this principle to the appropriate management system for the specific cash crops and climate.

The pasture is first grazed or slashed to ensure that it is very short. This adds organic matter in the form of manure, cut grass, and shed roots into the soil to build soil fertility and to reduce root competition from the pasture. The cash crop such as oats is directly planted into the pasture.

Image courtesy of Colin Seis

Heres Colin Seiss own description of pasture cropping:      

 A 20-hectare (50 acre) crop of echidna oats that was sown and harvested in 2003 . . . This crops yield was 4.3 tonnes/hectare (31 bushels/acre). This yield is at least equal to the district average, where full ground-disturbance cropping methods were used.” 

This profit does not include the value of the extra grazing. On Winona, Colin Seis’s farm, it is between $50–60/hectare because the pasture is grazed up to the point of sowing. When using traditional cropping practices where ground preparation and weed control methods are utilized for periods of up to four to six months before the crop is sown, no quality grazing can be achieved.” 

“It was also learnt that sowing a crop in this manner stimulated perennial grass seedlings to grow in numbers and diversity, giving considerably more tonnes/hectare of plant growth. This produces more stock feed after the crop is harvested and totally eliminates the need to re-sow pastures into the cropped areas. Cropping methods used in the past require that all vegetation is killed prior to sowing the crop and while the crop is growing.” 

Image courtesy of Colin Seis

“From a farm economic point of view, the potential for good profit is excellent because the cost of growing crops in this manner is a fraction of conventional cropping. The added benefit in a mixed farm situation is that up to six months extra grazing is achieved with this method compared with the loss of grazing due to ground preparation and weed control required in traditional cropping methods. As a general rule, an underlying principle of the success of this method is 100 percent ground cover 100 percent of the time.” 

 

Other benefits are more difficult to quantify. These are the vast improvement in perennial plant numbers and diversity of the pasture following the crop. This means that there is no need to re-sow pastures, which can cost in excess of $150 per hectare, and considerably more should contractors be used for pasture establishment.

Independent studies at Winona on pasture cropping by the Department of Land and Water have found that pasture cropping is 27 percent more profitable than conventional agriculture; this is coupled with great environment benefits that will improve the soil and regenerate our landscapes.  

Pasture cropping is one of the best ways to increase soil organic matter. The fields are covered with photosynthesizing leaves all year, capturing CO2, which are deposited deep into the soil by the roots of perennial cover crops. Dr. Christine Jones has conducted research at Colin Siess property showing that 168.5 tons of CO2 per hectare (170,000 pounds/acre) were sequestered over the course of ten years. The sequestration rate in 2009–2010 was 33 tonnes of CO2 per hectare per year.

This huge addition of soil organic matter has stimulated the soil microbiome to release the minerals locked up in the parent material of the soil, dramatically increasing soil fertility. The following increases in soil mineral fertility have occurred in ten years with only the addition of a small amount of phosphorus:

A soil comparison between Colin Seis’s farm (Winona) and a nearby property shows significantly improved soil carbon levels in areas that have been pasture cropped. 10cm = 4 inches. Image courtesy of Dr. Christine Jones.

 

Calcium       277%

Magnesium 138%

Potassium   146%

Sulphur       157%

Phosphorus 151%

Zinc             186%

Iron              122%

Copper        202%

Boron          156%

Molybdenum   151%

Cobalt         179%

Selenium     117%

 

The Soil Kee System

An excellent example of the development of pasture cropping / no-till no-kill is the Soil Kee, which was designed by Neils Olsen.

First the ground cover/pasture is grazed or mulched to reduce root and light competition. Then the Soil Kee breaks up root mass, lifts and aerates the soil, top-dresses the ground cover/pasture in narrow strips, and plants seeds, all with minimal soil disturbance. The seeds of the cover/cash crops are planted and simultaneously fed an organic nutrient such as guano. The faster the seed germinates and grows, the greater the yield. It is critical to get the biology and nutrition to the seed at germination and to remove root competition.

 

 

A perennial pasture a few days after the Soil Kee was used to break up the root mass and plant the seeds of the cover crop.

Pasture cropping is excellent at increasing soil organic matter/soil carbon. Neils Olsen has been paid for sequestering 11 tonnes of CO2 per hectare (11,000 pounds/acre) per year, under the Australian governments Carbon Farming Scheme in 2019. In 2020, he was paid for 13 tonnes of CO2 per hectare (13,000 per acre) per year. He is the first farmer in the world to be paid for sequestering soil carbon under a government regulated system.

Niels Olsen with a multispecies cover crop of legumes, grasses, and grains for livestock. This mix grows strongly in mid-winter. Cereals, pulses, and other cash crops can be planted into the pasture to produce high-value cash crops.

Regenerative agricultural systems such as cover cropping and pasture cropping are radically changing the conventional approach to weed management. They have shown that the belief that any plant that is not our cash crop is a weed and needs to be destroyed is no longer correct. The fact is that plant diversity builds resilience and increases yields, not the other way around. The key  is developing management systems that change competition from other plants into mutualism and symbiosis that benefit the cash crop.

 Multispecies cover crops produce more biomass and nutrients than single-species monocultures. In the example of the Soil Kee system, the amount of stock feed is more than double the usual perennial or annual pastures in the district.

Variations of these systems are being developed all the time and are being used very successfully in horticulture, grazing and broadacre agriculture. To quote Colin Seis, “as a general rule, an underlying principle of the success of this method is 100 percent ground cover 100 percent of the time.”

 

Andre Leu is the International Director for Regeneration International. To sign up for RI’s email newsletter, click here.

Soil Health: How to Take a Seemingly Impossible Path to Healthy Soil

The road to soil health can be difficult, and the knowledge attained during the initial steps may be based on very different systems and practices than a producer is used to. This often leaves producers to take what they’ve learned from other systems and apply it to their operations.  This was the case for two farmers in a high disturbance potato and sugar beet rotation for whom the notion of soil health just ten years ago was considered impossible.

We sat down with Brian Kossman from Paul, Idaho, and Luke Adams from Rupert, Idaho, who have been innovators in cover cropping and limiting disturbance.

How to Introduce No Till into a Sugar Beet and Potato Operation

Much of what Brian and Luke knew about farming and soil health was based on non-irrigated, Midwestern corn-soybean applications. They had to figure out how to take the principles they learned and apply them in a vastly different, high desert operation.

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Campaña 2020/21: cómo impacta el uso de cultivos de cobertura en suelos con escasa humedad por la falta de lluvias

El problema de las malezas resistentes se ha expandido por todas las principales zonas agrícolas lo que le ha provocado al productor un aumento en los costos para el control. En 2010 había solamente 4 malezas con resistencia a dos modos de acción mientras que 10 años más tarde, suman 39 biotipos de 21 especies con resistencia a cuatro sitios de acción. Y de este total, hay 13 especies que tienen resistencia múltiple, según datos de la Rem de Aapresid.

Por eso, ante esta dificultad, se incorporó nuevos manejos agrícolas en los últimos años. Uno de ellos fue la rotación de cultivos y de principios activos. Pero también se comenzó a difundir el uso de cultivos de cobertura.

“Los productores lo están adoptando por un tema de necesidad”, afirmó Julia Capurro, Jefa de la Agencia de Extensión Rural de Cañada de Gómez, Santa Fe, quien es una de las referentes que está disponible en el Centro de Expertos de Expoagro Digital edición YPF Agro que se realiza hasta el viernes a las 14 hs.

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Cover Crop Roots Are An Essential Key To Understanding Ecosystem Services

To judge the overall effectiveness of cover crops and choose those offering the most ecosystem services, agricultural scientists must consider the plants’ roots as well as above-ground biomass, according to Penn State researchers who tested the characteristics of cover crop roots in three monocultures and one mixture.

“Almost everything that we know about the growth of cover crops is from measuring the above-ground parts and yet some of the benefits that we want to get from cover crops come from the roots,” said researcher Jason Kaye, professor of soil biogeochemistry. “This study shows us that what we see above ground is sometimes — but not always — reflective of the benefits below ground.”

Cover crops are widely used to increase the quantity of organic carbon returned to the soil between cash crops such as corn, wheat and soybean, as well as to limit erosion and to fix or add nitrogen to the soil.

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Seeds: Regenerative Gold Medal Winner

Author: Kerry Hoffschneider | Published: June 5, 2018

Colleen Fulton won a gold medal in the Public Speaking Competition at both the Nebraska District FFA and State FFA Convention competitions this year. Her speech was entitled, “Regenerative Agriculture.” However, long before Colleen achieved these awards, her father Kevin Fulton, a farmer and rancher near Litchfield, Neb., went on a journey through agriculture that led him to change to the regenerative approach that has had a lasting impact on all his children – Colleen, Cami and Timothy.

Kevin attended High School in Loup City and assumed leadership roles at a very young age – everything from FFA president, captain of the football team to president of National Honor Society. He then went to college at Kansas State University to achieve a bachelor’s degree in animal science. He later went on to graduate school where he earned a master’s degree in exercise physiology and spent 27 years in competitive weightlifting – all over the country and world. That led him to a career as the Head Strength and Conditioning coach at the University of Massachusetts.

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Producer Gail Fuller Offers 8 Lessons From His Career in Cover Crops

Author: Amy Bickel | Published: May 22, 2018

Unlike his conventional counterparts, Gail Fuller doesn’t focus on maximizing yields.

The Emporia, Kansas, farmer thinks differently than the age-old mantra that, with 10 billion people expected on the plant by mid-century, farmers must feed the world.

“I’m sorry if you are buying into that crock,” Fuller says bluntly.

Instead, Fuller made the decision to base his profitability and success on the health of his soil.

“Soil is life and life is soil,” he said to a crowd at his annual Fuller Field School in Emporia last month. “We have 60 years of topsoil left and that was as of 2012. If we continue this current production model, we might not be able to feed the world by 2050 because we might not have all the soil left to do it.”

Lessons from Gail

Fuller started the school seven years ago to educate others about regenerative ag, a concept growing across rural America. He wants his soil healthy and full of life—from microorganisms like nematodes, protozoa and mycorrhizal fungi working unseen below the earth to the beneficial insects and livestock above.

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You Can Change Your Soil

Author: Cindy Snyder | Published: February 12, 2018

BURLEY — After 25 years of experimenting with cover crop mixes and tillage practices, Gabe Brown has a simple message for those who would like to put their farms or ranches on a more sustainable path.

“You have the ability to change your soils and your operation,” he told a crowd of more than 300 Thursday at a soil health workshop in Burley. “You can do it.”

When Brown and his wife bought her parents farm in Burleigh County, N.D., in 1991, the soils had less than 2 percent organic matter. A double ring infiltration test showed the ground could only take a half inch of water per hour. The crop rotation had been wheat, oats and barley — all cool season grasses.

Today those same fields have 5 percent organic matter and the soil can take an inch of water in 9 seconds. The second inch took 16 seconds to infiltrate.

“Don’t tell me the soils you have are what you are stuck with,” Brown said. “We can all make changes.”

Not that the process is quick or simple. And Brown warns there is no cookie-cutter approach.

He travels across the U.S. speaking to other farmers about his 5,000-acre farm and also hosts tours of his farm. Everyday he receives more than 100 emails from farmers, most of them asking the same question: What cover crop mix should I plant?

“I didn’t choose your wife,” Brown told the audience. “Why would I choose your cover crop?”

Not matching the cover crop to the resource concern is the most common reason cover crops fail. Brown shared an example of a farmer in South Dakota who baled off his winter wheat straw and then seeded turnips and radishes into the residue. He then grazed off the cover crop and called Brown to complain that the field was still blowing away.

The problem wasn’t hard to diagnose. Brassicas accelerate residue decomposition, and the farmer had already reduced the residue by baling off the straw. There wasn’t enough carbon in the system to armor the soil.

“Cover crops work,” Brown said. “What didn’t work was the person making the planting decision.”

If a seed dealer does not ask a producer within the first couple of questions what resource concern the producer wants to address with a cover crop, Brown recommends hanging up the phone and calling another dealer. “They don’t have your best interest in mind.”

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Man Who Wrote the Book on Regenerative Agriculture Says Conservation is the Fifth Ag Revolution

Published: February 5, 2018

According to Dr. David Montgomery, author and professor at the University of Washington who spoke to farmers during the 22nd Annual No-Till on the Plains Winter Conference, our soils around the world have been severely degraded due to conventional agricultural practices. In a recent interview with Radio Oklahoma Ag Network Associate Farm Director Carson Horn, Montgomery says soil degradation has taken on two forms in modern times.

“One, is the erosion and loss of soil itself, like what happened in the Dust Bowl for example,” Montgomery explained. “But also, in terms of degraded soil organic matter – the carbon that’s in the soil. You can think of it as food for the microbes that actually help build soil fertility.”

Listen to Dr. David Montgomery and Carson Horn speak about how regenerative agriculture can reverse the effects of soil degradation here.

Montgomery says in North America, about half of our soil organic matter has been degraded, averaged across the United States. Globally, he says, it is about the same. Not only is that a devastating amount to have lost, it is also continuing to be lost at an alarming rate.

“The pace of global soil degradation at present, shows we’re losing 0.3 percent of our agricultural land capacity globally each year,” he said. “That sounds like a small number, but you play that out over the next 100 years and we’d be on track to lose a third of our agricultural productive capacity while we’re on track to raise our population by 50 percent. Those numbers are working against each other.”

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