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Conservation Corner

Soil health system ‘links’ improved lifestyle with profitability for Louisiana farmer

Mon, December 11, 2017

From the kitchen table to the boardroom table, the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) brings people together across the nation for: healthier food, natural resources and people; a stronger agricultural industry; and economic growth, jobs and innovation.

Each Friday, meet those farmers, producers and landowners through our #Fridaysonthefarm stories. Visit local farms, ranches, forests and resource areas where NRCS and partners help people help the land.

This Friday, we meet Robbie Howard, who realized one of the biggest benefits of soil health is measured in time. Because now the soybean and corn farmer has more of it for his family and for his new found love – golf.

But it was only after he and his son Keith, 52, switched to no-till and cover crop practices on their northeast Louisiana farm that he began to realize both the production and lifestyle benefits of his soil health management system.

Under their conventional farming system it would take the Howards up to two weeks just to till their 2,900 acres of farmland. “We don’t do that anymore,” says the 72-year-old Howard. “We plant, spray, harvest and then we plant the cover crop. And in the spring we spray the cover crop and plant our cash crop,” he says.

Soil Health Benefits

The resulting improvements in the health of Howard’s soil are also striking. “We went from an average of half a percent of organic matter to an average of 2.8 percent and in some places I’m up to 3.7 percent,” he says. “In the south, that is huge.”

Another benefit of staying off the tractor is the reduction in fuel, equipment and labor costs. “We’ve reduced our equipment and labor by 30-35 percent. It’s a lot more economical. It’s a lot less work and I enjoy it.”

Howard says working less is something that takes some getting used to, however.

“No till farming is a lifestyle change.  A lot of farmers feel guilty if they’re not out on their tractors doing something all the time” —Robbie Howard, East Carroll Parish, Washington

It was Howard’s son who urged him to make his lifestyle change – to get off the tractor and “stop looking for ways to stay busy and spend money around the farm.”  “He said, ‘Dad, come play golf and enjoy yourself for a change.’ And I did.”

No-till and Cover Crops

Howard’s soil health transition began in 1994, when he and Keith began looking at no-till to improve their profit margins, attending conservation tillage conferences to learn new farming methods. At one of the conferences, the Howards met a farmer from Scotland Neck, North Carolina.  “He was doing wheat cover crops and we went and visited his farm,” Howard says. “We were very impressed with what we saw and came home and started that very process.”

“From there we started going to no-till conferences in the Midwest. We went for five straight years to learn their methods and really get tuned in to no-till and adopted about 99 percent of their methods. In the process we started learning about cover crops and integrating them into our operation. And now we’re completely no-till and cover crops every year,” he continued.

However, the warm, southern climate offers some unique soil health management challenges that their northern farming counterparts do not face. “We have a continuing pest problem and weed problem because the freeze doesn’t kill them,” Howard says. “Our situation is unique because we have those challenges. We’ve seen great benefits from our no-till and cover crops, but we still have some issues we’re trying to work through.”

Southern climate challenges notwithstanding, NRCS Water Quality Specialist Steve Nipper says the Howards’ soil health-improving efforts are paying off in terms of significantly improved soil function.

“We recently did some infiltration tests, pouring water into a small ring on the Howards’ land,” Nipper says. “Within seconds, that water went into his soil profile.”
But when they conducted the same test on another nearby farm with similar soil, the results were radically different. “Three hours after pouring the same of amount into the ring,” he says, “the water was still there.”

For farmers like the Howards, that improved water infiltration improves their bottom lines through consistent production, reduced costs for irrigation and reduced plant stress during growing season dry periods.

Through NRCS’ technical and financial assistance programs, the Howards began implementing no-till and cover crop practices years before any of their northeast Louisiana neighbors.

NRCS District Conservationist Eddie Foster describes Howard as “The soil health and cover crop guru of East Carroll Parish.”

“We’re learning together,” NRCS’ Foster says, “but I’m learning more from him than he’s learning from me.”

“Every year we’re tweaking the system a little bit,” Howard says. “I’m very encouraged that we’re on the right track, but there’s so much to be learned with cover crops and even with no-till.”

But thanks to the extra time afforded by his soil health farming innovations, Howard can also learn how to perfect his golf swing while he enjoys the company of his grandchildren – who often accompany him on the links.

“And I don’t feel guilty about that,” Howard says with a smile.  “I still love farming, but I love it this way now.  – Robbie Howard East Carroll Parish, Washington


Farmers interested in soil health management systems and other conservation practices should contact their local USDA service center.






Consider an internship with NRCS

Mon, November 06, 2017

Consider an internship with NRCS.  If you are a college student considering a career with NRCS conserving our natural resources, you may want to take a look at the Pathways Intern positions. These are open right now through November 9th.  Short turn around on these announcements.

Be aware that vacancy announcements have been posted in USA Jobs for the Pathways Interns.

As you know, the Pathways program works especially well for students who would be in a position to do at least 2 summers’ worth of internship with NRCS, so that they can amass the 640 hours the Pathways program requires to transition to full time employment after graduation. If you know of good candidates, please alert them to this opportunity as well!

Below are the links to the Soil Conservationist and Engineering vacancies. 

Engineering intern positions are advertised in Effingham, Marion, and Sycamore:

Soil conservationist intern positions are advertised in Cambridge, Jacksonville, McLeansboro, and Paxton:

Please note the tight timeline.  The job posting closes on Thursday, November 9.

If applicants have questions, please have them reach out to the appropriate point of contact listed in the respective announcements.



Consider Soil Health

Thu, October 26, 2017

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service defines soil health as “the continued capacity of soil to function as a vital living ecosystem that sustains plants, animals, and humans.”  The biology, physics and chemistry of the soil impact plant growth, crop resilience, yields at harvest and long-term earning potential. Management with soil health in mind seeks to optimize these soil factors for positive outcomes by using practices like conservation tillage, nutrient management, cover crops and crop rotations.

A few of the advantages of healthy soil can include:

• Reduced erosion and soil loss—Direct comparisons of soil erosion under conventional and no-till methods show that no-till practices reduce soil erosion up to 1,000 times more effectively.

• Nutrient use efficiency and retention—When legumes (e.g., clover) and/or brassicas (e.g., turnip, radish) follow corn or wheat, they help to decompose residues, making nutrients available to the next season’s crop.

• Farm resilience with weather variability—Increasing water holding capacity by building soil organic matter can decrease variability in yields by 20 percent.

• Improved water utilization and management—More soil organic matter can improve water retention by increasing infiltration rates and improving soil structure. Water holding capacity can more than double when soil organic matter increases.

Advantages of soil health

■ Decreased erosion and soil loss

■ Improved percentage of organic matter in soil

■ Decreased variability in productivity over time

■ Nutrient use efficiency

■ Better crop health and weed suppression

■ Improved water retention


Conservation Approach

Soil health can be achieved through the use of one or more practices like the ones outlined below.

Cover Crop
Cover crops are planted during or after harvest to keep living roots in the soil through most of the year. Cover crop species may include grasses (like annual ryegrass and spring oats) or legumes (including hairy vetch or red clover). Cover crops are either killed by cold temperatures or are terminated by the operator in the spring.

Soil structure and biological cycles can be disrupted through tillage. No-till or low-till allows crop growth with less soil disturbance, which can lead to better plant growth and decreased erosion.

Nutrient Management

Nutrient management seeks to manage soil nutrients and nutrient amendments to meet crop production needs while minimizing the impact on the environment. Regular soil testing can allow both the owner and operator to understand the locations of high- and low-nutrient areas on the farm. With this knowledge, nutrient planning and precision agriculture—a suite of tools that can improve efficiencies and resource use—can be applied to achieve optimal economic and conservation returns.


Consider soil health and some of the practices mentioned above or all of them.  You don’t have to go all out on all acres.  Consider a 40 -50 acre field and go slow, learning as you go.  Attend cover crop workshops, talk to others who are doing cover crops or practices that you are interested in.


NRCS EQIP has cost sharing available for helping with these practices.  Applications for the first round of funding consideration have to be signed by November 17, 2017. 



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