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Soil education effort started in Ravalli County for agriculture producers
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Soil education effort started in Ravalli County for agriculture producers

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Soil education effort started in Ravalli County for agriculture producers

This summer, agricultural producers in the Bitterroot Valley will have the opportunity to have soil experts come to their ranch or farm to perform a free soil health assessment.

Everyone’s lives are touched by healthy soils.

Clean air and water, bountiful crops and forests, productive grazing lands, diverse wildlife and beautiful landscapes all depend on it.

This summer, agricultural producers in the Bitterroot Valley will have the opportunity to have soil experts come to their ranch or farm to perform a free soil health assessment. The Natural Resources Conservation Service’s (NRCS) Hamilton Office and Bitterroot Conservation District are working together on the effort.

NRCS District Conservationist Stacy Welling said the organizations want to offer the soil health assessment to local agricultural producers to open up opportunities to discuss principles of soil health and learn what types of practices producers would be interested in implementing on their farms and ranches.

That information could lead to NRCS being able to offer cost-share grants in the future to help producers improve their soil.

Soil is composed of air, water, organic matter and minerals.

Organisms in a community — functioning as a soil food web — live all or part of their lives in soil. Healthy soil contains nutrients necessary for supporting plants and animals. And just as plants and animals depend on soil, the soil microbes depend on them, too.

Soil is where the integration of living and non-living things takes place — part of a process that is millions of years old. Increasing soil organic matter typically improves soil health, since organic matter improves several critical functions of soil.

The Lewis and Clark County Sheriff's Office put out a call for volunteers to help care for the nearly 60 horses seized from a north Helena Valley ranch Tuesday amid an investigation into alleged neglect.

To improve the health of their soil, more and more farmers and ranchers are keeping soil covered, reducing disturbance activities such as tilling, keeping plants growing throughout the year, and diversifying the crops they’re planting in a rotation. Taking these steps allows farmers and ranchers to help reduce erosion while increasing the soil’s ability to provide nutrients and water to the plant at critical times during the growing season.

When producers focus on improving soil health, they often have larger harvests, lower input costs, optimized nutrient use, and improved crop resilience during drought years. In heavy rainfall years, healthy soil holds more water, reducing runoff that helps avert flooding downstream. And because healthy soil allows for greater water infiltration and less erosion, nutrients and pesticides stay on the farm where they benefit crops and are far less likely to be carried off the farm into streams where they can cause harm.

Welling said the assessments will take about an hour.

After answering a few general questions about their operation — including things like whether producers run livestock or if they are using some type of crop rotation — Welling said the specialist will dig a pit to examine both the biological and physical characteristics of the soil. They will also perform an infiltration test to determine how well the soil absorbs and holds water.

“At the completion of the assessment, we will provide the producer with a soil scorecard,” Welling said. “We will talk about soil health principles and maybe make some management recommendations.”

Those recommendations could include things like planting a cover crop on a plowed field that would both provide nutrients for the soil and some grazing opportunities for livestock.

“I think we’re going to be able to have some good conversations with producers,” she said. “Hopefully, we’ll leave them with some ideas on how they can improve their soil.”

When producers focus on improving soil health, they often have larger harvests, lower input costs, optimized nutrient use, and improved crop resilience during drought years. In heavy rainfall years, healthy soil holds more water, reducing runoff that helps avert flooding downstream. And because healthy soil allows for greater water infiltration and less erosion, nutrients and pesticides stay on the farm where they benefit crops and are far less likely to be carried off the farm into streams where they can cause harm.

If local ag producers would like to learn more about soil health and have a free soil health assessment completed on their land, they can contact the NRCS Hamilton Field Office at 406-361-6191.

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