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USDA Launches New Conservation Pilot Program for Prairie Pothole Producers to Plant Cover Crops
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Farm Service Agency (FSA) today announced a new pilot program that enables farmers in Prairie Pothole states to receive payments for planting cover crops on their land for three to five years. The new Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) Soil Health and Income Protection Program (SHIPP) pilot is available to producers in Iowa, Minnesota, Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota. The signup for this pilot starts March 30, 2020 and ends August 21.

Through SHIPP, producers have the option of three-year, four-year or five-year CRP contracts to establish cover crops on less productive cropland in exchange for payments. This pilot enables producers to plant cover crops that, among other benefits, will improve soil health and water quality while having the option to harvest, hay and graze during certain times of the year. Up to 50,000 acres can be enrolled.

Cover crops, whether used in a single crop rotation or over multiple years, can improve the productivity of soils and soil health on a farm for generations and increase the bottom line for the farmer. Soil health, or soil quality, by definition, is the capacity of soil to function as a vital living ecosystem that sustains plants, animals and humans. 
by LuAnn Rolling, District Conservationist, Allamakee County
Earthworms are among the most visible soil organisms and deserve our attention.  They play a pivotal role in maintaining the productivity of our soils.  They create vertical burrows and can act as quick entry for water to infiltrate into the soil.  Some of these burrows made by nightcrawlers have been measured to 6’ deep and more.

Plant roots need water and oxygen to grow, and as they do this they release carbon dioxide that needs to leave the soil. Earthworms assist in this process by creating burrows and increasing soil aggregation. As earthworms consume soil, it passes through their guts and mixes with organic matter. In one study a healthy population of earthworms consumed 4 to 10 percent of the top 5 inches of soil annually. Earthworm castings (excrement) are very stable and resistant to compaction.

A typical earthworm population can easily consume 2 tons of dry matter per acre per year, partly digesting and mixing it with the soil. Earthworm casts have higher available nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium and calcium contents than surrounding soil. Soil passed through the gut of earthworms has a neutral pH. Earthworms excrete material that has high concentrations of beneficial microbes that help decompose crop residue and some earthworms eat harmful nematodes.

A large earthworm population is a solid indicator of good soil health. Unfortunately, modern agriculture has served to dramatically reduce the earthworm population.

The major killer of earthworms is tillage. One study showed earthworm counts per acre went from 1.2 million to 60,000 after one-disc pass. Some studies have shown up to 10 times more earthworms present in no-till systems vs. tilled systems.

Anhydrous ammonia may kill some earthworms, but studies suggest less than 10%, because the deaths occur immediately around the zone of application.

Most herbicides used in crop production in the Midwest are harmless to slightly toxic to earthworms, however some corn rootworm insecticides are toxic.

You can increase populations by leaving a surface mulch as this is their food supply. Growing cover crops add food. One University study found that adding cover crops to a rotation tripled the number of earthworms in the soil.

Earthworms like a diverse diet and prefer legumes such as clover. Soybeans are the exception as they produce so little residue that there is not enough food for them. In one grassland study they found 40 earthworms per square foot - which would equate to more than 3 million per acre. Earthworms utilize manure as a food source.

Liquid manure can have a temporary reduction in numbers due to its ammonia and salt content, but after this effect has subsided earthworm populations tend to increase.

This spring I would encourage everyone to go out to your field or garden and just turn over a shovel of earth. You should see 2 to 3 earthworms every time, and if your soils are very healthy 8 to 10.  If you see very few you may also be experiencing excessive rain runoff and crusting in your fields. This simple earthworm test is an excellent way to see if your soils are healthy.

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