All About Sustainable Farming Systems with Dave Huggins – Part 2

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Episode Transcription:

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Drew Lyon: Hello and welcome to the WSU Wheat Beat Podcast. I’m your host, Drew Lyon, and I want to thank you for joining me as we explore the world of small grains production and research at Washington State University. We have weekly discussions with researchers from WSU and the USDA-ARS to provide you with insights into the latest research on wheat and barley production.

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Drew Lyon: My guest today is Dave Huggins. Dave is a USDA-ARS soil scientist with the Northwest Sustainable Agro-Ecosystems Research unit in Pullman, Washington. Dr. Huggins conducts research in sustainable farming systems, including soil health, and issues such as soil organic matter, soil acidification, soil fertility, and internet use efficiency. Hello, Dave.

Dave Huggins: Yeah, good morning Drew.

Drew Lyon: The one thing, I’ve been talking to a group of farmers, you know, when there’s different ways to bring, to achieve good soil health. I talked to organic growers and they have these very complex rotations, they do a lot of tillage, but they add organic matter a lot of times in various forms. Talked to a zero tiller, they don’t till at all, they feel like they’re doing good things for the soil. So there must be multiple ways to improve soil health? Do we know what management to suggest? Because if you say “don’t till,” that might be one approach, but there might be some other approaches, is that right, or? Am I missing the point here?

Dave Huggins: Well, that’s a good question, Drew. And, of course, you know it’s complicated. I will preface everything by saying that you know, I don’t think we’ve discovered the perfect agriculture yet. And I actually appreciate that there’s different approaches to farming, you know? So I think that’s important because it tends to, you know, diversify our systems out there, and we can look over the fence over at what the neighbor’s doing or what someone else is doing in a different part of the country or the world and learn something about their particular farming practice. And so I think that’s an interesting thing that keeps agriculture kind of exciting and new all the time. So having prefaced that it’s one, I think it’s a really good sign that there are more farmers and actually the general public that are becoming more aware of soil and soil health. So from that standpoint, I appreciate that there’s a discussion. You know, from that standpoint. And then if you start to dig a little bit deeper, so to speak, into that topic, then you can start to look at various kinds of management practices and how they are impacting the soil. And you know, quite frankly, there’s tradeoffs here, you know, from the standpoint of okay, if I do this particular practice it may be good for this type of soil property, but it may be detrimental to another one. And so from that standpoint, here’s where you get into the complexity of okay, every site is unique again. It has a unique history from the standpoint of the soil that’s there. And it’s going to respond, it may respond quite differently to different kinds of practices, whether it be tillage or cropping systems. You know, in general, there’s different management strategies to increase organic matter. And you know, if you consider that to be a key variable in your farming system, you know, reducing tillage may be one way because tillage tends to stir the soil and kind of increase some of the microbial activity, they feed on the organic material and break it down and it gets respired as carbon dioxide, the carbon in the organic matter, gets respired. And so, from that standpoint, this decomposition process kind of releases and can decrease organic matter over time. But at the same time, you know, you want some of that soil to be active in turning over and providing new nutrients at the same time. So a certain amount of decomposition is really desired and wanted. So where’s the balance here from the standpoint of a decomposition process in and of itself? And you know, I think the thing to remember here is that, you know, we want the decomposition to occur, but we also want a source of organic materials returned into the soil to provide the food that drives that whole process. So from that standpoint, it’s important to consider the other side of the equation from the standpoint of the inputs and our cropping systems are, and livestock systems, are main inputs in terms of providing organic materials back into soil. So what are the strategies there that make sense from the standpoint of having more inputs back into the soil, which then feeds the soil biology that’s there and also service to build up organic matter which has all kinds of benefits from the standpoint of physical and chemical properties as well. So it’s really a question then of, and the input side of the equation is really important. And it’s not always thought about, you know? So, you can think, “Oh, if I have really good yields because I have a well-fertilized crop and I’m producing lots of biomass, and that biomass gets returned, the residue and etc. and the straw get returned to the soil.” And if you think, some of our crops, like winter, wheat do a really good job of this in terms of providing lots of biomass into the soil. Other crops, not so much, even though they provide diversity like our pulse crops, for instance, don’t supply as much organic material back into the soil. And actually, our winter wheat crop kind of carries the load from the standpoint of being able to provide a lot of the organic matter back into the soil in our current systems. You know? So from that standpoint, you can kind of look over our whole system and you can see kind of strengths and weaknesses from the standpoint of how different crops are able to deliver from the standpoint of at least one aspect of organic material. Of course, legumes are real important too, from the standpoint of some of the nitrogen fixation that goes on and being able to diversify some of the organisms that we may find in the soil itself that feeds, you know, a very different biology that might be there. So from that perspective, it’s important as well for different kind of reasons.

Drew Lyon: Very complex issue. So what are the current research activities you have on soil health in trying to find the information we yet have to learn?

Dave Huggins: Yeah, well lately we’ve been trying to look at some of these newer test stuff. I mentioned the Solvita test already, but also the Haney test is another one that tries to look at overall soil health index, or score. And here, this is kind of the, I would call it the “top-down approach”, rather than the “bottom-up” in terms of coming up with a number to say, “oh is your soil healthy or not?” And if it comes up, oh it’s a high scoring, or a high number, then that must be healthier than one that has a lower score. And so we’ve been looking into the Haney test and basically this uses some of these more biological, or what I would call more active, soil organic fractions that tend to cycle pretty quickly and be more associated with the biology of the soil itself. So the Solvita test is used in the Haney score as well as looking at some of the water soliable organic carbon and nitrogen in the soil. And these are important because they tend to be kind of indicators of how well this decomposition process is going on as well as how well are we feeding our biology that’s in the soil itself. So some of this, you know, from the standpoint of what you’d like to see in terms of a score, is whether or not it’s sensitive to various kinds of management practices that we have out there. In other words, if I have you know, 20 or 30 years of reduced till or a history of more intensive tillage, if I want to compare that to say no till, I want to see, oh, is there a difference in this test? And is it sensitive? And is it something that we can actually interpret to be something that’s valuable from the standpoint of are we improving things or not improving things? And so we’ve looked at that perspective for the Haney test and I’ll say it’s an active area of current research, but at the same time, what we’ve found so far is that, in our case, the Haney test doesn’t seem to be very sensitive to different kinds of management histories that we have. And so we tend to give low scores overall and not a very wide range of scores either. And so from that standpoint, we haven’t found where this is a fit in our particular cropping systems. And that’s not to say it’s not valuable in another part of the country or in some other kind of soil besides the ones we’re testing them in. In this case at the Cook Agronomy Farm, it’s just outside of Pullman, here. So but in our test to date, we haven’t found where that’s a very meaningful test from the standpoint of using it to look from a diagnostic perspective in terms of what’s going on. And so the other tests also have to do with another test that was devised by Haney and coworkers and that has to do with using a different kind of extractant for nutrients. And this extractant tries to combine some of the crop exidates, organic exidates, they’re what we call chelator so it’s malade and citrate that actually can grab a hold of nutrients that are in the solution and help make them more available for the plant itself. And so this extractant tries to mimic some of the soil or the plant processes that might be occurring in soil. And so we’ve been trying to look at that extractant, which is currently being used for phosphorous, for potassium, for looking at aluminum and iron and calcium and magnesium. To try to look at that test to see how it compares to some of our traditional tests as well as how we might interpret that test. And there definitely are for farmers that are going through and collecting soils and sending their soil samples out to various labs in the country, actually, to have these kinds of tests done. And we’re getting the results back and we’re scratching our head a little bit from the standpoint of okay, so how do we interpret these tests and how do they compare with our traditional tests? And do they provide a different kind of recommendation from the standpoint of how we should manage our nutrients in this case?

Drew Lyon: Okay, soil health is definitely on a lot of people’s minds. Big range of growers, I know it’s big in the federal NRCS program. And it sounds like it’s a very interesting area with much new information yet to be determined. So we look forward to hearing more about soil health from you at a future date. Thanks, Dave.

Dave Huggins: Thank you, Drew.

Drew Lyon: Thanks for listening to the WSU Wheat Beat podcast. If you have questions for us, that you’d like to hear addressed on future episodes, please email me at You can find us online at You can also find us on social media on Facebook and Twitter @WSUSmallGrains. Subscribe to this show through iTunes or your favorite podcasting app. The WSU Wheat Beat podcast is a production of CAHNRS Communications in the College of Agricultural Human and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University. I’m Drew Lyon; we’ll see you next week.

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