Search for Excellence in Sustainable Agriculture Recognition Program

Allison Howell
CEA - Agriculture
UofA Division of Agriculture Research & Extension

Howell, A.*1,
1 CEA - Agriculture, UofA Division of Agriculture Research & Extension, Piggott, AR, 72454

Soil health is a term that is growing in popularity. This term is defined very broadly as “the continued capacity of the soil to function as a vital living ecosystem to sustain plants, animals, and humans” (USDA-NRCS) and can be interpreted very differently depending on the context of its application. What can be more easily defined is the implementation of “soil health” practices, which consist of not disturbing (tilling) the soil while keeping living roots growing in the soil for as many months out of the year as possible. In the Arkansas row crop setting, this consists of implementing no-till as well as utilizing cover crops during fall and winter months. Many benefits can be achieved according to which cover crops are planted including improved soil structure, increased water infiltration rates, increased water holding capacity, decreased erosion, increased soil nitrogen content, decreased weed pressure for the following cash crops, and others. These benefits can have positive economic implications, especially in years when environmental conditions are conducive, and the cover crop is properly planned/managed. With a side by side comparison of a cover crop versus a non-cover crop practice, economic and management differences can be observed. To track the effects of management differences on each side of the field, measurements on water infiltration rates were taken along with soil samples to measure the change in soil structure (bulk density/aggregate stability), nematode populations, and soil fertility. Soil moisture sensors were utilized at varying depths in-season to see how infiltration depths differ. They were also to help tell if irrigation demand is different among practices. All of these measurements were ultimately taken to find the economic implications on production. A farmer in Clay County completed year two of a three-year cereal rye cover crop demonstration on one half of his cotton field while the other did not receive a cover crop. The goal was to see if there is a benefit to the cover crop as opposed to not having one.