WASHINGTON COUNTY, Wis. – One could say members of Cedar Creek Farmers are trying to “reach the root of the matter” … literally.

At a field day in September, farmers in the watershed-protection group and others viewed a soil pit, a slaking test, an “underwear test” and more to understand more clearly how conservation practices affect plant-root and soil health.

The field day began at Al Schmidt’s farm in Jackson Township. He farms more than 400 acres. Schmidt transitioned from conventional tillage to vertical tillage in 2011. More recently he has begun testing no-till and the use of cover crops. He’s doing so with input from Paul Sebo, a conservationist, and Stephanie Egner, a project technician, both from the Washington County Land and Water Conservation Division.

“Our goal is to achieve better yields and profitability,” Schmidt said.

Also part of the goal is to improve soil stability and protect water quality in the Cedar Creek Watershed. Jamie Patton, agriculture agent for University of Wisconsin-Extension in Shawano County, used a soil pit at Schmidt’s farm to demonstrate how cover-crop roots help to push apart soil and break it into smaller aggregates or crumbles. That increases soil-pore space, she said, which in turn increases water infiltration, drainage and biological activity.

Schmidt has planted a cover-crop mixture of rye, berseem clover, cowpeas, forage radish and sunflowers. Cover crops and no-till management provide an environment where mycorrhizal fungi form symbiotic relationships with plants, with the exception of brassicas.

Plants allow mycorrhizal fungi to live within their roots and provide sugars to those fungi. In return the fungi provide the plant with additional water and nutrients the plant couldn’t otherwise extract from the soil, according to a UW-Extension publication by Geoffrey Siemering et al. Cover crops maintain continuous mycorrhizal colonies between growing seasons. No-till enhances fungal growth versus tillage, which tears fungal threads and decreases glomalin production.

Glomalin acts like a glue that binds together soil particles. That increases soil stability, Patton said. She asked Schmidt and Brian Peters, another farmer member of Cedar Creek Farmers, to conduct a slake test. The purpose of the test was to see how soil samples withstand rapid wetting. A sample from a consistently tilled field fell apart while soil from a no-tilled area held together.

A third test – the underwear test – brought a few chuckles from attendees. But it demonstrated the power of soil biology. The underwear had been buried in soil for a few weeks at both the Schmidt farm and the farm of Ross Bishop, another member of Cedar Creek Farmers. That was enough time for microbes to feed. In no-till fields with cover crops, soil microbes had eaten most of the garment.

Each of the tests helped Cedar Creek Farmers and their partners at the Washington County Land and Water Division to show other farmers the effects of soil-health and soil-conservation practices. Those practices help to reduce runoff of nutrients and sediment, which is important to protecting Cedar Creek and its tributaries. The Cedar Creek watershed is a 126-square-mile drainage area about 15 miles wide and 9 miles from north to south. Cedar Creek and its tributaries pass through the village of Jackson in Washington County into the villages of Cedarburg and Grafton in Ozaukee County.

Visit www.youtube.com and search for v=Rpl09XP_f-w to watch a video on how to do a slake test. Visit www.co.washington.wi.us — or learningstore.uwex.edu and search for mycorrhizal fungi — for more information.

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Lynn Grooms writes about the diversity of agriculture, including the industry’s newest ideas, research and technologies as a staff reporter for Agri-View based in Wisconsin. Email lgrooms@madison.com to contact her.