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Iowa's prized topsoil could have 60 years left, experts say

Land experts are encouraging farmers to use less tilling and more cover crops, which would improve soil health.

IOWA, USA — As farmers prepare for the next planting season, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is encouraging Iowan farmers to protect soil health by changing the way they farm.

This is because they're worried that in 60 years, Iowa could lose enough topsoil that would make current farming practices unsustainable.

Hillary Olson, state soil health specialist for the Iowa Natural Resources Conservation Service, a division of the USDA, said the two main causes of eroding topsoil are excessive tilling and lack of varied cover crops.

Tilling is the digging and moving of soil to prepare land for planting. She said by changing the soil too aggressively, it breaks apart the soil structure which includes sand, salt and clay particles.

"When you stop breaking apart that structure as much with tillage implements, that allows microbes to increase in number," Olson said.

She explained that microbe growth is good because they improve the amount of nutrients in the soil for growing crops.

The microbes also help keep the soil structure together, which helps the land absorb water.

"One of the interesting things that I've learned in this job is that a teaspoon of healthy soil has more microbes than there are people on Earth," she said. "If we can create the conditions that they need to thrive, they're just like us, they need a place to live, and they need something to eat."

Another solution is for farmers to plant more cover crops.

Olson explained that crops leak out exudates, which are sugars produced from photosynthesis.

She said by planting more cover crops, it gives the microbes a more diverse diet of exudates so they're not relying entirely on the sugars from common Iowan crops like corn or soybean.

"If you can incorporate some of these management practices where you are keeping this surface covered, by reducing your tillage, by incorporating cover crops -- that is also going to keep the soil temperature cooler and reduce your evaporation rates," Olson said.

She added that by adopting these newer practices, it can reduce the need for synthetic fertilizers and inputs, which can help make crops more profitable.

The Iowa NRCS has financial assistance and cost-sharing programs to help farmers implement these new practices.

It also offers programs to connect farmers with others already using the recommended practices to help them share information.

You can find those resources here on the Iowa NRCS website.

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