One of the great barriers to progress in most policy discussions is an “Us” vs. “Them” battle based on historic generalizations and unawareness of change and current practices of the two “sides”. The bad news is there has been much such conflict between “farmers” and “environmentalists”, but there is good news out there. As contentious as discussions of conservation and climate change have been, agricultural practices are being driven by changing weather patterns and budget busting input and commodity prices. The beneficiary is soil and water quality and an increase in carbon sequestration.
As a recent article in the New York Times discusses, much of this change is pragmatic, not philosophical or political. With “Almost 1.7 billion tons of topsoil are blown or washed off croplands a year, according to the Department of Agriculture”, American farmers’ innovative practices are addressing a vast problem which creates “billions of dollars in losses for farmers” and untold damage to water quality.
In recent years, row crop farmers across North Florida are increasingly adopting no till planting and returning to cover crop plantings to reduce erosion, increase water infiltration, smother out weeds and keep soils cooler during our blistering summers. Here’s the story of the Florida Soil Health and Cover Crop Group’s first meeting in 2015 and its impact in one field in Jefferson county.
It wasn’t raining on April 1st, when the inaugural tour was held. Participants heard descriptions of the value of a winter cover crop,such as cereal rye, in the production of a warm season cash crop. “Discover the Cover” was hosted by Jefferson County UF/IFAS Extension, the Jefferson County Soil and Water Conservation Board, and the Jefferson County office of the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service in cooperation with the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services Office of Agricultural Water Policy, Brock Farms. Fulford Family Farms and Fulford 6 Farm.
Kirk Brock told of his years of experience of knocking down a cereal rye cover crop and leaving it on the field to reduce erosion, increase soil organic matter, shade out weeds and increase soil water infiltration. “We fertilize the cover crop and use that rye biomass to provide fertility for the summer crop,” Brock said. His soil pits showed attendees how rye roots penetrate the soil profile and leave channels for movement of water and crop roots to follow. “We got tired of moving our topsoil back up the hill every year,” Brock said when he explained his journey from conventional farming to no-till planting on his hilly, dry land acreage. “If I had to go back to conventional planting, I’d get out of farming,” the Jefferson County native has said.
After leaving Brock Farms, the group moved to a rye termination demonstration by members of the Fulford families. Visitors watched two different machines flatten the rye in preparation for planting. “It’ll help slow down water movement and keep the soil in the field, “grower Stephen Fulford said as the shiny new roller got its first chance to flatten Florida rye. The roller lays the mature rye down and a herbicide application insures it doesn’t get back up. Stalks aren’t severed; they remain attached to the plant’s mature roots, providing an anchored set of numerous, small obstacles to prevent water flow and soil erosion.
On a warm blue sky day, it was a little hard to visualize the effect the rolled rye might have on surface erosion. As usual, things change. I returned to the roller demonstration field on May 1 after lunch. It had just stopped raining, and the fire ant hills didn’t even have dry dirt on top of them yet. One of the wettest Aprils in history, (11.9” at the Monticello Florida Automated Weather Network station) had concluded with 3.1” of rain on the 29th and 30th. An additional 0.98” (4.08” in less than sixty hours) had fallen that morning.
Water was running down the field road, through a recently harrowed fire line and into the field. The amazing thing? The sediment went no further than three feet into the rye. The rye mat had stopped the sediment and clear water was moving slowly across the field underneath the rolled rye. The still attached rye stems remained parallel to each other.
One of the questions asked at “Discover the Cover” concerned cost effectiveness of such a system. More research needs to be done on actual costs, but one financial fact is as clear as the water at the bottom of these fields. These farmers will be planting as soon as their fields dry out. They won’t be burning any diesel to haul their topsoil back up the hill, and that good Jefferson County soil won’t be lost to the Gulf of Mexico. That’s good news for everybody.
More complete information is available on the high biomass cover crop system in the following UF/IFAS publication: Agricultural Management Options for Climate Variability and Change: High-Residue Cover Crops. If you’d like additional information on cover crop and soil health practices, contact Dr. David Wright at firstname.lastname@example.org or Dr. Danielle Treadwell at email@example.com.
Beech, magnolia and native
river cane (arundinaria) characterize hardwood forests in the Red Hills
Photo by Jed Dillard
I grew up in the Georgia Piedmont outside Athens, a land of bright red sticky clay, rocks and cold weather. In addition to the ubiquitous Georgia pines, hardwoods including white oaks, hickory and beech grow there. I had no clue the Red Hills of Florida and South Georgia would mimic much of that habitat and provide the benefits of fewer rocks to blunt shovels and less cold weather. Now, I can hardly imagine living anywhere else than in one of its beech – magnolia forests.
A friend of mine was doing some work for my neighbor and took the time to look for wild turkey roosting places and walked down to the creek bed through beech, magnolia, spruce pine, white oak and hickory to where the wild azalea grows. “Those sure are some pretty woods, “he told me.
He was describing the upland hardwood forest described by the Florida Natural Areas Inventory as “a well-developed, closed-canopy forest dominated by deciduous hardwood trees on mesic soils in areas sheltered from fire. It typically has a diverse assemblage of deciduous and evergreen tree species in the canopy and midstory, shade-tolerant shrubs, and a sparse groundcover. “ Blaisdell, et al characterized their location as areas “too steep for logging, farming, or grazing and are mesic (wet) enough so that fire rarely occurs in them. “
Many of these areas are relatively small and have escaped intervention. These small areas contribute to patchwork landscapes which provide the key requirements of wildlife habitat- shelter, food and water. Turkeys roost in the spruce pine over the creek and the hens build nests and forage with their poults on the seeds and bugs of the adjacent open fields. I had always thought of Florida as a sandy coastal environment, but these hills have more clay than most Florida sites underneath them. The combination the canopy’s protection of the moisture in layers of organic matter and the soil’s clay maintain a fertile, well-drained soil profile which supports a wide variety of plants and a varied supply of mast.
Of all its flora and fauna, one of its most intriguing species is the Barred Owl, Strix varia. Judy Biss of Calhoun county’s December 4, 2015 Panhandle Outdoors Article, Owls, Florida’s Remarkable Nocturnal Birds of Prey describes the natural history and biology of owls in Florida. The first time I heard a nearby Barred owl, I thought I was in presence of a fierce beast, surely a panther, at least a bob cat. The Tarzan movies filmed at Wakulla Springs used the Barred Owl calls for jungle sounds. Barred owls thrive in this habitat. The open forest floor and mature trees give them room to navigate and an abundant variety of prey. Snags and trees whose limbs are broken off by wind, provide cavities for them and other cavity nesters.
Pretty woods? Upland Hardwood Forests? Climax Beech Magnolia Forests? No matter what you call them, they’re one of the jewels of North Florida’s range of habitats. Get out and enjoy them.
References and additional information.
“The Role of Magnolia and Beech in Forest Processes in the Tallahassee, Florida, Thomasville, Georgia Area”. Blaisdell, Wooten and Godfrey. Tall Timbers Research Station
Immature TSA fruit are resemble tiny watermelons. Mature fruit turn yellow and contain 40-50 seeds each. Photo credit: UF Hayslip Biological Control Research
and Containment Laboratory
Florida ranchers know Tropical Soda Apple (TSA) as the “Plant from Hell”. It was first noticed in south Florida, but its seeds survive in the digestive tract of animals and it spread north through the movement of hay and cattle. TSA plants are covered with thorns and can make large sections of pasture nearly useless for livestock. Concerted efforts to lessen the population of TSA since its arrival have reduced the populations in pastures but it persists in sheltered or waste locations. Cattle, birds, deer and feral hogs ingest the mature fruits and spread the plants to loafing and browsing areas that may be inaccessible to mechanical treatment with anything larger than a hoe. According to Dr. Jeff Mullahey, who has been working on TSA since its appearance in south Florida, one plant can produce 40,000-50,000 seeds with seed germination ranging from 75%-100%. The seeds remain viable for at least three years. Be on the lookout for these while engaged in outdoor activities.
Isolated plants can be controlled by mechanical means. You won’t want to pull them up barehanded, though. Additional information and control methods are available at http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/uw097, or contact your local Extension agent.
The rounded seedling leaf in the foreground has few spines, but all the later leaves do have them. Photo by Jed Dillard
It’s a calm clear weekday in January. There’s a single buzzard soaring above, two squirrels scurrying in the trees and a pileated woodpecker calling in the distance. It’s hard to imagine this site was the capital of civilization in North Florida some 1200 or more years ago. The visible exception is the weathered remnant of “The Great Mound”, a massive earthen mound forty-six feet high and over 300 feet wide at its base. This is the largest Native American ceremonial mound in Florida, containing millions of twenty pound baskets of earth. Archeological sampling shows the builders mixed different types of earth to create a more stable structure. The mound’s persistence confirms the builders’ wisdom.
Twelve hundred years of erosion and overgrowth contrast with this Park depiction of the Great Mound in it’s heyday
Photo: Jed Dillard
Artifacts show the site was occupied up to 12, 000 years ago, long before the mound was built. The mound’s builders are believed to have been members of the late Swift Creek (200-450 A.D.) and early to middle Weeden Island cultures, a group of Native Americans who lived in North Florida between 450 and 900 A.D. Other authorities have suggested the mound was more of the style of later cultures, for example the Mississippians. Either way, these were relative new comers compared to the Paleoindians. Paleoindian tool marks were found on a mastodon tusk from the Aucilla River bottom and a stone point was found in the skull of a Bison antiquus raised from the Wacissa River bottom. Bison antiquus is believed to have disappeared around 10,000 years ago and the mastodon tusk was carbon dated as 12,000 years old.
The Letchworth-Love Mounds archeological site in western Jefferson County preserves Mound 1, as it’s called in documents. Discovered in 1932, but officially unrecorded until 1975, the mound is surrounded by over twenty mounds outside the park in the area on the shore of Lake Miccosukee. The Lake Jackson Mounds Archeological State Park north of Tallahassee is believed to be a later, separate settlement.
At the height of its functions, the immediate Great Mound complex had 10 smaller mounds and two plazas. The Mound itself had two side platforms, an earthen ramp and a peak styled similar to Meso-American structures. The main village was to the south of the complex near Lloyd Creek. Other high ground near water in the county hold evidence of at least temporary camps and towns.
Now the capital of Florida civilization is 30 miles west in another skyscraper, and the chiefs are debating ownership of the artifacts from the oldest capital. Wouldn’t this be a good time to learn more about our history?
The park is located on South Sun Ray Road off US 90 and is open from sunrise to sunset. Don’t expect a crowd.
Dodder vines covering an oak seedling. The vines always wrap counterclockwise.
Photo Credit: Jed Dillard
Vampires of all types and genetic modifications are hot topics these days, and a common, but uncommon looking and acting Florida weed may have combined the two subjects. Dodder, a native invasive, parasitic plant, reproduces by seed but does not have enough leaves or chlorophyll to feed itself. Its thin, golden vines and tendrils must attach to a host plant in the seven to ten days it takes the plant to exhaust the carbohydrates in its small seed. Once dodder attaches to a plant, it connects to the inside of the host using small structures called haustoria which press into the stem and begin to draw nutrients from the host. At this point the dodder roots atrophy.
Single dodder plants are not a big issue, but once enough plants build up in an area large mats of vines can reduce growth and vitality of the host. (See photo) Frequently, the pest has reached this stage before it’s noticed, leaving the problem of treating a rootless, nearly leafless plant that is wrapped around a more desirable plant. Not only are the typical routes of herbicidal entry minimized, the hosts are at as much risk as the pest. Hand removal may be practical in small outbreaks, but the plant can reemerge from any small piece left attached to the host. In most cases, the solution is to destroy the host and the dodder and apply a pre-emergent herbicide to stop germination from any seeds remaining in the soil.
What about the GMO angle?
Work published last year in the journal Science by Jim Westwood of Virginia Tech reveals the dodder plant exchanges messenger RNA with tomato and Arabidopsis plants when it extracts the juices from the host plant. Scientists speculate this exchange of genetic material makes the host plant less resistant to attack by the parasite and that this holds promise for learning more about controlling other parasitic plants.
If plants are exchanging messenger RNA, a critical part of protein and gene synthesis, what other genetic exchanges are occurring naturally without our knowledge? Scientific progress hinges on unpredictable events and sources. Learning more from a “vampire weed” that has no easy means of control may be one of those.
To see the dodder plant go from seed to golden mat, watch this time lapse video Virginia Tech has posted on Vimeo. http://www.vtnews.vt.edu/articles/2014/08/081514-cals-talkingplants.html