Protecting Water Resources While Maintaining Agricultural Production Goals
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Water is vital to a productive and growing economy in the United States, directly and indirectly affecting the production of goods and services in many sectors (USEPA, 2012). Thus, protecting both the quantity and quality of water is paramount for future generations. This often starts with a healthy soil ecosystem that optimizes soil function to efficiently capture and utilize water and nutrients. Soil health has received renewed interest, partly due to the release of the USDA-NRCS Soil Health Initiative in Fall 2012. Soil health has been defined as the capacity of a soil to function, within land use and ecosystem boundaries, to sustain biological productivity, maintain environmental health, and promote plant, animal, and human health (Doran and Zeiss, 2000). As soil health promoting practices are highly encouraged, there remains many unknowns in their effectiveness to improve soil health, not to mention that a quantitative approach to measure soil health is highly debated. McBrantley et al. (2014) noted there is little value in talking about soil health of any given soil, unless there is an understanding of how 'healthy' it can actually be. Research is warranted to quantify the effectiveness of soil health promoting practices to ensure agronomic, environmental and economic sustainability.Continuous tillage and monoculture cropping systems coupled with increased demand for water resources among various entities has led to critical sustainability thresholds in semi-arid cropping systems. Healthy soils help optimize inputs and maximize nutrient and water use efficiencies. In 2009, the United States accounted for 25% or nearly 70 million acres of the World's acres in no-till (Derpsch et al., 2010). However, semi-arid environments of the Southern Great Plains continue to lag behind. It has been estimated that conservation tillage is practiced on nearly 70% of Southeast U.S. production acres, which is in contrast to an estimated 16% of production acres in Texas (USDA-ERS, 2011). Only 5% of wheat producers in the Southern Great Plains implement no-till practices compared to 80% utilizing conventional till practices (Ali, 2002). The main barriers to its adoption continue to be, knowledge on how to do it (know how), mindset (tradition, prejudice), inadequate policies as commodity based subsidies, availability of adequate machines, availability of suitable herbicides to facilitate weed management, and soil compaction concerns (Friedrich et al. 2009b). Time, labor and fuel savings as well as higher economic returns associated with conservation tillage in relation to unsustainable tillage practices are the driving forces for adoption..........