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The canary in the coal mine
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 The title of this article refers to a method coal miners used before sensitive detection equipment and modern ventilation. Miners would take a canary into the mine with them as they worked. Canaries are very sensitive to methane and carbon monoxide and when the canary stopped signing and died, it was time to get out of the mine. The expression “A canary in the coal mine” has evolved to indicate something that occurs or is present that indicates a problem or peril across a variety of situations. Sometimes you will know what the occurrence indicates and other times you notice something off or wrong and need to figure out what it means. 

So how does this relate to agriculture and our environment in general? First, a couple of assumptions are made here. First farmers and ranchers don’t intentionally seek to harm or degrade the environment but realize it’s in their best interests to maintain and improve the environment. Secondly, what is mentioned below involves events or occurrences without seeking to assign an ultimate cause. The purpose is to look around and notice not necessarily just these but any changes where you live.

• If you are curious if surface waters are clean, free of chemical contamination and not necessarily potable, look for duckweed. This small, flowering aquatic plant is very sensitive to chemical conditions in the water such as fertilizers, pH and pesticides.

• Depending on your soil type and location in the state, pay attention to the presence or absence of earthworm casts. These are essentially earthworm manure deposited on the soil surface. If they are present it indicates many things including surface soil moisture, good soil structure, and a relatively neutral soil environment. If they are lacking it can indicate something as simple as dry soil conditions or something more serious such as acid soils.

• Increasing fungal populations, many of which cause plant diseases, indicate acid soils conditions favoring fungi over other soil microorganisms. 

• Moss and/or lichens on the surface of no-till fields are an indication of the surface pH. These organisms prefer acid soil conditions and indicate an acid surface but not necessarily acid conditions below the surface.

• rairie dogs – If prairie dogs move into areas where they weren’t present before, it indicates a shift in the height of the vegetation present. Prairie dogs prefer short grass prairie in order to keep watch for potential predators. This can be due to reasonable haying and grazing or overgrazing resulting in a shift in grass species from taller to shorter.

• Rangelands shifting from original species. When overgrazed, especially under climate stress, something termed retrogression occurs. This is a movement backwards from the prairie species present in an ecologically mature prairie system. From tall to short grasses is one shift and the bigger shift is from grasses to prairie forbs (broadleaves) and invasive weed species under severe disturbance such as sunflower, pigweed, and puncture vine.

There are many more examples but the main take home message is to pay attention to the farm/ranch environment and notice what, if any, major shifts are taking place in plant and animal species and their activities.

Dr. Victor L. Martin is the agriculture instructor/coordinator for Barton Community College. He can be reached at 620-792-9207, ext. 207.