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Published February 23, 2008, 12:00 AM

Addressing soil health and salinity

Workshops are being held next week in two areas of the region on soil health and salinity management issues facing producers.

By: Stefanie Briggs, The Dickinson Press

DICKINSON - Workshops are being held next week in two areas of the region on soil health and salinity management issues facing producers.

The Soil Conservation districts in Dunn and McKenzie counties and the Natural Resource Conservation Service are holding a soil health workshop starting with registration at 9:30 a.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 26, at the Killdeer American Legion.

The next day the Golden Valley Soil Conservation District is having a managing saline soils workshop starting at 10 a.m. at the La Playa Mexican Restaurant in Beach.

Both groups have prepared these new workshops and brought in speakers from around the state to discuss tools, resources and provide information on being good stewards of the land.

Soil health workshop

The first workshop in Killdeer is to discuss the importance of soil health and how cover crops can improve soil health, said Dunn County Soil Conservation District clerk Shannon McPherson.

“This is the first of this magnitude,” McPherson said of the workshop. “We’ve had workshops in the past around this time of year on things like grazing. For this, we’re having speakers come from the Burleigh County district who are doing a lot of speaking on cover crops, cropping diversity and crop rotations.”

Most of the people who work there are also producers and are doing innovative things, he added.

Although the deadline to RSVP is passed, McPherson said people can still call to join the workshop Monday.

“I sent out over 100 letters to Dunn County producers doing no-till farming and ranching,” McPherson said of planning the workshop. “I’ve been calling people to see how many are coming. We’re hoping for a good turn out and expecting around 100 people.”

McPherson and district technician Jolyn Wasem got the idea for the workshop from attending a larger workshop held by the Burleigh County Soil Conservation District in January.

“Cover crops are new here (in Dunn County),” McPherson said. “Burleigh’s workshop had around 500 to 600 people, but we’re looking at doing something on a smaller scale here. Theirs was more detail and ours will be more on the basics (of cover crops).”

The Burleigh County Cover Crop Plot project peaked McPherson’s and Wasem’s interest. The plot project is in its second year and is being done to find ways to improve producers’ soil health with cover crops. It’s a way to build organic matter in a no-till system.

In 2006, those involved in the plot project planted some crops alone and some in a cocktail-type mixture. The mixture of cow peas, soybean, millet, sunflowers, turnips, radishes and sweet clover flourished.

Those from the Burleigh district are having two presentations Tuesday on plant diversity, diverse crop rotations, different crops to plant and the importance of organic matter in soil, Wasem said. Their second presentation discusses how cover crops can benefit both the cash-crop farmers’ and livestock producers’ soil health, Wasem added.

“They also will talk about nutrient cycling, what kind of cover crops can help increase infiltration rates and how cover crops benefit the soil, especially with residue on the soil,” she said.

Another speaker is NRCS area range management specialist Dennis Froemke, who is speaking on how to manage soil quality on rangeland by using proper grazing management.

“He’ll talk about how a producer can manipulate their pastures to feed the bugs in the ground (the bugs working for us),” Wasem said. “Our panel of producers will give a brief description of their operations and how they manage soil health.”

Larry White with Northern Pulse is discussing how feeding peas to cattle works, she added.

Wasem also is a speaker at the event. She is discussing the new soil testing done at the county’s conservation district.

“I’ll do a brief overview of our program, talk about why people should soil test and the importance of watching their organic matter and soluble salts,” Wasem said. “When we send tests in we test for salt content in their soil and if there’s too much or differences from year to year in the soil producers should know about it.”

Some crops are more sensitive to salt, she added.

NRCS Area Resource Soil Scientist Jon Stika is presenting information on how producers test their soil’s health and how to monitor it.

The workshop ends with an open discussion. A meal is included.

Saline soils workshop

The saline soils management workshop is a first for the Golden Valley Soil Conservation District. The workshop stems from a pilot project with producers in the area.

The district’s new salinity management project is one of four statewide projects to receive funding from the Environmental Quality Incentives Program through the NRCS.

It is a saline reclamation program which seeks to identify the increased level of saline impact on surface and groundwater that results in degraded water bodies and reduced crop and forage production.

The project idea for a workshop on salinity started with a tour with the Montana Salinity Control Association that oversees salinity and soil management in that state.

Marty Campbell with the Golden Valley Soil Conservation District said the tour helped her learn more about the ups and downs Montana had and gave her district ideas to possibly pursue. She added it wasn’t about duplicating Montana’s program here.

The pilot program Campbell and others are working on includes a groundwater investigation, which is a series of small-diameter shallow wells a producer monitors to see what the groundwater is doing with the change in soil management.

With this project and the interest it generated with producers in Golden Valley County, the district decided to share theirs and others’ knowledge with the salinity management workshop.

Speakers for the workshop include Montana Salinity Control Association program director Jane Holzer who is presenting twice. Holzer’s first presentation is on the changing land use and called “Salinity: Bringing Back the Land.”

“She’s been director for over 20 years,” Campbell said of Holzer. “When we went to the workshop in Montana she was there and we thought she was a great resource to utilize for our own.”

Holzer’s second presentation discusses saline seeps and the groundwater investigation process.

“Producers are required to do that part,” Campbell said of the groundwater investigation. “She’ll be talking about that process, management in and around that area and what’s impacted.”

Stika also is a speaker in Beach. His discussion is on crop tolerance to salinity.

“Jon is talking about annual crops and watching how yields are affected by salinity,” Campbell said. “The salts can increase and decrease by management in an area or on a site and you can see the influence of yield as salts increase.”

There’s a cycle where eventually the salts can get so high you end up with bare soil and no crop, she added.

Another speaker is NRCS Major Land Resource Area soil survey leader Jeanne Heilig who is discussing soil salinity.

“There are annual crops that are more tolerant of salt and some do well with it,” Campbell said. “Jeanne is talking about soils and how salinity moves. She’ll touch on the basics of what saline does in the soil.”

Another speaker is NRCS Plant Materials Specialist Dwight Tober who is talking about plant materials for salt-affected sites. Tober is sharing research on what is tolerant of salts in the soil, Campbell said.

The workshop ends with a question-and-answer session. A lunch buffet is available midway through the workshop, but is at the public’s expense.

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