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Published October 17, 2011, 02:15 PM

Conservationists testing no-till on organic acres

KIDDER COUNTY, N.D. — Soil conservationist professionals like organic grain production, but they want to help organic producers quit doing so much tillage to control weeds.

By: Mikkel Pates, Agweek

KIDDER COUNTY, N.D. — Soil conservationist professionals like organic grain production, but they want to help organic producers quit doing so much tillage to control weeds.

Kidder County (N.D.) Soil Conservation District is in year one of multiyear study that they hope will last at least three years, aiming to try to help organic farmers do that.

The county ranks among the top five in the country for organic acres. There are some 47 producers of organic commodities in the Kidder County, which once was the first to hit the limit of 25 percent of its crop acres in the Conservation Reserve Program.

The tour included field-sized trials of up to 30 acres on four sites in the county. The district and the NRCS are sharing the cost through an agreement.

Separately, the district board in the past summer invested $13,000 in a “roller-crimper” made by I&J Manufacturing of Pennsylvania. It’s has large blades and is far more aggressive than others typically used in the region. Like other rollers for various purposes, the operator can fill the roller drums with water to change the weight for different purposes.

Aggressive roller

The roller was designed by the Rodale Institute in Pennsylvania, says Josh Schmaltz, district technician. Theoretically, if the stalk is kinked at the proper time, the plant won’t “want to regrow,” while mowing can stimulate regrowth, Schmaltz says. With rye and triticale, for example, the kinking is done at true flowering and pollinating stage.

The district will rent it out, primarily for organic producers who need new techniques because of the restrictions on herbicides for weed control.

“We hope they can get a cover crop growing, then come down and crush this and be able to seed right behind it,” says Jack Spah of Tuttle, N.D., who is a conventional farmer but is the district’s chairman.

Susan Liebig, a soils quality specialist in the Natural Resources Conservation Service state office in Bismarck, N.D., was a speaker on the tour. She emphasizes the potential benefits of going no-till on organic.

Keeping soil undisturbed can improve such things as the Cation Exchange Capacity rates and infiltration rates, although she notes some of the region’s sandier soils have such a high level of infiltration that nutrients leach through the system quickly. She says organic farmers should look to increase organic matter, which can holds on to those nutrients.

Liebig says “soil ‘food web’ analysis” tests, which are more extensive and expensive than conventional soil tests for nutrients, indicate the “soil habitats,” or “soil biology” especially in the top 3 inches of soil. Conventional soil tests measure things such as nitrogen and potash and organic matter, but the food web tests taking measurements of bacteria, fungi and their activity levels, among other things.

Academic vs. practical

She thinks no-till procedures should change the ratios in organic farming to balance these microbial groups over a period of time — perhaps three to five years. She believes that in the future, farmers will get detailed DNA results on the fungi in their soils as a standard course of business.

Scientists don’t have complete understanding of how these systems work, Liebig says, but the soil food web analysis indicates how much organic matter is in the soil, ready to be taken up by plants.

“In a system that’s been tilled, that value is going to be low,” she says.

Opening the soil can cause the soil to heat up with exposure to the sun and kill beneficial fungi and other microorganisms.

At a site on land near Pettibone, N.D., farmed by Justin Olson of Tappen, N.D., the district came in on Sept. 9, just after flax was harvested, and they seeded winter triticale, peas and radishes. This was the fifth or sixth organic crop on that land, he says.

The intent is that, in the spring, the winter triticale will come on strong enough to suppress most of the weeds. At the end of May and the beginning of June when the triticale gets into the flowering stage, the goal is to roll it down with the new crimper-roller and have a thick “mat” so that the producer can come in and seed buckwheat into it on a no-till system and then produce a crop.

Schmaltz says they’ll attempt to plant in the same direction they have rolled.

“If you have to cut it, you’re going to have more ‘hair-pinning’ issues,” which means less seed-to-soil contact, he says.

A tour site on Anne Ongstad’s “Whitman Ranch” near Robinson, N.D., was a field she’d acquired this past winter. Last year was conventionally farmed flax, and the year before that, it was an alfalfa/grass mixture.

First time around

That site had barley planted in 2011, with hail damage. The main fall cover crop, planted Aug. 6, also was barley. This was supplemented with peas, turnips, radish, teff and chickling vetch, although it didn’t produce as much fall barley growth as expected, considering early planting and seemingly sufficient rain and warmth. The district will use the roller-crimper in the spring although the winter-killed barley down sufficiently by itself to allow for planting a crop in spring.

“The biggest problem is to get something on this early enough to get weed suppression,” Schmaltz says.

At the Ongstads’, the goal is to look for an earlier crop in the spring to get ahead of the weeds.

“We’re not going to have the ‘mat’ we wanted there,” Schmaltz predicts.

One of the issues in Kidder County is the disappearance of CRP, which most of the people in the group seemed to see as a plus for soil health. True, the CRP allowed the soil to “rest” or “heal” from past unspecific management that degraded it, Leibig says.

“But it’s better if you can have the land in production in a sustainable manner, so that it doesn’t continue to degrade,” Leibig says.

If you can increase the diversity of the plants above ground, “you’re going to build the soil quality because you’re going to be enhancing what’s happening below ground through the biology, and soil physical and chemical properties,” Leibig says. “Before it was put into grass (in the CRP), it really wasn’t in a healthy state. The soil wasn’t functioning the way we need it to function.”

She says by covering it with grass in CRP, it “at least let the soil habitat rebuild,” but in time, you “need to start diversity above-ground.”