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Published March 11, 2014, 05:25 PM

Grand Forks, N.D., conference promotes soil health

The Red River Valley region’s soil formed over 9,000 years. Speakers at a Grand Forks, N.D., conference have some suggestions on how farmers and ranchers can keep their precious soil healthy and productive.

By: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek

GRAND FORKS, N.D. — The Red River Valley region’s soil formed over 9,000 years. Speakers at a Grand Forks, N.D., conference have some suggestions on how farmers and ranchers can keep their precious soil healthy and productive.

The second annual Grand Forks Soil Health Workshop on March 11 drew about 100 agriculturalists, most from northeast North Dakota and northwest Minnesota. A group of local, county, state and federal organizations sponsored the event.

“We want to help operators and landlords learn more about what’s going on in their soil,” said Paul Bjorg, with the Grand Forks office of the Natural Resources Conservation Service, an agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and one of the conference sponsors.

Speakers looked at issues ranging from saline vs. sodic soil to the role of holistic management practices.

Saline soil is a major concern in the Red River Valley of eastern North Dakota and western Minnesota. Roughly $150 million in annual revenue is lost because of saline soil, according to information presented at the conference.

Too often, however, farmers and others in agriculture mistakenly lump saline soils (ones with excess soluble salts) with sodic soils (ones with excess sodium), said Tom DeSutter, an associate professor of soil science at North Dakota State University and a speaker at the Grand Forks conference.

Sometimes, one or both are referred to as “alkali,” when in fact “saline-affected soil” or “sodium-affected soil” is more descriptive. Diagnosing the problem properly — determining if there is too much salt, sodium or both in the soil — is essential to dealing with it, DeSutter said.

Sodium-affected soil is a major concern in parts of the Upper Midwest, but not the Red River Valley, DeSutter said.

Both saline soil and sodic soil can hurt plant growth. Salts decrease water uptake and can be toxic to plants. Sodic soils usually have a dense, root-restricting layer than hurts fertility.

Salinity can be tackled in several ways, including drainage and planting crops, such as barley, that tolerate salt relatively well.

Nonetheless, “There’s no magic potion” in managing saline soil, DeSutter said.

‘Soil food web’

The “soil food web” is vital in soil health, said Hal Weiser, a Jamestown, N.D-based soil health specialist with the NRCS and a speaker at the conference.

The term refers to all living organisms in the soil — everything from the tiniest one-celled bacteria to earthworms, insects and plants. The organisms eat, grow and move through the soil, helping to keep it healthy.

Weiser and other speakers stressed the importance of keeping a diverse mix of plants on the soil, enhancing the soil food web and soil health.

That diversity should include cover crops, or crops grown primarily to improve soil health, not for harvest and sale.

“Cover crops are a good starting point” for farmers and others interested in improving soil health, Bjorg said.

Using cover crops often is more attractive to producers with both livestock and crops than it is to farmers who raise only crops, said Jerry Doan, owner-operator of Black Leg Ranch near McKenzie, N.D., which includes cow-calf operations and farming.

Cover crops can provide forage for livestock, enhancing their value, Doan said.

But cover crops also can help cut expenses and increase yields of crops grown for harvest and sale, he said.

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