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Published March 24, 2014, 09:17 AM

Interest in soil health grows in Upper midwest

Jerry Sikorski, a pilot and farmer, saw from the air years ago how erosion was hurting U.S. farmland. That led the veteran Ekalaka, Mont., producer to search for ways to protect his own soil.

By: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek

Jerry Sikorski, a pilot and farmer, saw from the air years ago how erosion was hurting U.S. farmland. That led the veteran Ekalaka, Mont., producer to search for ways to protect his own soil. For nearly two decades, Sikorski has used a variety of practices to make his farm’s soil safer and healthier.

“We need to take care of our soil,” says Sikorski, who farms 20 miles from the Montana-South Dakota border.

Darrin Schmidt, a 25-year-old Niagara, N.D., farmer, is feeling his way in soil health. The upcoming growing season will be the second year he’s paid close attention to healthy soil, and he’s learning as he goes.

“I started with a small number of acres. I’m inching my way ahead,” says Schmidt, who farms in northeast North Dakota. “But I think there are good reasons to stick with it.”

In differing degrees, many farmers across the Upper Midwest are paying more attention to soil health. Their motives vary, as do the tools they’re using. Despite the differences, however, there’s a growing consensus that farmers and ranchers can strengthen their operations by sharpening their focus on healthy soil.

Area farmers have worked for decades to limit the amount of soil lost to wind and soil erosion. What’s different now is that producers are increasingly concerned with the quality of their soil, not just its quantity.

There are skeptics, says Stephanie McLain, Nobles (Minn.) County Natural Resources Conservation Service district conservationist in southwest Minnesota.

“Some (producers) come in to the office and say it’s not going to work here,” she says.

Her response: It’s working elsewhere, and it can work here, too.

Reasons for interest

Experts say there are many reasons for producers’ growing interest in soil health. The list includes:

• Passing on productive farmland to future generations.

• Reducing the use of fuel and other costly inputs.

• Improving yields.

• Fighting the spread of herbicide-resistant weeds.

• Making better use of soil moisture.

• Enhancing wildlife habitat.

In Montana, “There’s the full range (of motives). Some people expect to see fairly fast economic responses. And there are people who want to pass on healthy land,” says Clain Jones, soil fertility specialist with the Montana State University Extension Service.

Experts also stress that no single approach to soil health works best for everyone.

“You’ve got to find out what’s right for your farm. I know what’s best for me, but that might not be best for you,” Sikorski says.

That’s particularly true in the sprawling Upper Midwest, which encompasses everything from farms that raise only corn and soybeans to operations that produce livestock, small grains and other crops. Even neighboring farms can best address soil health with differing approaches, experts say.

In most cases, though, improving soil health means less soil tillage and planting more and different plants that add to the soil’s organic matter, experts say.

Heavily tilled fields featuring bare, black soil are a particular no-no for soil health advocates.

“No bare ground,” Sikorski says.

The soil is alive

Dieticians say eating a variety of foods from different food groups helps humans be healthier. Conservationists say it’s the same with soil: the more types of plants that are grown on a field, the healthier the soil.

Charles Johnson, a veteran Madison, S.D., organic farmer, uses this analogy: a healthy community needs a variety of buildings for its residents to live and work in, and a variety of foods for residents to eat. Likewise, healthy soil needs a variety of plants to provide shelter and food for the organisms in it.

Soil is living and contains billions of different organisms from millions of species, says Kristine Nichols, a soil microbiologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agriculture Research Service in Mandan, N.D.

She gave a presentation at a recent soil health workshop in Grand Forks, N.D.

Nichols and others point to the “soil food web,” a term that’s gaining wider use. It refers to the community of organisms living in or on the soil and how that community interacts with plants, animals and the environment.

There’s no quick or simple definition of soil health, sometimes known as soil quality. But soil health generally refers to the combination of physical, chemical and biological properties allowing soil to function as a living organism that supports plants, animals and humans.

Important tools

The use of cover crops, or crops grown specifically to improve soil health, not for harvest and sale, is a good entry point, experts say.

“Cover crops are usually something we recommend,” says Paul Bjorg, with the NRCS office in Grand Forks.

Cover crops almost always include a mix of crops, often including turnip, radish, millet and peas, among many others.

McLain describes cover crops as “a partnership, not an end-all or be-all. You just can’t put a cover crop out there and not use herbicide anymore or quit fertilizing your fields,” she says.

“You look at a balance. What can I do? What can the biology that lives underground do for us?” she says.

Longer rotations, or increasing the number of crops grown on a field over time, are another important tool.

One example: A long-term study by Iowa State University found that adding crops such as wheat to a corn and soybean rotation, which is common in the state, brings many benefits, including higher yields, better weed management and reduced fuel use.

Experts across the region stress the importance of longer rotations in fighting herbicide-resistant weeds. Resistance to glyphosate, a popular herbicide often sold under the brand name Roundup, is a particular concern.

‘Repurposing crop fields’

Some area farmers have, over time, “compartmentalized” their operations McLain says.

“A corn/soybean field is just a corn/soybean field. A pasture is just a pasture,” he says.

In the past few years, however, some farmers in her area who raise both crops and livestock have “repurposed crop fields,” she says.

They’ve planted cover crops on their cropland to provide additional forage for their animals. The cover crops can help control weeds in their crops, too, McLain says.

Experts say cover crops generally have greater appeal to ag producers with both crops and livestock. Using cover crops on fields to enhance soil health provides forage for the livestock, making the cover crops more attractive and valuable.

But experts say greater use of cover crops also can help farmers who don’t have livestock.

For example, using cover crops helps water infiltrate the soil after heavy rains. That way, water from big early and mid-summer rains sinks into the soil, rather than running off it, allowing crops such as corn and soybeans to draw on the moisture in late summer, McClain says.

Turning back the clock

Once, cover crops and “long rotations” (planting many different crops on a field over time) were common across much of the Upper Midwest. The growing use of tillage and chemical fertilizer, however, made cover crops and multicrop rotations increasingly unusual.

“Till, till, till. That’s how we always did things growing up (on the family farm),” Schmidt says.

Sikorski, the Montana farmer, has this advice: “Park the discs and the moldboard plow and the toolbars. Just park 'em. Find a good seeding system that doesn’t disturb the soil or has the least amount of disturbance.”

Jay Fuhrer, NRCS Burleigh (N.D.) County district conservationist, is another longtime advocate of soil health.

“At one time, we were more reliant on crop rotation. It has so many benefits,” he says.

“We’ve been simplifying our landscape over the years. It’s come down to fewer and fewer crops. As we moved from complexity to simplicity, we increase our reliance on all kinds of fossil fuel inputs,” he says.

“As we move from simplicity to complexity (return to greater use of cover crops and longer rotations), it works the other way. We need fewer and fewer artificial inputs,” Fuhrer says.

Organic farmers, a distinct minority in the Upper Midwest, have always stressed crop diversity and soil health.

Now, some of their long-held beliefs are being adapted by conventional farmers.

“There’s no ‘I-told-you-so’ from me,” Johnson says.

The real issue is finding ways to improve and sustain soil health, he says.

Ag producers who want to improve soil health will find ways of doing it, McClain says.

“Farmers are very inventive. If farmers want to make something work, they’ll find a way to do it,” she says. “The desire to want to make it happen is the important thing.”

Trade-offs

Some in agriculture say that while most farmers generally believe in the importance of soil health, putting those beliefs into practice might be difficult when farm profits are low. For example, a farmer who’s struggling financially might plant the crop that promises the best short-term economic return, even though going with another crop would promote soil health and be in his own best long-term interest.

Soil health advocates say they’re familiar with those concerns.

“There are trade-offs,” Jones says. “The grower has to pay the bills first. How much economic risk is the grower willing to take to improve soil quality?”

When crop prices or soil moisture, or both, are good, producers might be more inclined to make decisions that bolster soil health, he says.

When prices or soil moisture, or both, aren’t so good, producers might be more inclined to do what’s best for that year’s cash crop, he says.

McClain says there’s a “learning curve” to balancing short-term economic concerns and long-term soil health.

“We can’t control Mother Nature. We need to go with the flow a little bit,” she says.

For instance, in a dry spring, farmers might terminate cover crops earlier than usual to save moisture for their cash crop. In a normal or wetter-than-normal spring, farmers can let the cover crops grow longer, benefitting soil health, she says.

Fuhrer takes this approach to the economics of soil health: “It’s much more like an investment in our farm. We’re investing into our soil. That’s true wealth. Each individual has to decide where that fits for them,” he says.

Getting started

Soil health experts offer these starting points to anyone interested in learning more about soil health:

• Talk with your county extension agent.

• Contact your state extension service. Most state extension services in the Upper Midwest have at least one expert on soil health or soil fertility.

• Visit the nearest Natural Resources Conservation District office.

• Talk with farmers already using practices that promote soil health.

Schmidt, the Niagara, N.D., farmer who’s moving slowly with soil health, suggests other farmers new to soil health do the same.

“Start with a small number with acres. You don’t have to move into it all at once,” he says.

He also stresses the importance of patience and commitment.

“Don’t judge what you’re doing by just (results in) the first year. It takes time,” he says.

Improving soil health doesn’t guarantee good crops or profitability, Sikorski says.

“You still have wrecks (poor crops) now and then,” he says.

A late, wet spring, for example, hurts all farmers, including ones concerned about soil health, he says.

Sikorski stresses that he’s not an expert and doesn’t have all the answers. But he’s sure of one thing: “I just know that you’ll be successful if you take care of the soil,” he says.

Upcoming conference

If you’d like to learn more about soil health and conservation in agriculture, consider attending the Sixth World Congress on Conservation Agriculture June 22 to 25 in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

The event, sometimes referred to as WCCA6, will showcase the practical application of conservation practices to improve ag sustainability. More than 50 speakers will help highlight innovation and grower success.

The Manitoba/North Dakota Zero-Tillage Farmers Association is one of the organizations involved in the event.

More information: www.wcca6.org.

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