Abbey Wick, NDSU Extension Soil Health Specialist
I am often asked this question: "Is using only cereal rye as a cover crop enough or do I need more diversity?" My answer is, "It depends on what you are trying to do with that cover crop." One goal of using cover crops is to build diversity in the cropping system, but there are plenty of other goals associated with using cover crops, such as reducing erosion or managing moisture or weeds to name a few. The most important step in using cover crops successfully is to determine what your goal is. You can then pick cover crops around those goals and also crops in rotation.
Managing salinity in fields is not easy and may require multiple tools or approaches to bring salt-affected areas back into some sort of production. I say "some sort of" because it's important to set reasonable expectations for these salt-affected areas. Some of these areas may have been your best land 20 years ago, but things have changed as the salts have redistributed throughout the profile and across the landscape with changes in water amount and movement. Expectations for these areas need to change too.
Linking research to on-farm application is really important, especially in the world of soil health. To do this effectively, farmers should be an integral part of the conversation.
Aggregation is an excellent indicator of soil health, especially when a shift in management practices happens on-farm. Water and air movement in the soil along with trafficability improve when aggregates develop. Organic matter, biological activity (whether it be earthworms or microbes) and root development are all linked to aggregation and generally improve as aggregation increases. The best part about aggregation is that it's easy to evaluate in the field with a shovel.
Being observant and asking questions about how different practices work for spring planting conditions is important for learning and advancing management. Keep an open mind and look at the practices used collectively and objectively. Don't be quick to judge each field and be sure to think through the system.
Over the past several years, I have started using Twitter as a tool for getting and sharing information related to #soilhealth. I was reluctant to use this social media tool until Daryl Ritchison, the interim director of the North Dakota Agricultural Weather Network (@DarylRitchison), convinced me to sign on in July 2015. Since then, I have connected with more than 4,500 people in the Twitter-sphere from all over North Dakota and the world.
After a winter full of great discussions, it's clear there are a lot of farmers with cereal in their fields who will be managing that cover crop this spring. So, here are a few pointers to make sure everyone has a plan. These are just guidelines and it needs to be said that Risk Management Agency guidelines require cereal rye to be terminated in advance of planting a cash crop.
A farmer said to me the other day, "I didn't used to know anyone who was interested in soil health and now I have all these connections after going to your meetings." This got me thinking about how important it is for farmers to get to know other farmers or specialists who share similar interests. It's great to bounce ideas off each other when working on management plans for a new approach. It can also come in handy when they run into an issue and start second guessing if they did the right thing. So how do you meet other people with similar interests?
A Jan. 22 "Grazing Cover Crops" workshop in Rutland, N.D. brought in farmers and ranchers from hundreds of miles away, which led to excellent discussion for various conditions and systems. We had five sessions led by North Dakota State University specialists and researchers, so I'll highlight the top points from each session.
There have had cafe talks in Lisbon, N.D., Rutland, N.D., and McVille, N.D., so far this year. The talks have been well attended, ranging from 15 to 35 people, which means we've had some great discussions. Here are the top three topics that have come up across all three cafe talks.