Abbey Wick, NDSU Extension Soil Health Specialist
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.
Within the realm of soil health, there is the idea presented of "building soil health" in farming systems. But, what does soil health mean? Can you measure whether you've built soil health or not? Does thinking about soil health in this way lead to objectively evaluating a field and coming up with a plan to address issues you see?
The Midwest Cover Crops Council ( mccc.msu.edu/) Annual Meeting is coming to Fargo, N.D., on March 13-14, 2018. The MCCC is a regional organization that engages researchers, educators and farmers using cover crops in Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota, Wisconsin and Ontario. This meeting is an excellent opportunity to share science-based and practical information that is being applied on-farm across the region.
There are multiple people and organizations supporting soil health efforts in North Dakota. I'd like to give insight on how some organizations have provided support over the past several years — specifically the commodity councils and commissions. Being farmer-based organizations, I think this is an excellent way that farmers have gotten involved with soil health.
For the past four years, Soil Health Cafe Talks have been a big part of the January and February Extension meeting season. The goal of the Cafe Talks is to bring farmers, consultants, North Dakota State University specialists and researchers together in an informal environment to talk about soil health related topics.
Throughout the year, I hear from farmers about the benefits they see when using a soil health building system that includes cover crops and reduced tillage — things they are thankful for as they reflect on the hard work invested in building up their soils and re-evaluating approaches to fit their on-farm goals. I'll share a few of the things I hear:
More farmers are showing interest in and using an approach called bio strip-till, where specific cover crops are planted in individual strips after the harvest of an early season crop. Goals for using this approach typically include a combination of (1) creating a dark strip in the field with residue to simulate strip till, (2) opening up the soil for cash crop root growth, (3) to keep competitive winter annual species like cereal rye out of the cash crop planting row, and (4) residue management to keep problematic residue out of the planting strip.
The benefits of using soil health-building practices, like cover crops and reduced tillage, can often be seen during planting and at harvest when heavy equipment is in the field. The reason for this is improved trafficability. Incorporating cover crops in rotation helps: (1) manage moisture through transpiration by the plant and down into the soil along root channels and (2) increases root volume in the soil to wrap around soil particles and build aggregates.
Timing is important when it comes to using and managing cover crops — for example, termination timing, timing for interseeding and timing for seeding date post-harvest. This means cover crops should have a level of management similar to cash crops to get the most out of the investment and avoid any potential issues. Termination timing