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‘How Far North Can We Grow' project boosts northeast ND cover crops

DEVILS LAKE, N.D. — Matt Nelson began "experimenting" with cover crops in 2012 and doesn't expect them to provide quick or easy solutions.

He says he has "a long-term timetable," one that includes enhancing soil health on his Lakota, N.D., farm and incorporating them into Lakota-based Redline Agri Services, which Nelson owns and operates.

Nelson, an airline pilot for 14 years before returning to Lakota to farm in 2011, hopes that his participation in the "How Far North Can We Grow? 49th Parallel Cover Crop Project" will help him and others in northern North Dakota make greater use of cover crops.

He was among 40 people, including farmer/participants and conservation professionals, who attended a group meeting/update on the four-year project Jan. 18 in Devils Lake, N.D. He's also among 32 farmers participating in the project.

"There are challenges in growing cover crops in northeast North Dakota, and we're trying to address them," said Paul Overby, a Wolford, N.D., farmer, businessman and veteran conservationist who organized and directs the project.

Cover crops, increasingly popular across the Upper Midwest, are raised primarily to improve soil health, not for harvest and sale. The many types of cover crops — sometimes known simply as "covers" by farmers and others — includes grasses, turnips, clover and forage radish.

But northeast North Dakota's relatively cool, wet and short-season climate have limited cover crops' appeal. Cash crops often are planted later in the spring and harvested later in the summer or fall, reducing the length of time that cover crops can grow and consequently reducing their benefit.

"Climate data shows that this part of the state is the coolest, and yet it's also in the upper range of being the wettest," Overby said.

Though some farmers in the area have raised cover crops, "There is little documentation of success and failures or sharing of results to improve the overall practice," according to information from Overby

How far north can we grow?

So Overby organized the project, which began May 2015 and will end on Sept. 30, 2019, to help farmers in nine northeast North Dakota countries: Benson, Cavalier, Nelson, Pembina, Pierce, Ramsey, Rolette, Towner and Walsh. Farmers raise many crops in the nine countries, which combined have about 5,600 farms and 5.4 million acres of cropland.

Of those 5.4 million acres, only about 20,000 acres have cover crops — a rate that's slightly less than half the state average, according to information from Overby.

The project seeks to boost northeast North Dakota cover crop acreage by developing "optimal species mixes, seeding rates and seeding methods to enhance cover crop enhancement and survival" and demonstrating and quantifying "the effects of cover crops on soil chemical, physical and biological properties."

The project has strong support from conservation professionals, including federal, state and county conservationists, as well as several private companies. Several Manitoba conservationists and conservation groups are involved in the project, as well,

The 49th Parallel North is the border between the Canadian provinces of British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba to the north, and the U.S. states of Washington, Idaho, Montana, North Dakota and Minnesota to the south.

The project potentially can be of value in parts of northwest Minnesota and southern Manitoba, given their similarities to northeast North Dakota, Overby said.

Mary Podoll, NRCS state conservationist for ND, greets members of the 49th Parallel Cover Crop Project.

'Phenomenal project'

"It's a phenomenal project," said Mary Podoll, North Dakota state conservationist.

The biggest benefit it provides may be giving participants an opportunity to discuss what practices are and aren't working on their farms, she said.

Nelson said he values sharing information with other participants.

"They've succeeded with some things that haven't worked for me, and I've been able to learn from them. And they've been able to learn from some of my mistakes," he said.

Participants also benefit from greater access to high-level conservation advice. At the meeting in Devils Lake, for example, Skye Willis, an Omaha, Neb.-based soil scientist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Services, talked about dynamic soil properties.

They're soil properties that change with disturbances and stressors that include agricultural and wildlife management. More information:

Cover crops most often are touted for improving soil health, and doing so is the primary goal of the 49th Parallel North project.

But cover crops help in other ways, including enhancing wildlife habitat, managing salt issues, increasing water use and breaking up soil compaction. The project addresses those other benefits, too, especially water use: Northeast North Dakota generally has faced a long wet cycle and many farmers there have suffered from excess moisture.

Increasing water use in fields also might help combat long-standing flooding in North Dakota's Devils Lake, which is in the nine-county area, according to the project proposal.

USDA ARS soil scientist Mark Liebig gives a presentation during a meeting of the 49th Parallel Cover Crop Project.

Data heavy

The project uses what's known as "adaptive management," or experimenting with cover crops to adapt and learn from experiences at a given site. And it encourages producers to use various methods for establishing cover crops; the list includes aerial application, one of the reasons for Nelson's involvement.

The project has a "heavy data-collection component." Analyzing that data takes times and isn't completed yet, Overby said.

But these are some preliminary conclusions:

• Getting cover crops planted by the first week of September is important.

• Fall-planted cover crops take up significant amounts of nitrogen, an essential fertilizer, and store it in the vegetation, which helps the following year's cash crops.

• There's no sign that cover crops left to die from frost are making soils cooler or wetter the following spring.

• There's no sign of significant reduction in available nutrients to the next year's cash crop because of cover crops.

Nelson said the project's reliance on collecting data makes it especially valuable to him.

"There's before and after (the use of cover crops) soil testing. Trying to quantify that stuff really sets this program apart," he said.

Among the things he's learned: planting cover crops early is essential, cover crops don't take away nutrients from his cash crops; and it's important to pick cover crops that work with cash crops planted the following year.

"We have three years of data now, and we've learned quite a bit," Nelson said. "It's a very good project."