More farmers use cover crops to counter salinity
WILLMAR, Minn. -- The fortunes of agricultural economics come and go, but the one thing that must go on is the soil and soil health. That's one of the themes of 2015 Soil Conservation Tillage Conference Dec. 15 and 16 in Willmar, Minn., brought i...
WILLMAR, Minn. - The fortunes of agricultural economics come and go, but the one thing that must go on is the soil and soil health.
That’s one of the themes of 2015 Soil Conservation Tillage Conference Dec. 15 and 16 in Willmar, Minn., brought in about 175 farmers this year, and is recognized as the largest conservation tillage conference in the Midwest.
Jodie DeJong-Hughes, a University of Minnesota regional educator, based in Willmar, has planned the event for 11 years. For the past two years, Abbey Wick, North Dakota State University Extension Service soil health specialist, teamed up as a co-host. The event is unusual in its use of small groups with moderators experienced on a topic, as well as larger break-out speaker-audience sessions.
"This year what's come to life is (interest in) cover crops,” DeJong-Hughes said. "Every session having to do with cover crops was packed. The tables where they were talking about that were two or three farmers deep."
Wick says one of the key issues farmers are trying to solve is the salinity that cripples productivity. Some localized areas in North Dakota also have sodicity, which a sodium-heavy salt problem with different chemistry and different solutions.
Wick says farmers have had a "great two years" of learning about cover crops, especially how they can use them to tackle soil salinity issues. That learning will continue in dozens of "cafe meetings" scheduled this winter throughout the region.
Two great years Salinity is a disorder from high levels of calcium and magnesium, sulfate and chloride issue. It is managed with reduced tillage and reduced evaporation from the surface. Sodicity is a tougher, sodium-based problem often tackled with soil amendments.
"Two similar issues, but two very different management solutions," Wick said. "When a farmer has both salinity and sodicity in the same field, that's a challenge because you have to pick which one you're going to manage first. Typically, we manage the salinity first."
Farmers in the audience were engaged when real farmers talked about their problems and solutions.
One of those talks came from Terry Wehlander, who farms near Milnor, N.D., in Sargent County. Wehlander, who has farmed since 1996, described an "upwelling of salts" along a ditch on North Dakota Highway 13. The land had been in a soybean-corn rotation but salinity had meant 30 to 40 percent of a field wasn't producing.
"We used to work it deep, work it often, and thought that was the answer, and it turned out it wasn't," Wehlander said.
In 2013, he met Wick and started using cover crops, vertical tillage as the main tillage tool in a "minimum till situation with some no-till in it," and worked to leave cover on the soil. One technique used radishes to penetrate the ground to "take this from a salty, almost tar-road-looking soil to get it back into production." It's a little more time consuming to get the cover crops on the land.
More small grains The electrical conductivity - a soil salinity rating - indicated some of Wehlander’s soil was more appropriate for planting salt-tolerant crops, such as barley, than corn or soybeans. Some of his soil was up to a 7 EC rating, which "won't even grow a weed," he said. Wehlander returned small grains to the rotation and followed up with the cover crops to get soil health back - better soil particle aggregation, get some water infiltration back and keep a cover crop to keep the salts down.
"The barley crop kind of surprised me,” he said.
Wehlander said the salty parcel is a "dollars and cents" issue, but also a determination to keep "family ground" productive for posterity.
He said, as farmers face lower commodity prices, conservation farming fits in.
"I do see a lot of farmers wanting to cut back on their tillage passes because it costs so much to do it, or they want to cut back on labor, or they're tired of seeing their soils blow away and having to replace their fertility in the soil," he said.
Fertility is a perennial issue in the conference - how to place nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. Some speakers talked about fertility timing and method - fall, spring, banded or not banded, as well as products and rates. Residue management is a concern that goes with conservation tillage.
DeJong-Hughes said some of the small group learning techniques are similar to those used in 24th annual National No-Tillage Conference. The national meeting takes place Jan. 6 to 9, at Marriott Downtown in Indianapolis, Ind. For information on that conference, visit NoTillConference.com.