Farmers urged to make soil health a priority

Soil is alive. And like any living organism, it needs to be kept healthy.That's how a growing number of farmers and ranchers in northeast North Dakota and northwest Minnesota view soil health, an increasingly common topic in Upper Midwest agricul...

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Soil is alive. And like any living organism, it needs to be kept healthy.
That’s how a growing number of farmers and ranchers in northeast North Dakota and northwest Minnesota view soil health, an increasingly common topic in Upper Midwest agriculture. Once, soil health was seen primarily as reducing erosion. Protecting soil from wind and water remains a priority. But now soil is treated by many agricultural producers as a living organism that can be helped or hurt by farming practices.
“We’re trying to relate it (soil health) to human health,” says Abbey Wick, North Dakota State University extension soil health specialist. Farmers are doing the same things to their soils as people do their bodies. They see soil as something that’s alive and that can be kept healthy,”
Agricultural producers treat soil health as “an opportunity to be stewards of the land. They’re looking at the longevity of their land and passing it on to future generations, possibly in better condition than they received it,” she says.

The most common method of improving and enhancing soil health is the use of cover crops. Such crops, which often include radishes, turnips and sweet clover, are grown primarily to improve soil health, not to harvest and sell. They reduce erosion, improve soil’s physical and biological properties, supply nutrients, suppress weeds and break pest cycles, among other benefits, according to information from the Natural Resources Conservation Service.
The NRCS, an arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, provides farmers and ranchers with technical and financial assistance for conservation.
Cover crops are the most popular and widely used soil health tool in northwest Minnesota, says Shawnn Balstad, Ada, Minn.-based district conservationist with NRCS.
Planting multi-species cover crops rather than a single-species cover crop - using a mix of cover crops instead of just one - is most effective, she says.
Other tools
Minimizing soil disturbance also promotes soil health. The use of no-till or limited-till planting, which limits soil disturbance during planting, is a key tool. No-till is most popular in areas with light soils and limited rainfall; it’s less common in the Red River Valley, where heavy, often-wet soil isn’t always conducive to the practice. Even so, no-till farming is widespread in northeast North Dakota and northwest Minnesota.
Integrating livestock into ag operations can enhance soil health, too. Once, most Upper Midwest ag producers raised both crops and livestock, making it fairly easy for them to incorporate manure into their fields as a fertilizer. Over time, many producers got out of livestock to focus on crops, liming those on-farm opportunities.
But growing emphasis on soil health is encouraging some ag producers to reconsider the benefits of livestock, experts say.
Increasing crop diversity - rotating three or four different types of cash crops, rather than just one or two, on a field - is another important way to help soil health. Doing so brings many benefits, including improving soil fertility, reducing the need for chemical fertilizer and increasing yields.
In this area, increasing diversity typically involves adding a small grain, usually wheat, to a rotation that had consisted only of corn and soybeans.
“I’m hearing more farmers saying, ‘This land needs small grains,’” Wick says.
Ages, ag downturn
Farmers and ranchers of all ages, not just younger ones entering agriculture, are pursuing soil health, Wick says.
“It’s really encouraging to have both the younger and older generations showing interest,” she says. “The younger generation is looking at their future. The older generation, they’re emotionally connected to the land and their family and the next generation taking over. They’re looking at it (soil health) as, ‘What can I do now in my final years of farming to prepare the land for them?’”
Some in area ag have wondered whether the current downturn in farm prices and profitability will hamper efforts to improve and enhance soil health. The concern is, farmers will be under so much financial pressure to stay in business that they’ll cut corners on long-term soil health.
“I get a lot of questions from farmers on that,” Wick says. “But I don’t think it (enhancing soil health) has to be expensive.”
Some things that can improve soil health, such as reducing tillage and holding down fuel costs, actually save money, she says.
“There’s a lot of room for these practices to be adopted even in times we’re stressed financially,” she says.

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