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(NDSU soil science department photo)

Soil health 'a tool,' not 'a silver bullet'

RED LAKE FALLS, Minn. — In 1983, David Miller took a soils class at the University of Minnesota Crookston which introduced him to the importance of organic matter and soil coverage. Since returning to his home farm in 1989, he's worked to implement those concepts and to boost soil health in general.

"What I've always tried to do is make the best use of the resources I'm given," said the Red Lake Falls, Minn., farmer.

David Miller, a Red Lake Falls, Minn., farmer hosted the "Dirt Rich" educational event Aug. 28 on his farm.To help others do the same, Miller hosted a "Dirt Rich" educational program on his farm Aug. 28. About 50 people attended the program, which consisted of classroom study in the morning and discussion and analysis in the field in the afternoon. It sought to help participants explore soil health opportunities, challenges and monitoring with soil health experts, most of them from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service.

The event was organized by Minnesota's Sustainable Farming Association, which describes its mission as supporting "the development and enhancement of sustainable farming systems through farmer-to-farmer networking, innovation, demonstration, and education."

It was the first time the annual event was held in northwest Minnesota. Sustainable Farming Association officials said they were pleased with the turnout in Red Lake Falls.

The organization held an essentially identical Dirt Rich education program Aug. 29 in Lake Park, Minn.

Kent Solberg spoke Aug. 28 at a Red Lake Falls, Minn., farm during the annual "Dirt Rich" educational session.Kent Solberg, SFA livestock and grazing specialist, examined the value of cover crops in farming operations, especially one with both crops and livestock.

Farmers who recently began using cover crops have told him "We wish we would have started sooner," Solberg said.

But the value of cover crops can be overemphasized, sometimes by the agricultural news media, he said.

"Cover crops are not a silver bullet. They're a tool" with which to implement the principles of soil health, Solberg said.

Miller has a core rotation of wheat, corn and soybeans, and raises field peas, alfalfa and fescue, too. His farm also has a cow-calf operation and finishes its own cattle.

Using cover crops on his farm has made soils more productive, and saved money on herbicides and improved the stability of yields, he said.

Some ag producers may be reluctant to begin implementing practices that promote soil health, especially when profit margins are tight. Miller said he realizes that "There are going to be people who say, 'Well, that works for you. Your soils are such-and-such. But I don't think it would work for me.'"

His response to that: "Go slow. Take a piece of it (your farm), take something, and try to improve your soils. Because anything you can do to improve your soils will improve your bottom line."

To learn more about the Sustainable Farming Association of Minnesota, go to