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Around 350 people at the Conservation Tillage Conference in Fargo listening to a farmer share his experience with soil health building practices. Photo courtesy of Jodi DeJong-Hughes.

Soil Health Minute: You're not alone in soil health

We just held the 14th Annual Conservation Tillage Conference jointly hosted by North Dakota State University Extension and University of Minnesota Extension in Fargo.

For the first time ever, we maxed out registration at 350 people well in advance of the meeting.

There were farmers in attendance who aren't using soil health building practices on their farms but are interested. There were farmers who have been using practices like no till and cover crops for decades.

We had educators who wanted to bring more science-based practical information to their programs and researchers who wanted ideas for research needs.

We also sold out on exhibitor booth space with 34 total exhibitors and sponsors, all wanting to share information about their products but also wanting feedback on the products they have available.

The numbers were certainly impressive this year, but underlying message of "not being alone in soil health" stands out to me.

For years, and in some cases still, farmers who are thinking about or using soil health building practices have not been considered "the norm." This perception is changing and it's changing rapidly as more farmers realize soil health is a good thing and it can be applied at any level to any farm.

There are several reasons farmers have for getting into soil health that are driving this shift in thinking. I want to share a few of those reasons that I've heard in hopes that they will strike a familiar chord with those reading this article:

"What we are doing, just isn't working anymore. We have to try something different."

This reason is often in response to a single field within any farming operation, typically the worst field. We all know what that field is, it's the one that is water-logged because it has a lot of clay, or the sandy quarter that blows away in high winds, or the field that has salinity.

This is a good place to start. The risk is lower, the benefits are greater, but don't forget that it will still require a solid management approach to make it work.

If you can use soil health building practices on your worst field, you will develop the skill set to use these practices anywhere on the farm.

"I'm tired of seeing my soil blow away" Open winters and dry conditions are making wind erosion more prevalent. Reducing soil loss from wind erosion requires leaving cover on the field.

To increase cover, reducing tillage to leave more residue or seeding cover crops to add cover is the way to do it.

Get familiar with these practices and customize an approach that works on your farm.

"I read about soil health all the time and I'm curious"

This is a completely valid reason to get into using soil health building practices. Curiosity is a good thing, but figure out a solid approach before trying anything. This means going to meetings, getting more science-based practical information, making connections and customizing your approach to suit your farm and your comfort level.

If one of these reasons stands out or you have a different reason to start with soil health, please come to a Soil Health Extension meeting this winter. Consider finding a neighbor who is already doing these practices and go to a meeting with them so that you know someone there. The farmers coming to soil health meetings are very open and non-judgmental — you won't regret spending a little time at a meeting.

All the meetings are all posted on the NDSU Soil Health webpage (ndsu.edu/soilhealth) or follow me on Twitter (@NDSUsoilhealth).

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