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Evaluating soil. (Abbey Wick/NDSU Extension Soil Health Specialist)

Soil Health Minute: Applying what you learn to your farm

We've had a busy winter meeting season where you've heard a lot of information and now it's time to sort through that information and figure out how to apply it to your farms. I'm going to run through a couple questions that I think are worth considering.

Was the information that you heard at a meeting "farm specific" or a "regional recommendation"?

It's important to differentiate and know how to use both types of information. For example, "this is what I did and it worked on my farm" and "we had several research plots and this is what we measured." Both sources of information are valuable, but need to be applied in different ways or in combination to reduce the risk when applied to your farm.

Let's say you hear something very farm specific like a seed mix, seeding rates along with the comment "I applied X amount of fertilizer the following year." This is an example of the type of information that applies to what someone did on their farm — it is very specific to their system. When you heard this information, you likely heard them say, "this is what I do on my farm." The presenter is telling you that there are many factors specific to their farming operation that make this set of practices work well for them.

Use this information as a starting place for what you may do on your farm or to give you confidence that you can make soil health practices work on your farm. Find the similarities and differences between their system and your system, from soil types to the number of people they have working on their farm to get these practices done. Then think about how that farm-specific example may relate to "regional" recommendations. When I say regional examples, I mean the information you've heard from Dave Franzen about fertilizer recommendations or potential tie up of nutrients by cover crops. Or what you've heard from me about cover crop management prior to planting a cash crop. This information is regionally based — where data and ideas are being pulled from multiple on-farm research and demonstration plots that have been monitored for multiple years.

Figure out how the information you've heard that is farm specific and regionally based can be integrated successfully on your farm. Make sure you leave check strips where "you do things how you always do them" next to areas where you try a new approach so you can have an idea of relative performance.

Do you have plans A, B, C, D and E?

It's a good idea when you try something new to have several backup plans. We don't know what this spring, growing season or harvest will bring, so make sure that you have a couple ideas of what you can do if "Plan A" doesn't happen. This will keep you on the track of trying something new and not going back to what you were doing before, because that may seem like the easiest option when pressed for time.

When applying the information you've learned this winter to your farm this growing season, be sure to think critically about how it will work. There needs to be a balance between innovation and thinking critically to reduce risk while still moving forward. I'll end with a quote from a sign I saw when I was in Pierre, S.D., visiting Dakota Lakes Research Farm, "Don't be so open minded that your brains fall out" — GK Chesterton.