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Cover crops in a corn field. File photo

Soil Health Minute: Soil health progress in the Northern Plains

The first season of the Agweek Soil Health Minute, sponsored by the North Dakota Corn Council and North Dakota Soybean Council, aired on April 16, 2017. We are now in our third season of a partnership that has resulted in 25 television segments and 56 magazine column articles sharing how North Dakota State University research intertwines with on-farm application of practices.

With the television segments starting again this week, it's a good time to reflect on how soil health building practices are being adopted in our region in the past several years. We can use this information as a way to "pat ourselves on the back" for our innovation as a region and/or use it to motivate us to work even harder to incorporate soil health building practices in more operations and on more acres. I find a combination of the two is really effective for keeping me going down this soil health path.

Recently, the Soil Health Institute released a report on the adoption of soil health practices nation-wide as determined by the U.S. Census of Agriculture data (report found at: soilhealthinstitute.org). In this report, 2012 to 2017 acres are compared for practices like cover crops and conservation tillage. Here is some of the summarized information for our region directly from this summary report by SHI:

In North Dakota, there was an 89% increase in acres where cover crops were planted between the two years (213,810 to 404,267 acres), putting us at a ranking of No. 18 for cover crop acres in 2017. South Dakota also had an 89% increase (281,649 acres in 2017) and Minnesota had a 42% increase in acres since 2012 (579,147 acres in 2017). Not only did we have an increase in acres, but also an increase in farm operations using cover crops in 2017 for North Dakota (2,252 operations, 73% increase since 2012), South Dakota (2,154, 57%) and Minnesota (5,302, 12%). A big applause for the Northern Plains!

When looking at tillage practices, information was collected on acres in no-till, intensive, conventional tillage and reduced, conservation tillage. Percent no-till acres for each state in 2017 was 35% for North Dakota (7,778,463 no-till acres; 5,601,446 conventionally farmed acres; 9,052,235 conservation tillage acres), 52% for South Dakota (7,656,188 no-till acres; 2,674,782 conventionally farmed acres; 4,300,330 conservation tillage acres) and 6% for Minnesota (1,091,337 acres no-till; 9,499,259 conventionally farmed acres; 8,214,896 conservation tillage acres). Reported no-till acres were the same between 2012 and 2017 for North Dakota, a 7% increase in no-till acres in South Dakota and a 33% increase in Minnesota.

Here are my conclusions from this report. First, the Northern Plains states are rapidly adopting the use of cover crops; it seems like a good fit for most operations. However, we still have plenty more acres to develop customized plans for use of cover crops, if that's a reasonable addition to the operation. Second, no-till was adopted many years ago (we all knew this), so we are not seeing the increase in acreage between 2012 and 2017 in the Dakotas. Knowing this, how do we work with our individual systems to find acres in conservation tillage suitable to transition to no-till and still find suitable acres in conventional tillage and shift those to conservation tillage practices?

I am confident that we have continued to increase our acres where soil health building practices are being used between 2017 and 2019 — I see it when I drive the state, from the attendance at our Extension programs and also hear from farmers. We know that soil health building practices are not a "one size fits all" approach, but I know that we can customize every system to include some aspect of soil health. We just have to find the right fit for the field and the farmer.

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