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Minnesota conservationists look to dig deep to improve soil health

Fri, Sep 20th, 2013
Posted in All Agriculture

By Brian DeVore

On a recent morning in August, North Dakota farmer Jerry Doan waded into a chest-high stand of cover crops that included millet, a type of sunflower and grazing corn. He explained to a visiting group of Minnesota soil conservationists and farmers that this stand, which was planted in June after wheat was harvested, will provide winter feed for his beef herd. Just as importantly, all the plants’ roots and uneaten stalks, along with the manure produced by the grazing cattle, will feed billions of microbes below the surface. Those microbes will build the soil’s health, which in turn will help produce Doan’s 2014 corn or sunflower crop.

“We had for so long forgotten about what was going on below-ground,” said the farmer as he examined a spaded-up clod of fragrant soil.

As Doan and the other farmers, conservationists and scientists who hosted the Minnesotans during the August soil health tour made clear, paying attention to what goes on in that mysterious world where roots, microbes and insects interact can pay off financially and environmentally.

This tour to south-central North Dakota’s Burleigh County was sponsored by the Minnesota Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and the USDA’s Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program. Over 40 participants came from across Minnesota to see how farmers in Burleigh County are building soil health in a region that gets 16 inches of precipitation annually -- a foot less than what Minnesota gets in a typical year. Over the years, the Burleigh County Soil Health Team has used a combination of cover crops, rotational grazing and no-till farming to increase soil’s natural ability to cook up fertility, resist erosion and make better use of moisture. The Team, which consists of local farmers, conservation agency staff and USDA scientists, has attracted attention from around the world; just this summer, Russian and French visitors came to Burleigh County to dig in the soil.

Visitors often have assumptions turned upside down. For example, in August the Minnesota contingent saw un-irrigated corn, pastureland and hay ground that was thriving despite drought conditions.

“I have worked with irrigators for 20 years and I have never seen a corn crop look this good with eight weeks of no rain,” said Brad Wenz, a soil conservationist for the Stearns County Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) in Minnesota. “There is something going on there.”

Fields and pastures where soil organic matter levels had been built up (organic matter is a key driver of soil biology) were bordering conventionally managed plots, providing a striking contrast in the 90-degree temperatures.

“Our pastures would look like that if we hadn’t changed things,” said Burleigh County farmer Mike Small, pointing to a neighbor’s burned-out grassland. Small’s nearby pasture was ready to be grazed again after a brief rest provided by his rotation system.

From a conservation standpoint, building soil health is the difference between going to the root of the problem and just treating the symptoms, according to Jay Fuhrer, the NRCS District Conservationist in Burleigh County.

“We don’t have to accept a degraded resource,” Fuhrer said. “We can regenerate and re-build soil through the power of diversity.”

Nowhere was the power of diversity more evident that in the Burleigh County Team’s use of cover crops -- plantings of small grains and other species either right after harvest of a cash crop or while the cash crop is still growing. The idea is to keep the soil protected with living plants during the months when row crops like corn are not growing. The Burleigh County Soil Health Team has found that planting multiple species of cover crops at one time -- eight or more in some cases -- produces a drought- tolerant, healthy soil.

Although there may not be an immediate market value to such “cocktail” plantings, Team members have made them pay through grazing. Doan estimated that in 2011 grazing cover crops produced $50,000 in savings for his livestock operation and took pressure off his regular pastures.

And Soil Health Team members insisted that even when not grazed, cover crops build enough organic matter to reduce the need for expensive inputs while providing “drought insurance.” Burleigh County farmer Gabe Brown has reported that increasing organic matter has allowed him to reduce the use of commercial fertilizer by over 90 percent.

Farmers, as well as NRCS and SWCD staffers, talked during the tour about how to adapt Burleigh County’s approach to bringing farmers, conservationists and scientists together as local “Soil Health Teams.” Such teams are needed in Minnesota as reports of extreme erosion have increased and drought conditions become a perennial threat, said Douglas Miller, Minnesota’s NRCS soil health coordinator.

“You can say there is something unique and weird about Burleigh County, but the truth is the principles of soil health can work anywhere,” Kristine Nichols, a USDA soil microbiologist, told tour participants. “The next green revolution will be a soil revolution.”

For information on using cover cropping and other methods to improve soil health, contact your local Minnesota NRCS or SWCD office.

Brian DeVore is the editor of the Land Stewardship Letter.

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