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Join the Soil Health Revolution

When Clarence Breker was a boy early in the last century, he’d ride his pony up to the top of a hill near Havana in southeastern North Dakota. He’d breathe in the seemingly endless prairie down below, with golden native grasses and blooming flowers simultaneously waving in a silent concert.

Years later, he’d tell his impressionable son, Joe, that this slice of North Dakota heaven was just a fraction of the original unbroken 1.4-million-square-mile North American prairie. Supporting this sea of native vegetation was rich topsoil, oozing with soil carbon. Carbon helped key plentiful organic matter that enabled the prairie to: 

  • Rapidly absorb water. 
  • Retain nutrients.
  • Enhance soil microbial diversity that aided nutrient and water transfer to plants.

Dave Franzen
Dave Franzen
“The topsoil under the prairie was unbelievable,” says Dave Franzen, a North Dakota State University (NDSU) Extension soil scientist. “A 1905 Cass County soil survey (in east-central North Dakota) showed many fields had topsoil 1½ to 2 feet deep, with 6.5% organic matter.”

Native Americans, like North Dakota’s Mandan Indians, were excellent caretakers of the prairie.

“Scarring the soil was taboo,” says Franzen. “They farmed the way Egyptians (3000 BC) did.” 

Floods that deposited rich soil along the Missouri River in central North Dakota provided the Mandans fertile ground to grow a diverse crop rotation that included corn, beans, and squash. 

Tilling Trouble 

European settlers had a different idea how to farm when they arrived in the 1800s. At the time, breaking open the prairie with horse-drawn plows to grow crops made sense. This morphed into a belief that soil could be improved by tilling it, tilling it, and tilling it some more. Ultimately, this created huge dust bins during the 1930s Dust Bowl. 

“The wind would blow for 12 months,” points out Franzen. “Every time the wind blew, ditches filled with topsoil.”

Eventually, farmers slowed these losses, aided by tools like tree plantings. Still, scars remained. 

Wind, water, and tillage erosion whittled the 6.5% organic matter content of those Cass County, North Dakota, fields down to 2% at a 6-inch depth, Franzen says. 

Nationwide, erosion has sliced topsoil, organic matter, and soil carbon in soils by 50%, according to American Farmland Trust and NRCS. 

“The biggest threat to agriculture is ecosystem degradation,” says Dwayne Beck, who manages the Dakota Lakes Research Farm near Pierre, South Dakota.

Modern Prairie Tools 

Fortunately, tools exist to halt soil losses and restore soil health in order to mimic the native prairie. They include:

  • Tillage-slashing systems like no-till and strip-till.
  • Cover crops.
  • Diverse crop rotations.
  • Livestock grazing.

“Look at the original prairie,” says Luther Berntson, who pioneered no-till techniques in the 1970s near Adams, North Dakota. “It wasn’t built with the plow. It wasn’t built with applied fertilizer or insecticides. It flourished without all of these. There are ways farmers can mimic Mother Nature.”

Starting Out 

Joe Breker
Joe Breker
No-till farming intrigued Joe Breker when he returned to his family’s farm in 1978 after he attended NDSU. Although he didn’t think much about it back then, no-till was a way to emulate the virtues of the original prairie his father had extolled.

 Long on questions but short on money and experience, he sought out farmers like Berntson and Ron Swindler, a Mott, North Dakota, no-tiller.

“Where I grew up, there were several things to keep you in good standing in the community. One was not to beat your wife,” Bernston jests. “Others were to fly the flag and go to church every Sunday. Another was to keep your summer fallow fields black.”

Bernston widened many eyes and furrowed many brows among the locals who observed him converting to no-till. 

“You sure are an interesting fellow to farm next to,” said a neighbor to Berntson during that time.

It wasn’t easy. 

“I would hit high clay (gumbo) soils that would clog up my drill,” Berntson recalls. “That stuff was just like paste. No-till worked better every year I did it, but that first year was the toughest.”

During the droughty 1970s and 1980s, though, no-till formed a residue blanket that prevented soil moisture from evaporating. The conserved moisture helped him cash crop his farm each year, rather than a summer fallow-wheat rotation that yielded just one crop every two years. 

Talking about those experiences with Berntson and Swindler awed Breker.  

“They were adult men talking to a punk kid,” he recalls. “But they had all day for my questions.” 

The clincher for Breker came when he visited Jim McCutcheon, a Homewood, Manitoba, farmer who began no-tilling in the 1960s.

“That was my first experience of walking on a field that had not been tilled for years,” Breker says. “It felt like I was walking on marshmallows. I asked him, ‘Do you think I could do this in Sargent County (Breker’s home county)?’ He said, ‘Go for it!’ ”

Reality Bites

Dreams, though, often smack into reality. 

Luther Berntson
“I had no line of credit to buy (no-till) machinery,” says Breker. “So, Luther (Bernston) asked me, ‘Do you raise sunflowers? You know, you can no-till small grains in sunflower ground with a grain drill.’ ” 

So, Breker forged into no-till that way in 1980, with impressive results.

“There were hardly any volunteer sunflowers, almost no wild oats, and the durum wheat outyielded the durum crop we had on conventional tillage that year,” he says.

Next, Breker bought three Melroe Bettison 10-foot no-till drills that he hooked together to speed seeding.

“Right away, we could see its shortcomings,” Breker says. “It had no depth control, no packer wheel (to aid seed-to-soil contact),  and no ability to apply any fertilizer other than starter.”

So, he replaced that setup with a Yielder drill. 

“We could get a lot done,” he says. “But it was overbuilt. It was too narrow and too heavy.” 

Enter shank-style air seeders. “We had a rocky start, but we kept the Concord (air seeder),” he says. “We modified it, just like everyone did.” 

These changes enabled him to direct-seed while banding fertilizer. Air seeding was also more conducive to working well during the soggy 1990s that followed the droughty 1980s. 

“Air seeders were less likely than disc drills to have trouble seeding in wet, sticky conditions,” he says.

His final seeder stop occurred in 2010, when he switched to an Amity Single Disc Drill with a three-compartment air system. He can now band anhydrous ammonia and dry fertilizer with a separate opener while applying starter fertilizer next to the seed. 

“It’s highly efficient due to its size and speed,”  he says. 

Why no-Till Worked

Soil health wasn’t the main factor supporting Breker’s 1980’s foray into no-till. Money was. 

“You had farm sales, high interest rates, and poor grain prices,” he says. “We couldn’t demand more money for grain. We couldn’t go to the bank and demand lower interest rates. The only thing we could do was cut costs, and no-till helped do that. It also helped us raise yields, especially in those drier years.”

During a drought, that extra water saved by no-till – ½ to ¾ inch that each tillage trip can consume (according to University of Nebraska data) – can make the difference between profit and loss, Breker says.

The Wall

By nixing tillage that degrades organic matter, Breker raised soil organic matter to around 4.5%. He then hit a wall, unable to crack higher levels. 

Enter cover crops. These grasses, legumes, and brassicas that help farmers cover soil year-round create an environment where soil microbes like bacteria are not consuming soil organic matter, according to NRCS data. Cover crops helped Breker raise soil organic matter levels to 6.5% to 7%, akin to the marshmallow soils on Jim McCutcheon’s farm he visited in the 1970s. 

Cover crops also help farmers deal with increasingly wet springs.  

Chris Anderson, a senior analytics analyst for Renewable Energy Group, analyzed Iowa weather records dating back to 1893 while working at Iowa State University. Prior to 1981, only 5% of those years had intense spring rainfalls. Now, they occur in 37% of years. 

“The general trend is there will be more heavy spring rain days and more summer droughts in Iowa,” says Anderson. 

Cover crops can cycle the excess water that sits on top of fields and delays spring planting, says Beck. They help cycle water and minerals, and recharge root zone water for plant access rather than running off fields or percolating into groundwater, he says. 

Cover Crop Costs 

It’s easy to extol the value of cover crops. It’s a lot harder to write the check for $15 per acre cover crop seed and another one for $10 per acre for herbicide to kill them before or shortly after cash crop seeding. The solution?

“Get some cows,” Breker says. “It’s hard to talk economics of cover crops without them.” 

His cousin has a cowherd that graze a bovine buffet of Breker’s cover crops after cash crop harvest. They work out a mutually determined grazing charge.  

1 + 1 = 3? 

Math professors don’t teach this equation. Yet, benefits beyond simple addition occur when cattle that graze cover crops mimic the bison and other mammals that gorged on the prairie’s vast vegetation buffet. Grazing stimulates plant growth, although the growth degree hinges on many factors, says Abbey Wick, NDSU Extension soil health specialist. 

“The hope is that grazing can lead to more carbon going into the soil to feed microbes,” she says.

Meanwhile, cattle grazing support the soil’s biological communities with manure, urine, and even saliva. Cattle also tromp over leftover plant litter, which provides soil surface armor, she says.

Jeff Brawner
Jeff Brawner
Cover crops also slash feed costs on feeder cattle, says Shawn Tiffany, who co-owns Tiffany Feedyard near Herington, Kansas. He’s used a cover crop blend based on oats, rye, turnips, and radishes (plus a legumelike forage peas or field peas) to background 550-pound steers for the last eight years. The mix typically costs between $30 to $45 per acre for seed and planting, and cattle graze between 60 and 75 days. Tiffany aims for 2.25 to 2.50 pounds of gain per day and a cost of gain between 35¢ and 50¢ per pound.

Jeff Brawner, Haven, Kansas, says implementing livestock also helps offset cover crop seed cost. 

“Sometimes I get caught up in how I’m going to be profitable on the cow side, forgetting that really all I have to do is offset the seed cost and not have to offset anything more than that,” he says.

Do Something 

Nearly 90 years later, the view from the hilltop where Clarence Breker rode his pony still sports the same slice of prairie heaven it then did. Now, though, a diverse array of cash crops like corn, soybeans and wheat supported by no-till, cover crops, and cattle grazing mimic the native prairie. Sitting in the Coteau des Prairies Lodge that Joe Breker and his family built on that hilltop, he recounts his 40-year soil health journey.

“There have been things we’ve tried that look good on paper but aren’t so practical,” he says. “You can leave too much residue for a given spring because it’s too cold, and then have an issue. But that gives you the opportunity to change and try something different next year. Don’t be scared to do something long term that can make your soil more productive.” 

A view of the prairie in Havana, North Dakota
Havana, North Dakota

More Fun Facts and Tips About Soil Health

Topsoil is worth a Ton

NRCS pegs tolerable annual soil losses at 1 to 5 tons per acre. That’s roughly the thickness of a dime per year.

Still, even this tolerable amount adds up monetarily. Topsoil customers may pay roughly $20 to $50 per ton, depending on location. 

Thus, even tolerable erosion losses flush $20 to $250 per acre annually of your farm’s most precious asset. Losses above NRCS’s tolerable level magnify this amount. 

Co$t-$haring Help 

Cost sharing from federal, state, and private entities can help take some of the bite out of the cost of soil health tools. In Iowa, cost sharing of $25 per acre for seeding is available to farmers initially planting cover crops, says Julie Kenney, Iowa deputy secretary of agriculture. Cost sharing of $15 per acre for seed is available for veteran cover croppers. She adds that cost sharing is also available for farmers wishing to convert to no-till or strip-till.

“Go to your local NRCS office,” she says. “They can connect you with funding sources.” 

Back Biology 

Lee Briese
Lee Briese
Prairie-mimicking cover crops also enhance the world underneath the soil that’s filled with life ranging from earthworms to soil microbes entrenched in a kill-or-be-killed environment. 

Some microbes are bad, in that they cause crop disease. Yet, other microbes can slay those bad microbes. Meanwhile, other microbes can aid the uptake of water and nutrients by crop roots. 

Further enhancing soil life is crop diversity. “It gets more biology in your fields,” says Lee Briese, a Centrol crop consultant based in Edgely, North Dakota. 

Tillage spurs weeds

Weeds weren’t a part of the prairie, but they are part of farming. “If tillage was good at getting rid of weeds, they’d all be gone by now,” says Dwayne Beck, manager of the Dakota Lakes Research Farm, Pierre, South Dakota. Adding cover crops and diversifying rotations to aid herbicides are better ways to manage weeds, he says. 

Maybe Some Tillage?  

Augustin Obour
Augustin Obour
Augustin Obour, a Kansas State University agronomist, says an occasional tillage pass to kill weeds such as crabgrass, Palmer amaranth, or kochia doesn’t necessarily undermine soil health efforts. Research by Obour shows that two passes with a sweep plow (or V-blade) in July prior to winter wheat planting reduces weed pressure, ensuring minimal competition for winter wheat. 

In studies, these strategic tillage passes – one at 3 inches and the other three days later at 6 inches deep – outyielded no-till and reduced-tillage (chisel, disk, and field cultivator passes) from 10 to 12 bushels per acre in a 50-bushel-per-acre yield environment. No-tillers can resume seeding after wheat in subsequent crops, Obour says.

Hairy Vetch, Scary Vetch 

Abbey Wick
Abbey Wick
Farmers who love hairy vetch as a cover crop are in luck – sort of. Chances are, they’ll see it again and again and again. 

“I call hairy vetch, scary vetch,” says Abbey Wick, a North Dakota State University Extension soil health specialist. “It is hard to control in wheat and corn,” she says. 

Thus, hairy vetch can morph into just another weed, she says. 

Termination Trauma 

Cover crops have their troubles, too. Kurt Steinke, a Michigan State University (MSU) Extension soil scientist, conducted a trial in which fall-planted hairy vetch was to be terminated at an 18- to 20-inch height on April 1 several weeks prior to planting. 

“Then the mother of all rains came, and it rained and it rained and it rained,” he says. “We could not come back until April 30. That vetch grew from 18 to 20 inches to my height: 6 feet 3 inches.”

MSU researchers terminated it – at a cost. That fall, the termination delay slashed yields of soybeans planted into that plot by 5 to 7 bushels per acre.

“I will never work with another cover crop in Michigan that doesn’t winter-kill,” says Steinke. 

Termination Tips 

Be sure to allow plenty of time for cover crop termination, particularly for mid-April planted corn in states like Iowa. Mark Licht, an Iowa State University Extension agronomist, says the terminating herbicide is most effective when applied on: 

  • A sunny afternoon when temperatures exceed 60°F. 
  • An actively growing crop. “If the cover crop has not greened up, herbicides are not effective,” he says. 
  • When nighttime temperatures are higher than 40°F. “Translocation of herbicide (such as glyphosate) slows down at night,” says Licht. Temperatures below 40°F. can slow this translocation, he says. 

Make Farming Fun Again

At age 72, Loren Swenson, Concordia, Kansas, retains his enthusiasm about farming akin to a wide-eyed major league baseball rookie on opening day. 

Swenson, a soil health pioneer who started no-tilling 40 years ago, is excited that adopting soil health practices such as cover crops has generated more revenue. Swenson has turned his farm over to a young neighbor, but he still is involved in the day-to-day operations.

For example, they had a center pivot devoted to corn in 2017 and dryland corners planted to wheat. Following wheat harvest, they planted a mix of cover crops and grazed cattle. In 2018, soybeans planted across the farm – even those on dryland corners – yielded more than soybeans irrigated by the center pivot. 

“I would guess it’s because of the cattle and the cover crop; I assume it was both,” says Swenson. “But I don’t know why. That’s why I’m trying to learn! 

“Things like cover crops make farming fun again,” he says. 

Nixing the Mismatch 

Besides emulating the prairie, tools like cover crops can help keep nitrate-nitrogen (N) from seeping into tile lines and ultimately drinking water. One frustration of the corn and soybean rotation is that it promotes a mismatch between when much N resides in the soil vs. when cash crops are growing, says Mark Licht, an Iowa State University (ISU) Extension agronomist.  

That’s due to N mineralization, which is essentially free N that cash crops can use the next year. Much mineralization occurs in the fall and early spring, though, when corn and soybean root systems aren’t present. Mineralized N can then move into tile lines. 

What’s the Solution? 

Overseeding or broadcast seeding cover crops into standing cash crops can hold onto N and release it next spring for crops to access.  

Another bonus: “When we get green growth from cover crops, we can hold more soil in place and reduce the amount of phosphorus that can move off those fields and into water bodies,” says ISU’s Mark Licht. 

Minus Mud Walk 

Dwayne Beck
Dwayne Beck
Several summers ago, Dwayne Beck led a Dakota Lakes Research Farm tour that included a long-term no-till field that had been diversely cash-cropped with interim cover crops. 

“I told them they could walk behind the center pivot and not get their feet muddy,” says Beck.  These soils could readily lap up 2 inches of water in seven minutes. With tillage, the soil could only accept 1 inch every 40 minutes. 

“One farmer from Minnesota said, ‘This is nuts,’ ” says Beck. “I told her, ‘No, what you do in Minnesota with conventional tillage and tight rotations (either continuous corn or corn-soybeans) and expecting water to infiltrate the soil is nuts.’ Water is supposed to soak into the soil’s micropores this way, and not run off the field or accumulate in deep wheel tracks.” 

61 inches

An earthworm on a pink background.
Shark fishermen looking for some big bait might want to visit Rutland, North Dakota. 

That’s where residents discovered a 61-inch-long earthworm wriggling across a lonely country road.

“It looked like a big nightcrawler or noodle,” says Joe Breker, Havana, North Dakota. “I don’t know if it is because all the no-till, but it is a sign that there is lots of soil life going on around here. I thought it was incredible, that we had to preserve it. We mounted it and show it at meetings.” 

Spur microbes With Crop Diversity

Jodi DeJong Hughes
“Microbes like diversity in the soil,” says Jodi DeJong-Hughes, a University of Minnesota Extension educator. A mix of cash crops like legume (soybeans and edible beans) complemented by grasses like corn and wheat can provide a diversified food source for soil organisms, she adds. 

It works in states like North Dakota, where field peas/corn/soybeans/wheat form a great agronomic rotation in the way they deter pests and stimulate microbial populations, says Lee Briese, a Centrol crop consultant based in Edgely, North Dakota. 

The hangup?

Markets. Just a small uptick in production can easily saturate a specialty crop market. “Field peas can go from $9 per bushel to $3.50 per bushel quickly,” he says.

Same Old, But Still Good

Crop diversity hits a wall in Corn Belt states. Corn and soybean returns often beat the pants off other crops like small grains. Even so, this row-crop rotation still beats a monoculture, says Mahdi Al-Kaisi, an Iowa State University (ISU) soil scientist. ISU studies from 2003 to 2013 found net returns of combined corn and soybeans grown in rotation exceeded those of continuous corn by 41% ($338 to $227 per acre). 

Part of it is due to continuous corn’s higher input costs. Biology’s at work, too. “It’s also due to the rotational effect on soil biology influenced by the diversity of crop rotations, and the root systems that change the soil environment and nutrient uptake,” Al-Kaisi says. 

Strip out Conversion Costs

Mimicking the prairie through tools like no-till isn’t all blue sky and eatin’ peanuts. 

No-till can clip yields for three to four years during the transition from tillage to no-till, says Jodi DeJong-Hughes, a University of Minnesota Extension educator. 

Alternatives exist, though. Strip-till generates erosion-protecting residue and helps build organic matter while still promoting spring soil warmup for adequate crop germination and emergence, she says. 

”It also still allows the building of the microbial community,” she says. “I know strip-till is not for everyone, but it is a marriage of tillage and no-till,” she says. 

Erosion still is a hazard with strip-till, particularly on hilly and lighter soils. That’s why farmers must adjust coulters and shanks accordingly, she says. 

Vertical tillage also is an option for those cases that generate prolific residue, such as continuous corn. 

“Doing vertical tillage every third year is an option to clear some residue,” says DeJong-Hughes. Another vertical tillage perk: Residue left standing mimics straws that wick moisture down into the soil. 

Written by Gil Gullickson and Bill Spiegel

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