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No-till and cover crops yield success in a northern setting

Greg Amundson, Gilby, North Dakota, had been sitting on the fence about making a full switch to no-till. He’d experimented with it and was growing cover crops to protect his soil from erosion. Still, switching to an all no-till system seemed risky for his location in eastern North Dakota’s Red River Valley, where the soil is heavy and slow to warm in the spring.

Wind erosion is a constant threat in the valley’s flat terrain. Cover crops keep Amundson’s soil mostly protected from the wind, but neighboring tilled fields are left exposed to wind. While plowing snow off a road bordering such a field, Amundson hit a large “snirt” drift that was so hardened by dirt mixed with snow that it tossed the heavy machine crossways in the road.

“Hitting that hard drift of snow mixed with dirt blown across the road from the field just changed my mind about no-till,” says Amundson. “I came home and told my dad, ‘That’s it! We’re doing this. I’m going to make no-till work on all my land.’”


Mental Roadblock 

With twin goals of eliminating soil erosion and reducing labor, Amundson began learning more about how to fully transition to no-till. He found that his most formidable foe was a mental roadblock.

“My biggest hurdle was a mental one,” says Amundson. “It was hard not to think about the things I’d heard other area farmers say over the years: ‘No-till won’t work in the valley; it’ll never work.’”

Nevertheless, Amundson dove in to fully transitioning to no-till across all his acres. To seed sunflowers, corn, soybeans, and small grains Amundson used the no-till drill he’d recently updated and the row crop planter he’d tweaked so that it could handle larger amounts of residue. “We upgraded the fixed row cleaners on the planter to row cleaners that we can adjust from the tractor cab,” he says.

While Amundson experimented with transitioning to no-till, a local effort was underway to help farmers like him shoulder the risk of trying the new practices that would better safeguard soil against erosion.

“Soil erosion occurs from both wind and water in the Red River Valley because of the tillage practices farmers use to deal with the heavy soils—in an effort to dry them out and warm them up in the spring,” says Lorilie Atkinson, Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) soil conservationist with the Grand Forks, North Dakota, field office. “Some of these soils are also saline, and when exposed by tillage, they get powdery and are easily moved by wind and water.”

Northern Cover Crops

Greg Amundson’s years of growing cover crops in northeastern North Dakota have shown him that cover crops can indeed thrive that far north.

“I have seeded cereal rye as late as the end of October and even the first of November and was able to get the cover crop started,” he says. “Depending on the weather, it can still grow a couple of inches when seeded that late. Even if it just germinates, it’ll grow readily in the spring.”

When interseeding into standing corn during the growing season, Amundson likes to include flax and buckwheat in the mix. “I really like flax because of the way it holds the snow,” he says.  “By growing those two cover crop species, we’re also trying to release nutrients in the soil that don’t necessarily show up in a soil test.”

Prairie Project

To help farmers implement conservation practices, the NRCS engaged several partners to launch in 2019 the Grand Forks County Prairie Project. Partnering with the NRCS are the:

  • Grand Forks County Prairie Partners
  • University of North Dakota
  • Audubon Dakota
  • North Dakota Natural Resources Trust
  • North Dakota Game and Fish Department
  • U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

The Prairie Project secured funding through the NRCS Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP). The funds originate from the NRCS Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), which offers cost-sharing to farmers across the country who are willing to adopt conservation practices such as no-till and growing cover crops.

In part, the Prairie Project RCPP funding is earmarked to provide financial and technical assistance to farmers planning to implement conservation practices.

“Our main goal is to help farmers get a cover on the soil and to build soil structure,” says Atkinson. “Adopting no-till and planting cover crops are key to that process. The concern farmers have about switching to no-till is that we’re so far north that the soil won’t dry out and be ready for seeding in the spring.

“But when cover crops are combined with no-till, the cover crops use moisture in both fall and spring, helping the soil to dry out for seeding,” she says. “The roots of the cover crop build soil health and structure, giving the soil better trafficability for farm implements in spring and fall, or after heavy rains.”

The funding provided by the Prairie Project to qualifying applicants is dispersed as a per-acre payment. “The payments are intended to reduce the risk involved when farmers adopt a new practice or system,” says Atkinson.

New farming practices supported by the Prairie Project include no-till residue management, the planting of a cover crop or a conservation cover, and forage and biomass planting. The Prairie Project also supports conservation practices for livestock producers.

Through the Prairie Project Amundson received an RCPP contract to use no-till to convert back to crop production land that was being retired from the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). “This was the first time I’d done that, and the RCPP helped me stomach the risk of doing it,” he says.


Amundson terminated the old Conservation Reserve Program grass stand with herbicide in the fall and no-till planted soybeans into the residue the next spring.

He terminated the old CRP grass stand with herbicide in the fall and no-till planted soybeans into the residue the next spring. The following spring, he no-tilled sunflowers into the soybean stubble. He was satisfied with both crops.

“The RCPP contract helped me over the mental hurdle of wondering whether or not no-till would work in that conversion,” he says. “Now I would do it again, no questions asked.”

A second RCPP contract is supporting Amundson’s efforts “to build soil structure, organic matter, and trafficability on a new quarter of land that’s been prone to wind erosion,” he says. “The financial assistance through the program has helped me try to grow a cover crop on land that’s high risk.”

After acquiring the new land, he no-till planted corn. When the corn reached the V4 leaf stage, he used a home-built interseeder to plant a cover crop mix of cereal rye, flax, buckwheat, and radishes. After harvesting the corn, the cover crop grew vigorously.

Benefits Multiply

In his fields that have a longer history of both no-till and cover crops, Amundson has seen benefits multiply. 

“Trafficability is improving,” he says. “We’ve had success in wet springs with getting our crops seeded, and we’ve had good emergence. Some of our yields might be lower than they would be with tillage, but I know our profitability per acre has improved.

“This is a constantly changing system that we tweak every year, and our soil structure is still improving,” he says. “This is a journey, but there’s no turning back for me. I won’t go back to full tillage."

Learn More 

Greg Amundson
twitter: @ndrockfarmer

Kevin Gietzen
Grand Forks District Conservationist

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