A farm for the future
Building soil health through a systems approach is the focus of the Menoken Farm near Bismarck, North Dakota. Owned and operated by the Burleigh County Soil Conservation District (BCSCD) as a demonstration site since 2009, the 150-acre farm shows visitors what’s possible when soil is managed for the end aim of rejuvenating soil function.
The farm’s goals go far beyond “conserving degraded soil,” says Jay Fuhrer, an internationally recognized soil health specialist now retired from the Natural Resources Conservation Service while retaining his affiliation with the Menoken Farm.
“When you focus on rejuvenating soil by putting carbon back, the work comes with some excitement,” he says. “Visitors to the farm see what we’re doing, and they get excited. They want to go home, take a degraded field, and build health back into the soil on their own farm.”
The Menoken Farm demonstrates the synergy among five pillars of soil health: soil armor, minimized soil disturbance, plant diversity, continual cover of live plants and roots, and livestock integration. “The five principles of soil health are intended to be applied in a systems approach, maximizing the soil-building impact,” says Fuhrer.
5 Soil Health Principles
Over the past decade, Fuhrer and the BCSCD staff implemented the five soil health principles in an integrated step-by-step process that evolved over time in the farm’s 10 fields. Following is how they did it.
1. Focusing on establishing soil armor.
“The farm had been conventionally tilled, so we started with bare soil,” says Fuhrer. “Our primary focus at first was to put a cover on the soil.”
Covering the soil protects it from heat, reduces evaporation of moisture from the surface, and shelters it from wind and water erosion.
“Erosion needs to be controlled before you can build soil health,” says Fuhrer. “The soil armor also provides a protective habitat for the soil food web’s surface dwellers. Our goal is to cover 100% of the soil with a green plant/residue during the growing periods and residue during the dormant periods.”
2. Minimizing soil disturbance.
“We used no-till seeding to reduce soil disturbance, thus, creating a more suitable environment for the soil food web and plant root growth,” says Fuhrer.
3. Establishing plant diversity.
The crop rotation includes crops from all four crop types: warm-season grass, warm-season broadleaf, cool-season grass, and cool-season broadleaf.
4. Establishing the continuous presence of live plants and roots.
Adding cover crops to the rotation further increases diversity and extends the season for growing live plants. Cover crops may include annuals, biennials, and perennials.
After five years of growing diverse annual crops, the Menoken Farm added perennials to the crop rotation to further enhance plant diversity.
“We planted a mix of 21 species of perennials, including flowering forbs, legumes, and cool- and warm-season grasses,” says Fuhrer. “The biodiversity provided by diverse crop rotations benefits the soil food web. This, in turn, helps build soil aggregates, which improve rainfall infiltration and nutrient cycling, while reducing disease and pests.” After five years of managed grazing, the perennial pastures are returned to annual crop production.
5. Integrating livestock grazing into the system.
The Menoken Farm initially introduced grazing by using cattle to harvest crop residues and cover crop growth. Later, the farm combined cattle and sheep to rotationally graze the annuals, biennials, and perennials.
“The managed grazing of livestock helps balance the carbon-nitrogen ratio in the crop residue,” says Fuhrer. “The ruminant converts high-carbon crop residue to a lower-carbon organic material. Spring or summer grazing of cover crops with short exposure periods followed by long recovery periods allows the plants to regrow and harvest additional sunlight and carbon dioxide.”
After a decade of being managed by integrated regenerative practices, the previously bare soil of the Menoken Farm is now covered by an armor of surface residue. Still, Fuhrer has learned over time that maintaining the cover requires vigilance.
“When you start with bare soil, the soil biology is accustomed to that condition – it’s adapted,” he says. “Because initially the primary decomposers aren’t always there, the first layer of cover lasts quite a while. As the system gets older, the biology starts to cycle the residue more rapidly, creating the need for continuing influxes of organic material. When we first started, I was thinking we just needed to maintain dead surface litter. Now, I believe the best sources of cover are green plants mixed with dead litter.”
A yardstick Fuhrer uses to indicate progress in soil health is the formation of soil aggregates. “We archived samples of the farm’s soil before we started,” he says. “When I look at that soil today, it looks nothing like the soil we’re presently working with.”
Building stable soil aggregates is the critical cornerstone of improving soil health, he says. Well-formed soil aggregates improve water infiltration and lead to increases in soil organic matter.
One lesson Fuhrer has learned for sure? “Rejuvenating soil is a process,” he says. “Our work has given us a glimpse into a wonderfully complex system that we don’t yet fully understand.”
A Regenerative Farming Showcase
Visitors to the Menoken Farm get a close-up look at a systems approach to regenerative agriculture.
“The systems approach to management may seem a bit out of the box,” says Darrell Oswald, farm manager and BCSCD technician. “Our crop-production system includes no-till seeding, high-crop diversity, and rotations with cover crops. This creates a regenerative environment for the soil biology.”
Livestock play a key role in the integrated cropping and grazing system. Cattle, sheep, and chickens grazing together demonstrate the synergistic effect of multispecies grazing. “We believe diversity in livestock is as important as diversity in plants,” says Oswald.
The popularity of the Menoken Farm as a destination place for visitors suggests the growing interest among farmers large and small in alternative agricultural options.
“In 2019, we hosted more than 40 groups,” says Oswald. “Our visitors come from all across the U.S. and from around the world. People want to see soil health regeneration in practice. They’re looking for alternatives to the current model of production agriculture.”
Through its special events, workshops, and on-farm demonstration activities, the Menoken Farm aims to serve urban food producers as well as family farmers. Along with an arboretum and a composting demonstration site, the farm features an outdoor garden and a high-tunnel garden.
“Our goal is to educate and empower people to grow some of their own food,” says Oswald. “The soil health principles can be used on any scale – large or small.”
701/250-4518, Ext. 3
701/391-5830 (cell phone)