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Allow the soil to work for you

Soil health tips from Dan Forgey, South Dakota farmer

“I’m just a farmer. And I’m trying to sell soil health,” says Dan Forgey, agronomy manager for Cronin Farms near Gettysburg, South Dakota.

The farm, owned by Monty and Mike Cronin, is 10,500 acres with 600 acres under pivot irrigation. They have an 850 cow calf herd on 8,500 acres of grass along the Missouri River Breaks.

Forgey an advocate for getting the soil to work for you because he’s seen the difference it can make over time.

In the ‘70s and ‘80s, Forgey and his peers didn’t know anything about soil health. “There was one thing I knew how to do and that was destroy the soil organic matter. But there was no one around to tell us we were doing that. We thought we were good farmers.”

The farm’s yields in those years weren’t impressive. And eventually, Forgey felt he hit a wall by sticking with the same management practices as always. Something had to change.

“In 1992, we started no-tilling and were one of the first farms in the area to do so. We followed Dwayne Beck’s lead,” Forgey says. This has been a key to their success in improving organic matter, water retention, yields, establishing rotational grazing, and more. The farm has been no-till totally since 1993.

The Cronins and Forgey won the Leopold Conservation Award in 2016, a true testament to their hard work and willingness to change.

“I’m really proud of that accomplishment,” says Forgey. “We’re on the fourth generation on the farm. I want to help this younger generation succeed. That’s what it’s all about.”

Forgey is also passionate about helping others along their journey. And so, in a webinar this week, he shares how the five principles of soil health are at work on Cronin Farms and gives advice to help others get started.

Limit disturbance.

Cronin Farms has been no-till for 31 years. This management helps build soil aggregates, increase the amount of pore spaces, and leads to more, better organic matter.

Forgey likens tillage to burning your house for heat. “You may get some heat out of it, but you destroyed the house. It’s like starting over at square one. Most soil organic matter is in the topsoil. When soil erodes, the organic matter goes with it. Saving soil and soil organic matter go hand-in-hand,” Forgey explains.

With an 1895 drill, the farm follows this planting plan:

April: spring wheat, oats, flax, field peas, and lentils
June: forage sorghum and sudan grass
July: mid-season cover crops
August: cover crops
September: winter wheat

In addition, 90% of their fertilizer goes in at seeding.

“Cost-effective nitrogen management is key to profitable farming. It is also key to building soil carbon,” Forgey says. “We’ve done extensive testing  andany time we put too much fertilizer on, our yield drops. We think then the soil is not doing the work for us.”

Keep the soil covered.

“If you look down at the soil, you should be looking through residue,” Forgey says. “It helps reduce evaporation and that’s really important for us. We want to keep all of the moisture for the crop.”

According to data Forgey referenced from the NRCS, when soil bacteria is in an environment under 95 degrees F., then 100% of the moisture in the soil is used for plant growth.

The easiest source of food for the soil microbes is sugar obtained from living roots. The next food source is dead plant roots, followed by above-ground residue. Forgey says, when those are unavailable, the last resort for the microbes is to feed on existing organic matter.

Maintain diversity.

“Instead of putting a bandage on something, go figure out where the hurt is coming from and try to head that off,” Forgey advises. “With our rotations and cover crops, that’s what we’re trying to do.”

Cronin Farms got started introducing diversity in crops by first researching and finding a market. At the time, that was to plant flax and forage barley and sell it for seed. Forgey recommends being an opportunist like this and to keep in mind that in the end, you are helping the soil.

The carbon to nitrogen ratio is highly valued on Cronin Farms, so high-carbon crops are in the rotation. You’ll find corn, spring wheat, winter wheat, sunflowers, soybeans, flax, field peas, and lentils in the fields.

Of course, he’s quick to say that insects, weeds, and other problems will figure out your system.

“We were corn-on-corn for 16 years and then added soybeans, like everyone else. That’s where we thought we could make the money,” Forgey says. “But then we had white mold, so to fix that, we put spring wheat into the rotation, we planted covers after spring wheat, and then put cattle on the land in November. We turned ourselves around by breaking up that rotation.”

Keep living roots in the soil.

“Growing cover crops can help build or maintain soil organic matter,” Forge says. However, you get the best results if growing cover crops is combined with tillage reduction and erosion control measures.”

While the farm has been no-till since 1993, the first cover crop wasn’t planted until 2006. What Forgey looks at, again, is the carbon to nitrogen ratio. He recommends working with your seed suppliers to find out what the ratio is that you want and to understand that one size doesn’t fit all.

“Always evaluate how you’re helping the soil, but keep in mind that there is only one way to feed plants, and that’s through carbon,” he says.

Integrate livestock.

Getting cattle to graze the land can be a difficult prospect, and so you have to have a plan in place.

“If you want to cycle your nutrients, the cow is how to get it done,” Forgey says. “When you graze cover crops, you have to be ready to manage them right.”

Thanks to biomass testing, Forgey knows how much the cattle can graze and for how long. In general, he ensures a third of the crop remains on the fields before moving the cattle to other areas.

Farming Philosophy

“The cash crop is still important because we are farming for the future,” Forgey says. The layers of soil health management in place on the Farm now, though, is helping make the cash crop stronger.

Between 1996-2001, Forgey’s yield goal for corn was 70 bushels per acre. For spring wheat, it was 35 bushels per acre, and for winter wheat, 50.

Between 2011-2020, however, his yield goals have increased. For corn, it’s up to 155 bushels per acre. For spring wheat, 75, and winter wheat, 90.

The actual yield varies year to year. And, according to Forgey, it’s more important to farm for maximum profit, not maximum yield.

He recommends to others to simply get started and try things on a small scale first. And as he’s proven over the years, soil health takes time.

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