12 Soil Health Takeaways From the Inaugural DIRT Workshop

Boost soil carbon with cover crops, reduced tillage, and livestock.

Regardless of your profession, it’s good to have a group of like-minded colleagues with whom you can bounce ideas off of. The inaugural DIRT Workshop (Dakota Innovation Research and Technology) December 9-11 in Fargo, North Dakota, was put together with that mission in mind. 

Over three days, more than 250 farmers from across the northern Plains gathered to share ideas on soil health practices like reduced tillage, cover crops, and diverse crop rotations. 

We didn’t hear every session, or meet every farmer. But there were tons of ideas to engage, enthuse, and help farmers as they head into 2020. 

It’s All About Carbon

The heart of any farm engaged in soil health (or regenerative agriculture, if that’s the term you choose) is carbon. 

Mark Liebig, research soil scientist at USDA’s Agriculture Research Service in Mandan, North Dakota, says healthy soil is a function of the carbon equation: Carbon inputs (roots, rhizosphere, residue, amendments, deposition) must be greater than carbon outputs (grain, residue removed, erosion, efflux/emissions, and leaching). Carbon is simply the stuff that returns to the soil, such as residue, roots, and root exudates. When soil is disturbed, carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere. The goal should always be to put more C into soil, Liebig says. 

Unfortunately, the U.S. is losing its carbon sink, or the areas where carbon is taken from the atmosphere and pumped into the soil. That’s because of dramatic reductions of areas like perennial grasses and trees that are an effective means of sequestering carbon. 

You can assess soil health yourself, adds Caley Gasch, soil scientist at NDSU. There are tools farmers can use to track soil carbon, such as the Burst Test Kit from Solvita, farmers can quickly measure carbon dioxide emitted from soil samples. Factors that affect soil health include water and temperature, plus the quality and quantity of residue. The more nitrogen in the soil, the faster the decomposition and more carbon dioxide respired. Keep in mind, this and other soil health tests are a guide. Watch organic carbon and soil organic matter levels in conventional soil tests are another useful tool, Gasch says.

Increase carbon by reducing tillage, adding cover crops and living roots, intensifying crop rotation, and adding grazing. Increasing soil carbon, Liebig adds, “has a cascade of positive effects” to your soils. 

More Silver Bullets

With building soil carbon as the backbone of soil health practices, here are other nuggets from presenters at the DIRT Workshop.

  1. If you grow cover crops on your farm, you need to rotate them just like you do cash crops, says Lee Briese, certified crop advisor with Centrol Crop Consulting. Also, what’s your objective? Is it nutrient retention? Erosion prevention? Weed control? “Determine what your goals are. That’s the biggest factor in which cover crop species you use.” 
  2. Worried about compaction with your planting tractor? Remove rear duals, if your tractor doesn’t have front duals, says Paul Jasa, Extension engineer at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Also, think about removing rear wheel weights. That way, soil compaction is limited to front wheel tracks and the rear wheels will actually have more traction following the front wheels. Jasa adds that there is a “pinch row effect” between rear duals; that’s another reason to move them. 
  3. There’s a lot of talk about 60-inch row corn, with cover crops seeded between these wide rows. Jasa likes the concept, believing higher population corn in 60-inch rows allows more light interception and promise of more corn yield. Cover crops can help weed control. But this scenario works best when you have cattle to graze, Jasa says.
  4. Do you have problems with crickets or grasshoppers eating broadcasted cover crop seed? Or how about worms pulling seeds into their burrows? Before you condemn the crickets, remember these insects are prolific eaters of weed seeds, Briese says. Of course, you still have that seed predation problem. One farmer’s solution is to use a drop spreader to spread old corn or other seeds along field borders, which helps alleviate the problem.
  5. If you plan to plant cover crops after small grain harvest, do it immediately. Whether you farm in North Dakota or northern Oklahoma, waiting even a week to plant covers after small grain harvest in the summer is wasted opportunity to capture sunlight and bolster microbe activity.
  6. If you have salinity challenges, use cover crops, suggests Clayton Robins, who ranches near Rivers, Manitoba. He uses salt-tolerant alfalfa, and there are several other covers (barley, camelina, rye, safflower, sunflower, and sugar beets) that can reduce salt content in soils and slowly allow farmers to grow cash crops. 

Get to Grazing

Find some way to add ruminant animals to your soil health system, urges Dan Forgey, agronomist for Cronin Farms near Gettysburg, South Dakota. He is a prolific user of cover crops, and has added cattle to a long-term no-till/cover crop system. The cattle just added another element to his soil health system. “Cattle are the fifth principle of the soil health. If you don’t have them, try to get them. That will jump-start your soil,” Forgey says. “Once you get cows used to grazing cover crops, it works.” The cattle do the bulk of the work…cattle happily graze a 14-way mix for less than $20 per acre.

Nathan Spickler, Spickler Ranch, Glenfield, North Dakota, uses cover crops including cereal rye into alfalfa, then sorghum sudan, turnip, radish, and kale to get more feed for the ranch’s Angus herd. “It’s been incredible to...expand utilization of the land you have by doing different things all the time.”

Build the System

Farmers attending the DIRT Workshop are interested in building soil biology by doing things like “intercropping” or “bio-strip-till,” says Lana Shaw, manager of the South East Research Farm at Redvers, Saskatchewan and Mike Ostile, agronomist at NDSU’s Carrington Research Experiment Center.

And why not? Doing things like adding flax to chickpeas or other pulse crops can spread some risk and allow you to harvest two cash crops. The synergistic effect of the intercropping often leads to more overall revenue per acre. “And it will spread some risk,” Ostile says. 

Choosing complementary crops can help sort through agronomic issues such as salinity, nematodes, and weed resistance.

“Be sure you can separate them at harvest,” says Shaw, who adds that it’s likely yields of each crop would be less than if they were monoculture cash crops. 

Look at complementary herbicide programs, and how those crops work nicely with others. Try small plots first, the researchers agree.

Nick Toussaint, who farms with his father, Doug, and brother Brad near Wahpeton, North Dakota, says the family’s soil health system has evolved from no-till, to adding cover crops, to companion cover crop mixes planted into sunflowers, to “bio-strip-till” after small grain harvest in the summer. 

They plant 60 pounds of cereal rye and 2.5 pounds each of rapeseed, radish, and flax in 30-inch rows, planting sunflowers into the strip the following spring. The plan is to put starter fertilizer on in the strip at planting, reducing the need for broadcast fertilizer and building soil health at a more budget-friendly rate.

Don’t Give Up

Need help getting started? Find the no-till farmers who don’t care what their neighbors think. See what they’re doing. Check small plots from universities. 

Forgey has used soil-building practices for three decades. He warns farmers to not get too comfortable with their system. “When you think you’ve got it figured out, that’s when it will bite you.”

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