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Slideshow: The Sept. 7 tour was organized by the Freeborn Area Soil Health Team.

September 23, 2019

7 Slides

By Dan Lemke

Motivation takes many forms and for about three dozen southern Minnesota farmers, it was more than coffee and donuts that convinced them to rise early on a Saturday morning to spend hours on a bus. Their incentive was a desire to learn more about soil health and to see what some of their fellow farmers are doing to improve conditions on their farms.

The Sept. 7 bus tour was organized by the Freeborn Area Soil Health Team, headed up by Natural Resources Conservation Service soil scientist Myles Elsen. The tour made stops at three locations where farmers are at various stages in their soil health journeys, allowing interested farmers to visit with these growers who are already taking steps to improve soil health.

“Productive soils aren’t always healthy,” Elsen said, “but healthy soils are always productive.”

Just beginning

When Jim Nash’s brother retired from farming three years ago, he was determined to keep farming on his own, which meant he needed to limit his expenses. Nash had seen demonstrations on strip tilling and decided to try it for himself to save on tillage passes and improve soil structure.

Nash researched, talked to farmers who were already practicing conservation tillage and even attended the national strip till convention. He took the plunge and now incorporates strip tilling, no-till and is including cover crops on some of his acres.

“I’ve tried some different things and I keep getting ‘wow’ moments,” Nash said.

Nash planted 60 acres of cover crops in 2018 including winter rye, purple top turnip, kale and radishes. He hadn’t initially planned on using cover crops, but he did more research on them and was intrigued. He also received a higher Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) ranking with cover crops included.

“The more I’m into it, the more I like it,” Nash said. “With cover crops, you have to treat them like cash crops. You have to plan ahead.”

Nash planted 290 acres of cover crops in early September, interseeding into standing corn and soybeans. The seeds should germinate and take advantage of existing soil moisture, then take off when the corn and soybeans are removed, exposing the seedlings to sunshine.

Nash is particularly interested in how reduced tillage and cover crops affect soil compaction, especially on headlands. So far, he’s come away impressed with the results. He’s says there’s a noticeable improvement in the soils where cover crops were present. Compaction has reduced and there’s better soil structure because “feeding the soil biology with cover crops helps to build structure,” Nash explained.

Tour participants peppered Nash with questions about his operation and what led him to make the switch. He said he and his family have a history of trying new things so he’s intent on working his soil health plan.

“I had the same worries all of you have,” Nash told participants. “I am amazed at what I’m seeing. The results are pretty impressive. If you’re interested in making changes, keep making new contacts with people who have already done it.”

Hills and valleys

Robert Wayne and Lisa Dunn of Ellendale are in their fourth year of transitioning from conventional tillage to strip-till, no-till and cover crop usage. Wayne and Dunn raise corn, soybeans and turkeys, using the turkey litter as a fertilizer source.

Much of the land Wayne and Dunn farm is hilly, making erosion control an issue. They’re managing the ground by reducing tillage and keeping living roots in the ground to hold soil in place.

“We were concerned with water quality,” Wayne said. “This is hilly ground, so erosion and water quality are priorities for us.”

Wayne said getting a uniform cover crop stand is a challenge, but vital to achieving optimal benefits.

“We’ve long been concerned about soil health,” Dunn said. “When my dad bought the land in 1953, he terraced the hills, started chisel plowing and went away from plowing”

Dunn said their erosion issues have improved with the cover crops and no-till management. Elsen, who has conducted soil health and water infiltration tests on the land, agreed.

“Now you’re holding soil in place and rebuilding soil health and structure,” Elsen said. “The water holding capacity is improving.”

In 2018, Wayne and Dunn no-till planted corn into a mix of cover crops including cereal rye and radishes that had been flown onto standing soybeans the fall prior. The corn yielded 1.4 bushels per acre less than corn planted in soil that had been chiseled.

Despite the slight yield reduction, Wayne and Dunn came out better financially on the no-till acres because of the reduced inputs.

“I believe in what we’re doing,” Wayne said. “We were brought up using chemistry but didn’t learn as much about the biology.”

“It’s all a learning process,” Dunn added. “People who have done this before have given us tips. You’re going to make mistakes, but the end goal is improved soil health and we feel this is the way to go.”

Seasoned veteran

Mark Ditlevson started conservation tilling on his farm near Blooming Prairie in 1976. At the time, soil health and conservation weren’t at the front of his mind.

“The first real conservation tillage I did was all about economics,” Ditlevson admitted. “I started out chiseling, then switched to ridge-till in the 1980s. That also was all about the economics.”

Like other farmers who’ve shifted from conventional tillage to reduced or no-till, Ditlevson did his homework before taking the plunge.

“It was scary, but it worked. It was a means of survival,” Ditlevson said. “Each time we made changes, we used less fuel, but the soil also improved. We didn’t realize that’s what we were doing.”

Ditlevson has planted cover crops since 2010 and shifted to no-till farming in 2014. One of the biggest additions for Ditlevson was adding small grains like oats or wheat into his corn and soybean rotation.

“The soil has really improved since I started working with small grains,” Ditlevson said. “I credit them more than the cover crops.”

Root diversity and soil biology benefit from having the third crop in rotation. Ditlevson said the small grains benefit his other cash crops, especially corn. One field yielded 22 bushels per acre better corn following small grains while another produced 18 bushels better. Ditlevson said there can be very real market opportunities for the small grains as well.

“One year I got a $1.50 premium per bushel on wheat because it was good quality and high protein. I’ve never once been paid extra for heavy corn or high-quality corn,” Ditlevson added.

Ditlevson said his main goal is to keep as much of the water he receives from rain and snow on the soil while making sure what leaves the field is safe enough to drink.

Ditlevson believes federal support for programs like EQIP which encourage the use of conservation practices like cover crops and reduced tillage is “the government pushing us to do something before they tell us we have to do something.”

While it can be difficult for farmers to make the leap from conventional practices to conservation management, Ditlevson believes it’s the right thing to do.

He added: “We have to take care of the land and water.”

Lemke writes from Madison Lake.

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