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7 soil health takeaways

Gleanings from North Dakota and South Dakota soil health field days and tours.

October 23, 2018

7 Slides

I attended several soil health meetings and tours this summer. Some of the interesting things I heard included:

1. Trying to cut nitrogen (N) rates when planting corn into cover crop residue might not be a good idea. "N is short in some of our trials," said Dave Franzen, North Dakota State University Extension soils specialist, at a cover crop field day in Rutland, N.D.

Franzen took farmers to a replicated N rate site to show them what he was talking about. There were visible differences between the corn plots. Where cover crop was present the fall before and no additional N had been applied in the spring, the corn was yellowing. Where no N had been applied where no cover crop was present the fall before, and no N had been added, the corn was much greener. The yellowing wasn’t from being short of moisture. Watch for reports this winter on what the yield differences were.

2. Don’t pull back on herbicide in corn or soybeans if you are planning to interseed a cover crop between the rows. You can’t afford to have early weed competition.

A better idea, according to Lee Briese, a Centrol crop consultant who works throughout central North Dakota, is to try and select herbicides that will work with both the grain crop and the cover crop. Shorter-residual preemergence herbicides might be a good option. There usually won’t be enough herbicide left in the soil when cover crops are interseeded to prevent them from growing.

3. Consider planting sorghum with corn if you plan to chop the corn for silage. Marisol Berti, NDSU forage and cover crop specialist, said a corn-sorghum mix may actually yield more than sorghum or corn alone. Plus, the mix is a good hedge against the weather.

Sorghum tolerates hot, dry weather better than corn. Sorghum will also regrow after being chopped for silage. Some years, it may grow enough after being chopped for silage that you can graze it, too. Interseeding sorghum into a poor corn stand might be an alternative replanting the corn.

4. No-till with a cover crop comes out the winner every time when you compare which type of tillage system absorbs more water, said Ray Archuleta, Natural Resources Conservation Center agronomist at the NRCS East National Technology Center, Greensboro, N.C. He demonstrated that fact during the Moody County, S.D., Soil Health Field Day this year.

5. You can’t see it, but there’s a lot of erosion happening on bare soil, even at wind speeds as low as 10-12 miles per hour. Jay Fuhrer, NRCS soil health specialist, Bismarck, N.D., rigged up a variable speed leaf blower and manifold to prove it.

In his demonstration at the Moody County Soil Health Field, when the blower was turned up to simulate a 10-12 mph hour wind, you couldn’t see any soil particles in the air, but a white cloth pinned up at the back of the soil pan started turning brown as it caught the invisible specks of soil.

6. Planting an early maturing soybean variety early in the spring might be a good idea if you want to plant a cover crop after harvesting soybeans. Jeff and Drew Hemmer, Dell Rapids, S.D., are in their fifth year of strip tilling and have begun experimenting on a few acres with cover crops and no-till.

An early-maturing soybean variety for their area, planted April 27 rather than in mid-May, was harvested in August and yielded about 80 bushels per acre. "We think we can plant even earlier," Jeff says.

7. Chris Hitzeman, Lake Andes, S.D., is trying "chemical mowing" to establish cover crops in corn. He operates a pheasant hunting business on his farm. He creates food plots by planting corn and cover crops in the same pass in the spring. The corn is in 30-inch rows and the cover crops are in 7-inch wide rows between the corn. The corn is Roundup Ready. When the corn is about knee-high, Hitzeman applies Roundup at a fraction of the lowest labeled rate that is recommended to kill weeds. The light rate doesn’t kill the cover crops; only sets them back so the corn can get the head start it needs to yield. Pheasants end up with plenty of corn to eat and cover to hide in, he said.

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