Getting started on soil health doesn’t have to be complicated according to Lee Briese, a crop consultant for Centrol Inc. of Twin Valley, Minn., who works out of Edgeley, N.D. Briese spoke at the recent South Dakota Soil Health Summit.
“Start where you are,” he said. “There are no rules. And you don’t have to it all once.” Briese has a bachelor’s degree in crop and weed science and a master’s degree in soil science from North Dakota State University. He has also consulted on thousands of cover crops and soil health plantings in central North Dakota and South Dakota.
Soil health practices can sound intimidating, especially when you go to a meeting and listen to farmers who have been doing it for many years, Briese said. They’ll talk about 8-, 10- and even 12-way cover crop mixes; full-season and partial season cover crops; bio strip-till; companion cropping; bale grazing; composting; and more.
But getting started in a soil health program can be simple, he said.
If you are doing conventional tillage and rotating corn with soybeans, reduce tillage. Make one less pass. Direct seed a few fields and see how it work. Add a third crop to the rotation. Broadcast rye in corn. It works seven of out 10 years. If you have livestock, you can make some money right by grazing the cover crop.
The next step up would be to add a fourth crop to the rotation and reduce tillage further. You don’t have to no-till, though. Strip till works fine, too, Briese said.
The third step might be to try intercropping or companion cropping — growing two different crops at the same time, harvesting them together and separating the seed before the crops go in the bin or to the grain elevator.
You could also try biostrip-till, where you plant radishes or another cover crop species in the row where you will plant corn or soybeans the following year. Their residue turns black when it winterkills so the row will warm up more quickly in the spring. Between the rows, you plant rye and other cover crop species to control wind and water erosion and feed soil organisms later in the fall and earlier in the spring.
Soil health tips
Briese offers some advice that will make your next step in soil health go more smoothly:
Chaff distribution. Equip or set up your combine to distribute chaff back out over the whole width of the header. A stripper header might be a good option, too.
Field shape. Be open to changing the shape of your fields. They don’t all have to be squares or rectangles, especially if you have section control on your equipment. You can seed a cover crop around the edges of slougha or saline areas or plant irregularly shaped poor producing areas to cover crops or perennial grasses. You won’t waste expensive inputs on areas that won’t produce a profitable yield.
Seed cost. Keep your cover crop seed costs low. Limit it to $8-$10 per acre, unless you have livestock and are able to make some money by grazing cover crops.
Balancing act. Plan on having to plant and harvest at the same time. The key to getting a good cover crop stand after small grain harvest in the Dakotas is to plant right behind the combine. Maybe you’ll be able to seed cover crops in the morning and combine grain in the afternoon. More than likely you will need enough people run combines, grain carts, trucks, seeders and seed tenders all at the same time.
Marketing. Be ready to spend more time marketing when you add crops to a corn-soybean rotation.
Monitor soil health. Put a shovel and other tools to monitor soil health in your pickup truck or utility terrain vehicle. You’ll want to be checking for changes in soil health regularly. Soil tilth, presence of earthworms and the water infiltration rate are things to monitor. Some farmers have bought microscopes so they can see the soil microbes that are in their soil. They are the underground livestock you are feeding with cover crops.