Soil Health Lessons Learned

October 18, 2022

As the weather cycles continue to become more extreme, farmers and ranchers are seeking solutions to make their soils and their farms more resilient from wet and dry conditions, now and into the future.

Seeking solutions, South Dakota USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and SDSU agronomists took a hard look at Prevent Plant acres a few years ago. NRCS State Soil Health Specialist Kent Vlieger led two round table discussions with agronomists and local farmers near Crooks and Mitchell. The overriding theme of the lessons learned was that no-till soils saw the highest planting success, and cover crops provided numerous benefits like erosion control and water infiltration on Prevented Plant fields.

Farmer round table lessons

NRCS Farmer Meeting

Craig Stehly, who farms near Mitchell, says 2019 was the most stressful year since he began farming in 1984. “Fortunately, we were able to seed a lot of cereal rye cover crops and winter wheat in September, which allowed spring growth to use up the excess moisture.

“What I’ve found with long-term no-till is we don’t have ruts across a whole field, and the driest soils we had were on wheat stubble, or where I put a cover crop,” he said. “The cover made the trafficability much better, proving we do learn things in this wet environment.”

Anthony Bly, SDSU Extension soils field specialist agronomist, talked to a lot of farmers during the season and, while no-till farmers also struggled, those building soil health saw the best results. “I think they won the battle, and I believe others are going to pay attention to that, and adoption is going to increase further.”

When you see black snow, and ditches, culverts, and roads impacted by silt from fields, you really see the value of no-till and cover crops, according to Nate Stroschein, who farms near Crooks. “After heavy rains, you can really tell that water infiltration is a big deal on our no-till fields, thanks to better soil biology, compared to conventional tillage.”

Cover crop plans

NRCS agronomist Eric Barsness, Brookings, and district conservationist Brent Woods, Parkston, examine his cover crop mix in September, 2019. Woods grazed this biomass in the fall, then seeded it back to cover crops to take up moisture to aid spring planting.

Farming west of Mitchell, Charlie Edinger said, knowing what you want to accomplish with cover crops helps select the best species. “We like a wide variety of smaller seeded species because they’re less expensive. But if you want to reduce compaction or add nitrogen, there’s a whole range of specific cover crop traits to meet your needs.”

The multiple species cover crop mixes offered by seed retailers are designed to deliver optimum plant biomass and root diversity. The mixes were created to increase biomass accumulation and soil organism diversity. For example, NRCS has with some seed companies to formulate multiple species cover crop blends for Prevented Plant acres containing a legume, brassicas, and cool and warm season broadleaves and grasses: e.g., oats, barley, sudangrass, rapeseed, radishes, turnips, flax, buckwheat, and common vetch.

The seed blends that resulted in tall and heavy biomass concerned new cover crop growers about potential difficulty planting cash crops. Some producers chose to use tillage or herbicides to reduce the biomass, rather than wait for natural winter decomposition. The tillage of cover crops negatively impacted the soil structure forming benefits of living roots, and significantly reduced the cover crop biomass that used photosynthesis to fix atmospheric carbon into the soil reserves.

Grazing cattle on cover crops is one of the goals of Daniel Harnish, who farms near Clayton. “We like to put in oats, radish and field pea mix, trying to keep our costs under $20 per acre. To get additional growth to graze, we haul manure over the live crop when it’s 4-5 inches tall. In spring, the canopy of brassicas and oats has broken down the manure making it easy to plant into while continuing to build soil organic matter and improve water infiltration.”

Fallow syndrome and fertility

If no cover crops were seeded on your conventional-tilled or minimum-till Prevented Plant field (or only brassica cover crops like radish, turnip, mustard or rapeseed), the soil might lack key beneficial organisms, e.g., mycorrhizal fungi, that support early corn growth.

To overcome this potential soil biology challenge, some agronomists recommend the addition of phosphorus (P) and chelated zinc in-furrow as a pop-up starter or a banded application to minimize early-season growth challenges and potential yield loss from Fallow Syndrome. If that’s not an option, broadcast application rates that include an additional 15-20 lbs. P/acre will also help, according to Antonio Mallarino, Iowa State University Extension.

Some agronomists and long-term no-till farmers believe that no-till fields are probably less susceptible to fallow syndrome due to better soil health. “We know that mycorrhizal fungi are greatly reduced in tilled systems, and I think our soil health systems [no-till, strip-till] are going to show more resilience,” Bly says.

Stehly said it’s hard to predict fallow syndrome. ”If you’ve got a cover crop on, it probably won’t happen, but the pop-up does so much good anyway on corn and small grain, then I split the N with stabilizer to manage volatilization.”

“We also use a pop-up in-furrow for the P issue,” Harnish said. “I think that could be critical this spring to prevent fallow syndrome, especially on fields that didn’t get cover crops or were saturated for long periods, as that can decrease microbial populations, too.”

Regarding weeds, most farmers had issues with timely spraying if they could spray at all due to the continued rains. Those farmers who achieved good cover crop stands kept weed populations down. Stroschein said he had a field with marestail problems, but his cover crops that produced heavy biomass provided pretty decent control. Other farmers mentioned they shift to small grains and cover crops in the rotation to eliminate marestail.

Reducing future risks

While no one can control precipitation, the no-till farmers around the tables all said that their decisions to build soil organic matter levels and soil structure have dramatically improved water infiltration. By investing in cover crops following cash crops, the additional root and plant biomass produced by the cover crops improve the formation of humus that aids soil aggregation.

Prevented Plant fields that only used multiple tillage passes saw severe wind and water erosion that filled ditches and culverts, further reducing soil biology, organic matter and future yields.

Reduced input costs, like fertilizer and chemicals, to less equipment needed, less fuel, and less tractor time were benefits listed by farmers who switched to no-till. Ryan Larson, farmer from Garretson, added, “One thing I never realized was that you could trade your high horsepower tractor and all your tillage equipment and buy a no-till set-up and still have money left over. It’s been really eye-opening when you examine your break-even prices and compare to other operations.”

Such plans help aid future planting under wet conditions—reducing Prevented Plant acres. It’s the best option to minimize water and wind erosion, decrease nitrate runoff and leaching, and reduce weed pressure for increased productivity in subsequent years.

By Kurt Lawton, ag journalist, NRCS

Published in the 2022 Fall South Dakota Soybean Leader Magazine