Soil—and whole farms—have been renewed through soil-improving practices like cover crops and no till. In the semiarid plains of western North Dakota, a team of producers and researchers are working to boost soil health for improved yield stability, farm income, and natural resource health of farms.
The Southwest North Dakota Soil Health Project is a collaborative effort among the Dakota West Resource, Conservation and Development Council, three Soil Conservation Districts, the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), Dickinson State University, North Dakota State University’s Dickinson Research Extension Center, and several producers. In 2009, the group received a $175,000 NCR-SARE Research and Education grant to improve the soil health awareness and knowledge of producers and resource people in southwestern North Dakota.
“Currently many producers in western North Dakota are practicing, or switching to, no till cropping systems,” said Toby Stroh, a 2008 and 2012 project manager with the Dakota West Resource Conservation and Development Council. “Producers, regardless of their tillage system, continue to struggle with crop rotation diversity...This demonstration exemplified how cropland management is critical to improving soil health.”
The project was conducted from 2008-2012 on a demonstration plot of 160 acres divided into eight 20-acre plots that had high visibility along North Dakota Highway 22. The land had been farmed conventionally for many years and exhibited potential for improved organic matter, water infiltration, and productivity.
Cover crops and rotations were established to demonstrate the effects that crop diversity and increased crop residue could have on soil health. Also, an incentive program was offered to producers from the three participating soil conservation districts (SCD) to seed up to two 20-acre tracts of cropland to cover crops.
Twelve individual producers grew cover crops on their farms and reported results to the project coordinator. The project also funded a soil biota analysis on each of the producer plots.
From 2008-2011, soil cover and soil compaction were monitored. According to Stroh, changes in soil cover and compaction were dramatic resulting in reduced erosion and compaction.
Water infiltration rate can be an important indicator of the effect that increased organic matter can have on soil quality. The average water infiltration rate improved from 1.38 to 2.23 inches/hour over the course of the project (as shown in photos above). Although there wasn’t a saline problem evident, testing showed that the treatments that were being applied decreased soil salinity.
An analysis of soil biota indicated a better balance between fungi and bacteria, which project organizers considered a positive trend for improving soil health.
The team said the best results came from the plots that had the most crop diversity in their history. They did much better than the plots that had hay land in a three year rotation.
“This shows that just having a living root in the soil isn’t the answer, it is the diversity of living roots which make the difference and show the most benefits,” said project participant and NRCS district conservationist, Suzi Tuhy.
Stroh said the project team reached about 599 local and regional soil health professionals and producers through various events associated with the project. He added that some of the producers continue to train other producers about soil health.
“We were successful in providing a stimulus for increasing soil health awareness and knowledge in western North Dakota,” Stroh concluded.
Want more information? See the related SARE grant:
- Southwest North Dakota Soil Health Demonstration (LNC09-312)