Ten farmers and six conservation professionals went to Bismarck, North Dakota August 6th to see what all the buzz is about on cover crops, grazing techniques, and more. The trip was set up by the Rice Soil and Water Conservation District as a way to promote soil health. Jay Fuhrer, NRCS State Soil Health Specialist in North Dakota led the group around Burleigh County, and visited four farms. The first farm showcased a grass and alfalfa field that is twenty years old. By taking just one cutting per season and letting the field rest until fall when it is grazed, the stand is able to recover and maintain production. The manure left behind from grazing also gives back vital nutrients to the soil.
The second site was a beef cattle ranch that relies on native prairie to provide much of the grazing lands for the cattle. One third of the land in Burleigh County is rangeland that has never been plowed. More than 100 different species of grass and forbs grow on these lands, providing not only a food source for the cattle, but also a place for many types of wildlife to live. Unfortunately, about 5000 acres of this land in Burleigh County is being plowed up every year to grow more row crops.
The third farm was another beef cattle ranch that also includes row crops and a focus on agro tourism. The Black Leg Ranch hosts many weddings at their farm, and also is a hunting resort for big game and pheasants. One of the highlights of the stop was a field planted to corn and interseeded with a multi-species mix of cover crops to build the soil and provide a forage crop for the cattle.
The last stop was to the Menoken farm. This 120 acre farm is owned by the Burleigh County Soil and Water Conservation District. The SWCD uses it primarily for research and demonstrations, as well as a place to promote soil health. Several experiments were conducted for the group to show the effects of a well-maintained soil versus a soil that has been farmed under traditional tillage methods. The take home message was clear. Intensive tillage destroys soil structure, burns up carbon, and leads to increased runoff and erosion. Good soil health practices allow the soil to build organic matter, structure, and allow for more water holding capacity and infiltration of rain water. A healthy soil also supports much more biological activity and will lead to higher yields.
While the climate and crops are different than what we see in Southeast Minnesota, the farmers who toured with us all agreed that the soil health principles learned can be applied here too. Many indicated they will begin to incorporate what they learned into their farming operations. Special thanks to Cannon River Watershed Partnership and the North Central Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education for sponsoring this event. For more information on soil health and how to determine the health of your own farm, please contact the Rice Soil and Water Conservation District in Faribault.