Soil health a hot topic when farmers gather

Farm Forum

Mike Faught has seen a lot of hot topics come and go during his three decades as a volunteer at the annual Big Iron Farm Show.

“I’ve always said, for all the years I’ve worked on Big Iron, that every year there’s a buzz word. I think soil health might be the one this year,” says the Casselton, N.D., farmer.

“I think you could go to a lot of manufacturer exhibits at Big Iron this year, and they would all have something to say about soil health and how their equipment would contribute to it,” he says.

Managing soil health — or working to ensure that soil remains productive and agricultural practices are sustainable — is a growing focus both nationwide and in the Upper Midwest.

For instance, since 2011 North Dakota State University in Fargo has added three scientists and three extension specialists to address soil health and land management issues.

Those six soil health experts were at Big Iron to discuss the importance of managing land to improve soil health.

Rotation, tillage

There are no simple or one-shot methods of enhancing and maintaining soil health, experts say.

But diversifying away from the increasingly common rotation of corn and soybeans can be a big help, says Abbey Wick, NDSU Extension soil health assistant professor.

“Corn and soybeans are good crops. But [we] all know that adding diversity to a rotation is good. More diversity will add more types of organic matter to the soil,” Wick says.

Less tillage helps, too, she says.

“Anything you can do to reduce tillage is a good thing for soil health,” she says.

By all accounts, producers in general are tilling their fields less often today. That’s particularly true of area farmers who farm relatively light soil, says John Nowatzki, NDSU agricultural machinery and precision agriculture specialist.

Sales of tillage equipment are growing faster than sales of any other type of ag equipment, he says.

So-called “vertical tillage” was the hot topic at the 2012 Big Iron, Faught says.

The term can mean different things to different people. In general, though, vertical tillage tools are meant to run fast and shallow, stirring the soil without inverting it, and to cut down on residue and level out the seedbed.

Reducing tillage of heavy soil in the Red River Valley of eastern North Dakota and western Minnesota hasn’t been as feasible, particularly when much of the area has been wet, Nowatzki and Wick say.

Nonetheless, Red River Valley farmers want to learn more about soil health, particularly how to deal with salinity and sodicity problems, Wick says.

Issue won’t fade away

Soil health isn’t a flash-in-the-pan issue that will disappear in a few years, Faught says.

Farmers and others involved in agriculture will continue to learn more about soil health.

“I think we all have a ways to go on the learning curve on soil health. It will be a continuing process. We still have a lot to learn about our soil,” he says.