Big Stone County Cover Crop Tour

Farm Forum

Producers from Big Stone County and the surrounding area recently participated in the Big Stone County Soil Health Producer Tour, August 24th-August 25th. Thirty-two participants traveled to Burleigh County, North Dakota to learn about soil health. The theme of the tour was “See the Difference, Be the Difference”. The group was given a tour of the Bismarck USDA-NRCS Plant Materials Center by Wayne Duckwitz, Plant Materials Center Manager, and Nancy Jensen, Agronomist. The Center has released over 40 improved conservation plants including varieties of blue grama, buffalograss, western wheatgrass, Indian grass, switchgrass as well as several tree and shrub varieties. The group learned about the development of new varieties for conservation plantings and toured many plots including a new plot of winter hardy cover crops. The day concluded with a tour of Gabe Brown’s operation and ranch. Gabe is a cover crop expert who has been using cover crops for the past twenty-five years. He has increased his soil organic matter from an average of 1.8% to over 8%, and has set a goal of 12 percent soil organic matter. He continually plants cover crops and believes in feeding his soil by having living roots throughout the entire growing season. He utilizes grazing livestock such as beef cattle, sheep, pasture pigs, and pasture chickens on most of his farm fields. This has enabled him to decrease his inputs of fertilizer, chemicals, and even animal vaccines because the animals are healthier from routinely being on new forage. Gabe stressed that we can’t make more soil and we have to take care of the soil we have. By creating healthy soils we will be able to produce healthy, nutritious crops with added value to feed a growing global population.

The following day was spent touring the Menoken Farm with Jay Fuhrer, North Dakota USDA- NRCS Soil Health Specialist. Jay covered the five principles of healthy soil including: 1) keep the soil covered as much as possible, 2) disturb the soil as little as possible, 3) keep plants growing throughout the year to feed the soil, 4) diversify as much as possible using crop rotation and cover crops, and 5) integrate livestock grazing. Jay explained the carbon cycle and the importance of a carbon to nitrogen ratio to feed soil microorganisms and begin to build soil health. Jay performed a series of demonstrations and tests including the rainfall simulator to demonstrate run-off and infiltration rate on different residue covers. Another test included the Solvita Test to determine carbon in the soil. Jay has been a career NRCS employee and had spent the first half of his career constructing erosion control practices such as grass waterways and water and sediment basins. He explained to the group that after years of watching these practices merely serve as ‘bandaids’ to solve conservation challenges, he learned that what we need to fix is infiltration. This can be done by building healthy soils with organic matter and reducing tillage. Participants on the tour were able to share experiences, network, and take home ideas to enhance soil health on their own operation. The tour was sponsored/supported by: Millborn Seeds, Prairie Creek Seed, Agassiz Seed, Big Stone County Water Plan, Mycogen Seeds, Big Stone County Pheasants Forever Chapter, CHS – Border States, Mustang Seeds, Centrol, Big Stone SWCD, and USDA-NRCS. For more information on building healthy soils, please contact your local USDA-NRCS Field Office.