Rural Reflections: Improving soil health increases crop yields

Farm Forum

Events such as sodbuster days and threshing shows remind us that these prairie soils were turned from grass into productive cropland across the state by the undaunting efforts of our ancestors. Another group of pioneers is leading the charge to put soil health at the forefront when considering field crops.

Last week, I was invited to a meeting that explained why cover crops are important to soil health and can provide a number of benefits. Dennis Hoyle of Ipswich planted several areas in a field to different mixtures of cover crops. Friends and neighbors joined those specifically interested in soil health to listen to speakers and learn what varieties work best to improve the soil. The meeting was sponsored by the newly formed S.D. Soil Health Coalition.

The original grasses were made up of a variety of mixtures that complimented each other and put down a dense structure that withstood the brutal forces of the plains. As the plow exposed those roots, the structure of the land changed forever. Instead of the natural regeneration by decaying material enriching and enhancing the soil, costly fertilizers now seek to improve the productive capacity of the soil.

Hoyle told me that last year, the field where we were standing was planted to corn and wheat. “The organic material in it was low, around three percent. The pasture just south of here was at five percent. I want to bring the level in this area back to five percent to restore the soil.”

For Hoyle, it isn’t so much about the crop yields but about the soil. He told me, “I’m a soil health guy.”

Dennis said that he’s talked to people who are reducing their input costs because of cover crops. Some are 20 years into the process, so the bugs in the soil are busy and active. He told me, “I see it like I have 50 cows and I want to get to 500. I’m looking at what I need to change to get to that point. Other guys are way ahead of me, but I’m making a start.”

From the tour, those attending could walk into the field to see what the crops looked like and also pull up the plants to examine the root structure. Dwayne Beck of the Dakota Lakes Research Farm noted that the Dwarf Essex rapeseed root is almost better than turnips or radishes for opening the soil.

Some crops, such as sugar beets, can help to handle salinity in the soil. Buckwheat will help soil release phosphorus. Other crops scrutinized were German millet, Dwarf Essex rapeseed, forage soybean and flax. Hoyle also grew some teff, the lost grass of Ethiopia, which has a great fiber system and is high in protein and calcium, and is gluten-free.

I talked with Doug Sieck of Selby who heads up the South Dakota Soil Health Coalition.

Government programs such as EQIP and CSP have provided some payment incentives which got a lot of guys started. Sieck said he started with a mixture of winter triticale and hairy vetch. Now he’s gone with whole season cover crops that work two ways for him, enriching the soil and providing feed for his livestock.

“I have cattle so I plant about one-fourth of my land to cover crops,” Sieck said. “I take the first cutting for hay and then utilize the ground for swathe grazing for the cattle. The cows eat and then they deposit manure back on the land, improving the soil. The animals leave the stalks which provide high levels of carbon on the ground to jump start the whole system.”

He told me a lot of farmers go for the turnips and radishes; they are fun to talk about and to look at. But they’ve found that when they put them in the mix, it accelerated the whole system, and there was a problem keeping cover on the ground. “So we’ve found that we had to switch away from brassica to those that have a high carbon content to feed the microbes but also leave some carbon on the ground.”

Sieck told me, “With the low price for corn and beans, and high input costs, planting cover crops is a good way to kill two birds with one stone. With the cattle market high, I have a good source of feed for the cattle and also provide good health benefits for the soil. By putting 150 yearlings on the field and if they gain 2 lbs. a day, I can end up making $300 an acre, while improving the soil.”

When I asked Judge Jessop of the South Dakota Grasslands Coalition if people finally understanding soil health, he hesitated and said, “Yes, there are a certain number who are getting it, but there are some who have no incentive to get to this point. When they are done harvesting, they don’t see the benefit of turning around and seeding another crop. They are not interested in looking at the long term.”

Some have turned to cover crops when the price of fertilizer was high and supply was low. “The question is, what will people do when fertilizer isn’t available?” Jessop said.

Jessop said that government incentives through EQIP and CSP have fueled quite a bit of the interest. Only about three percent of the fields have no government funding involved.

Showing results is one reason why cover crop tours are important. Jessop said, “We need to compile the information and keep records about the impact. From what I’m hearing, producers are seeing a three and four bushel per acre increase in production by improving their soil health. That incentive, rather than government payments, is the bridge and that’s what we need to get over.”

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