Historically, farmers in the northern Great Plains have felt that cover crops “do not fit” in their rotation primarily because of a short growing season. After several open winters with rampant soil erosion and an national focus on soil health, the mind-set of farmers in the region is changing and they are more willing to make adjustments to management approaches used on-farm. In 2015, four research/demonstration sites were established throughout eastern North Dakota using a SARE Partnership grant. With the guidance and help of cooperating farmers, we were able to conduct research and host several field days on cover crop establishment after a small grain (where cereal rye was included in the mix), followed by planting soybean into living cereal rye the following year. A continuation of this project is requested for three reasons: (1) it takes more than two years to detect improvements to soil health, (2) farmers are requesting additional information from these sites on managing erosion using cover crops and applicable measurements of soil health for this region and (3) there is increasing cover crop interest from farmers and we need to continue to “strike while it’s hot”.
- Collect regionally-specific data throughout the northern and southern Red River Valley on the effectiveness of various cover crop mixes following small grains using replicated plots.
- Demonstrate the use of various cover crop mixes using full-scale plots installed by partnering producers in close proximity to other established salinity demonstration locations.
- Increase education opportunities by demonstrating additional practices for salinity management and opportunities for improving soil health to an already existing framework of demonstration sites that have well attended annual field days (attendance has ranged from 45 to 135 for field days at the four demonstration locations).
This project is a continuation of a SARE Partnership Grant (2014-2016) where NDSU research and Extension partnered with local farmers in four different counties in North Dakota to implement cover crops into rotation on marginal ground (whether it be saline, water logged or another issue). Farmers were diversified their rotations and selected crops which fit the soil conditions. For example, cooperating farmers would incorporate small grain crops on a field if it was salt-affected or a deep rooted crop like sunflower if excess moisture was an issue in the field.
Cover crops were then included based on the cash crop grown. If a small grain cash crop was grown, then a cover crop was seeded following the cash crop. If a cash crop of sunflowers were grown, cover crops were seeded with the sunflowers to manage moisture (primary goal) with the side benefits of managing weed and pest pressures. If soybean were the desired cash crop, then we tried to get cereal rye established in the field the year prior to manage moisture (and salts) prior to planting soybean.
Our goal was to use approaches that could be implemented easily on-farm and met the goals of the area where the demonstration site was located, while at the same time showing some of the possibilities with using cover crops.
Weather was a challenge in 2017, most demonstration sites received too much moisture which delayed harvest and also the seeding of cover crops post-harvest. At the Sargent County site, forage barley was planted late as a result of a wet spring followed by a late seeding of cover crops (September 7). This demonstration site/field has water management and salinity issues – it has always been difficult to plant and harvest. There was very little establishment of the cover crops (consisting of radish, flax and cereal rye), however the volunteer barley created a nice green matt this fall. We learned from this site that planting time of cover crops is critical in North Dakota. Cover crops need to be seeded by August 15 to get sufficient growth out of radish and other broadleaf plants. Cereal rye can be planted later in the season, but seeding rates need to be increased the later the cover crop is seeded. We produced four videos addressing timelines of seeding (all available on the NDSU Soil Health webpage: ndsu.edu/soilhealth). At this location, we were able to conduct an earthworm study as an evaluation of soil health based on salt level in the soil. Our goal was to be able o apply an easy “soil health test” of looking for earthworms to challenging soils. At an EC of 1.0 mmhos/cm, earthworm populations declined and the community was dominated by adults rather than juveniles. This information is summarized in the video produced on-site (titled: Biological Activity in Saline Areas).
In Traill County, we again had issues with getting in on time because of excess moisture. We did find another cooperator in the area (Tim Kozojed) who was interested in trying cover crops both across his field and on saline/water logged areas. So, we worked with him (the timing was better given his rotation) to get some cover crops established. Two videos were produced from his field where cover crops were flown on into soybean before leaf drop to control erosion and manage moisture along with cereal rye and barley seeded on the salt-affected ground to manage moisture and weed pressures. We produced two videos from this field (Titled: Cereal rye and barley to manage salinity and flying on cover crops into soybean).
The Grand Forks County site was also extremely wet at harvest and we could not get cover crops seeded at this location. We purchased the radish seed for this site, which was spring wheat as a cash crop, with the goal to seed different radish rates and evaluate decomposition of the wheat straw residue. The cooperating farmer was not comfortable going in with equipment given the wet field conditions.
At the Richland County site, which was sunflower with cover crop seeded at the same time, we were able to collect yield, cover crop biomass, fertility and complete soil health analyses in the lab. We found no difference in yield or oil content of the sunflower between the replicated strips on three fields. This approach helped manage moisture and weeds and we are interested in measuring how it might impact beneficial insects for pest management. We produced a video at this location as part of the AgWeek TV Soil Health Minute (09 SHM Cover Crops into Sunflower; nods.edu/soilhealth). We feel this may be a reasonable approach for this particular farm, but need more information to make a recommendation.
Field days were limited in 2017 because in some cases there wasn’t much to show or by the time there was something to show, farmers were pushing hard at harvest and not available. We did put together a booklet titled, Incorporating Cover Crops (also available at nods.edu/soilhealth). This booklet is full of tips and tricks for incorporating cover crops in rotation effectively. It includes information on where to start with species selection based on goals, rates, timing etc. We have distributed over 1,500 copies of this booklet to date. We also produced several other videos in 2017 using these SARE Partnership sites and other, so there are now a total of 70 videos available on the NDSU Soil Health webpage.
Educational & Outreach Activities
The SARE Partnership sites are part of a larger program to deliver information on soil health building management practices to farmers, consultants, industry, researchers and other educators. This makes it hard to differentiate the educational materials exclusive to these sites from others. In 2017, 20 videos and 1 extension booklet were developed which incorporated information and concepts being used at these sites. NDSU Soil Health also has the NDSU Soil Health Minute with AgWeek TV and magazine (a regional program and magazine), which included 12 TV segments and 18 written articles. Information from the partnership sites was included or weaved into the story and in some cases the segment was filmed on site (Sargent and Richland Counties). We also hosted several field days to share information, again sometimes at other locations, but information from the partnership sites was incorporated. With the education and outreach component of this project, we continue to focus on what the farmers want. We ask for feedback on how the information could be delivered so that it can be effectively used. In 2017, farmers wanted visuals of how the practices were being used. In 2018, we are shifting more to question and answer style delivery of information so farmers can get customized information. This tells us that they know what it looks like and now they need more specific information for on-farm implementation.
I would say that all farmers who attended a workshop or field day gained some sort of knowledge/skill set - evaluations support this.
adjust crop rotation to more suitable crop for soil conditions (for example small grains back into a corn-soybean rotation on problematic fields that may have salts or water management issues)
seeding of cover crops by August 15 (we continue to emphasize this aspect of using cover crops and most are incorporating this advice on their farms)
including cover crops where possible (may be seeding after a small grain crop or interseeding)
The primary outcome of having the Partnership Sites is that we are building a soil health network of farmers, scientists, consultants, state organizations, industry and extension. We have conducted a knowledge network analysis and written a manuscript that is currently under review with Soil Use and Management journal. This knowledge network is leading to better relationships amongst individuals with common interests and on-farm adoption of practices.
Several of the cooperating farmers (Terry Wehlander – Sargent County and Toussaints – Richland County) have been featured in magazines such as Successful Farming, Progressive Farmer, Dakota Farmer, and The Sunflower Magazine. Having them highlighted for their efforts is a great success of this project.
Not at this time, but we will do an extensive evaluation again at the end of this year to see where we can make improvements.