Organic No-Till- The Ultimate Cropping System For Soil Health and Farm Sustainability

Project Overview

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2008: $18,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2009
Region: North Central
State: North Dakota
Project Coordinator:
Linda Grotberg
Prairie Farm Pilot Project


  • Agronomic: corn, millet, oats, rye, sunflower, wheat, grass (misc. perennial), hay
  • Animals: bovine, poultry, goats


  • Animal Production: grazing - continuous, free-range, grazing management, livestock breeding, manure management, mineral supplements, pasture fertility, preventive practices, range improvement, grazing - rotational, stocking rate, watering systems, winter forage, feed/forage
  • Crop Production: conservation tillage
  • Education and Training: technical assistance, demonstration, display, farmer to farmer, mentoring, networking, on-farm/ranch research, participatory research, study circle, workshop, youth education
  • Energy: energy conservation/efficiency, energy use
  • Farm Business Management: agritourism, budgets/cost and returns, agricultural finance, risk management, value added, whole farm planning
  • Natural Resources/Environment: biodiversity, habitat enhancement, indicators, soil stabilization, wetlands, wildlife, carbon sequestration
  • Pest Management: allelopathy, competition, cultural control, economic threshold, field monitoring/scouting, integrated pest management, mulches - living, mulching - plastic, prevention, weather monitoring, weed ecology
  • Production Systems: transitioning to organic, holistic management, organic agriculture, permaculture, integrated crop and livestock systems
  • Soil Management: earthworms, green manures, soil analysis, nutrient mineralization, soil chemistry, soil microbiology, organic matter, soil physics, soil quality/health
  • Sustainable Communities: leadership development, local and regional food systems, partnerships, public participation, urban/rural integration, analysis of personal/family life, social capital, social networks, social psychological indicators, sustainability measures


    Lead Organizers: Dick and Linda Grotberg, and Dick Lovestrand, Bethany Prairie Farm. (2333 99th Ave SE, Wimbledon, ND 58492. Phone: 701-435-2333. Email: Website:

    The Bethany Prairie Farm consists of 440 acres, 400 of which are tillable, and livestock which consists of 160 Scottish Highland Cattle, milking goats, grass-fed lambs, and pastured poultry. The farm is in the 3rd year of organic conversion. The farming plan, which promotes healthy soil = healthy plants = healthy animals = healthy meat, eggs, and milk = healthy people, is bio-diverse, holistic, synergistic, and organic. The Grotbergs and Dick Lovestrand are the lead organizers of The Prairie Farm Pilot Project, whose purpose is to increase sustainability in the small and mid-sized farming community. Farmer Partners in this project are: Mark and Joan Gehlhar, (9464 41st St. SE, Ypsilanti, ND 58497. Ph. 701-489-3438). The Gehlhar’s operate a custom grazing operation on half of their 1,500 acres and holistic grain farming on the other half. John and Helen Olson, (11025 48th St SE, Litchville, ND 58461, Phone 701-762-4498) are 25 year integrated certified organic crop and livestock farmers, who use conventional tillage.

    The Prairie Farm Pilot Project is involved in the journey of converting small and mid-sized conventional farms to the 1950’s farming model (SARE FNC06-625) which was agriculture before the wide spread use of chemicals and basically organic. Upon the first visit (2007) of the Soil Science Team (see PEOPLE) in late June, we had just plowed a field in preparation for seeding millet. Their reaction to our having killed untold billions of creatures and microbes in that black soil, cooking in the summer sun launched the next leg of our journey! That quest encompassed searching, researching, conversations, telephone calls, reading, listening, field days and workshops to learn how to farm cooperating with and caring for the billions of creatures and microbes that build healthy soil and therefore care for us. We will continue the organic conversion of the Bethany Prairie Farm, but kick it up a notch with a “do or die” attitude towards organic no-till.

    Goals: Marrying the two approaches to sustainable farming – organic and no-till - is of extreme importance to us. The true mission of organic sustainability is to restore soil to health in order to grow healthy plants to feed healthy animals which produce healthy meat, milk, and eggs to provide food to sustain healthy people. The Prairie Farm Pilot Project is committed to achieving this by using a sustainable organic, holistic, synergistic, biodiverse farming plan and by teaching the concept to others. We believe that part of the plan must include organic no-till. Our goal is to change the concept of organic no-till, from being an oxymoron, to the idea that it is the farming choice of the future.

    Process: Our plan encompassed three control sites: the John Olson farm, which is certified organic and uses traditional tillage; the Mark Gehler farm, which is a holistic grain farm/custom grazing operation; the Bethany Prairie Farm, which is in transition from conventional agriculture to sustainable organic farming. The Bethany Prairie Farm was the treatment site for most of the organic no-till practices.

    Eleven fields were used for the organic no-till treatments. The treatments included synergistic companion crops (field peas with oats and spring wheat with lentils), cocktail mix cover crops (radish, turnip, millet, oats, wheat, peas) on each field after harvest, winter crops (winter rye, triticale, and winter wheat), solid plant row crops (oil seed sunflowers), crimping/rolling biomass (triticale) before no-till seeding (buckwheat). Fields were grazed immediately after seeding to control weeds already growing. Cattle were then removed before crops immerged.

    Phase II Observation: We are using Farm Works software to record notes and observations of the problems and the successes in each of the fields and the treatments used in order to give recommendations for organic no-till practices in East Central ND. The hand held GPS iPAQ will allow us to map fields within a field to compare diverse treatments in similar situations. Bethany Prairie field mapping was done initially and personalized by Barnes County NRCS.

    The Soil Science Team (see PEOPLE) began monitoring the fields in this project in 2007 and will continue to monitor the soil health of the fields. According to Susan Samson-Liebig, “this study will monitor changes in soil quality in contrasting land management practices over time. In particular, this study will examine the transition from conventional to organic farming in the Midwest and the corresponding changes in soil biology, fertility, etc. Evaluations will be conducted on-farm for paired no-till organic, conventional tillage, and pastureland on the Dick and Linda Grotberg Bethany Prairie Farm.” The Soil Science Team meets twice a year at Bethany Prairie to observe and discuss plans, difficulties, and progress of the project.

    Phase III Documentation: Samson-Liebig continues, “The soil study will increase understanding regarding the current state of soil quality in North Dakota as well as a baseline for a system converting from conventional agriculture to organic. The study will also increase understanding of contrasting land management effects on soil quality over time. Additionally, data collected during the course of the study will help in understanding carbon sequestration potential and nutrient movement under organic no-till, conventional tillage, and grazed pastureland and cropland, thereby expanding the knowledge base regarding the environmental sustainability of each management system. Evaluation sites will be used to demonstrate benefits of conservation-oriented management practices on soil quality, carbon sequestration, and agricultural productivity”.

    Cooperators and Mentors:

    Carol Peterson, Regional Coordinator, USDA Resource, Conservation and Development program, in cooperation with the local Sheyenne James RC&D Council. Ph.701.252.2521. Carol helped with grant resources and technology contacts.

    Steve Zwinger, Agronomy Research Specialist, 633 Hwy 281 North, Carrington, ND, Ph. 701.652.2951. Steve provided research and expertise NDSU Carrington Research Extension Center, with organic no-till and with the roller/crimper.

    Randy Grueneich, County Agent, NDSU Extension Service, Barnes County, Phone 701.845.8528. Randy was the contact person for Extension resources.

    North Dakota Grazing Lands Coalition Gene Goven, holistic grazer and no-till grain farmer, (Turtle Lake, ND, Ph 701-720-7792), Ken Miller, holistic grazer, no-till grain farmer, and District Technician for the Burleigh County Soil Conservation District, (1511 E Interstate Ave, Bismarck, ND 58503, 701-663-9350) and Gabe Brown, holistic no-till farmer innovator, (3752 106th St NE Bismarck, ND 58503, Ph 701-222-8602) teamed to mentor the cocktail mix cover crops, holistic no-till, and grazing aspects of the project.

    Paul Overby, (Value Added Mgmt Solutions, 5237 78th St, Wolford, ND 58385, Ph 701-656-3654) Paul, provided training for the Farm Works software.

    Soil Science Team: Susan Samson-Liebig, Soil Quality Specialist, USDA-NRCS, Bismarck, ND; Laura Overstreet, Soil Microbiologist, NDSU, Fargo, ND; Fred Aziz, Area Soil Scientist Area II, USDA-NRCS, Jamestown, ND; Lance Duey, Soil Scientist, MLRA 55 A & B, Devils Lake, ND; Earnie Jenson, MLRA 55A&B Soil Survey Leader, Devils Lake, ND; Kris Nichols, Soil Microbiologist, USDA-ARS, Mandan, ND; Advisors: Mark Liebig, Soil Scientist, USDA-ARS, Mandan, ND and Dick and Linda Grotberg.

    Paul DuBourt, District Conservationist, USDA/NRCS, Cooperstown, ND 58425, Ph 701-797-2240, provided technical assistance for conservation planning and participation in the Organic EQIP Initiative.

    Foundation for Agriculture and Rural Resources Management and Sustainability (FARRMS), 301–5th Ave SE, Medina, ND 58467, Ph 701-486-3569, provided technical assistance in farming organically and additional funding for the Farm Works GPS system.

    Soil samples taken in April 2010 are reported as follows by Samson-Liebig:
    “A couple pictures from field #6&7. Photo #6041511 is a nematode swimming around organic matter eating up bacteria and other critters. He was pretty cool to watch! Photo #641511 showing a fungal spore in the middle. One of several. Plenty of biology in this soil sample. Very active so doing very well. Other fields were not as active, however, all had plenty of bacteria and fungal spores (these will eventually hatch). Some protozoa as well. Will take a look this fall and see where things are. I have pictures of all samples for comparison later on. Overall, your biology is on the right track. With continued no-till and use of cover crops, fungi counts will increase along with other critters which will give a nice balance of diversity in your soil biology.”

    Commercial soil tests were taken on five fields. Organic matter was very good. Nitrogen was low. It was noted at the Soil Health meeting that the nitrogen reading was only a snap shot in time and not necessarily what will be available to the plants during a growing season.

    Drought from May to August, caused the late crops, buckwheat, corn, and sunflowers to have poor emergence. Those fields were grazed rather than harvested. Weeds were controlled and feed was gained.

    Grazing the wheat fields right after planting as well as seeding the wheat in two directions, resulted in good weed control and a 25 bu/acre yield. This was considered to be good considering lack of rainfall.

    Fall cover crops were seeded into dry ground. The small seeds (turnip, radish, millet) grew, but the hard red spring wheat and oats sown as cover crop did not germinate until spring. This was reported as a common problem across the region.

    Organic No Till powerpoint

    SARE Press Release 2009

    Our journey into organic no-till sustainability is a work in progress.

    We are always learning, ever changing in our approach to achieve the goal of a truly sustainable family farm.

    Healthy soil is our ultimate goal. We believe that organic no-till is the best way to achieve this goal. We may have a long way to go to overcome weeds, probably the biggest challenge, in this system. We have made significant strides, however, by the use of diversity in crops, cover crops, and grazing.

    The advantages and disadvantages of implementing a whole farm organic no-till system – “do or die”, were so close together that it was hard to say if the glass was half full or half empty.

    Mentally stimulating, Mind boggling
    Challenging, Overwhelming
    Cool, Weird
    Innovative, Naïve
    Out of the box, Off the wall
    Success is long lasting, Success is long term

    If I could, I would no-till for several years reducing chemical inputs, building fertility and soil cover, through the use of diverse cover crops before I went to organic no-till. We went organic for two years before beginning to exclusively no-till, which is definitely harder. Organic no-till in this manner is not impossible, but it is a long term project that will only be considered a general practice as research is continued on actual organic farms.

    I can’t say enough good things about this program! It meets a need that few other programs do – that of on-farm research by farmers themselves. The only change that I would make is to add more dollars to the budget, in order to fund more farmer/rancher research.

    Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.