Southwest North Dakota Soil Health Demonstration

Project Overview

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2009: $175,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2011
Region: North Central
State: North Dakota
Project Coordinator:
Toby Stroh
Dakota West RC &D
Ty Eisenbraun
Central Stark and Western Soil Conservation

Annual Reports


  • Agronomic: corn, oats, wheat, grass (misc. perennial), hay
  • Vegetables: peas (culinary), radishes (culinary), turnips
  • Animals: bovine


  • Animal Production: feed/forage
  • Crop Production: catch crops, crop rotation, cover crops, no-till, nutrient cycling
  • Education and Training: demonstration, display, extension, farmer to farmer, workshop
  • Soil Management: organic matter, soil analysis, soil microbiology, soil quality/health


    2008 – 2012 Final Report

    The SW ND Soil Health Project was a very successful project resulting from a unique combination of collaborative effort between Dakota West Resource, Conservation and Development Council, three Soil Conservation Districts, the NRCS, Dickinson State University and North Dakota State University’s Dickinson Research Extension Center. The project was conducted from 2008 through November, 2012 on 160 acres divided into eight 20 acre plots that have high visibility along North Dakota highway 22.

    The overarching objectives of the project to do the following: 1) Improve soil health awareness and knowledge of producers and resource people in southwestern North Dakota; 2) Motivate producers to implement practices on their operations that would improve soil health; and 3) To demonstrate an alternative rotational cropping system utilizing no-till and cover crops soil health improvement. Since soil, sun and water are central to the very existence of human kind, whether urban or rural dwellers, stewards of the soil are the first line of defense in controlling atmospheric carbon through organic matter management. Awareness of ways to reverse soil degradation by increasing soil organic matter was key to the objectives of this soil health demonstration that sought to inform producer and resource stakeholders of a cropping practice example in the field that could improve the soil quality aspect. The aspect of soil health education can be no better shown than to identify the number of people that attended various events presented to the consuming public. And not only did the project educate a broad cross section of interested public patrons, but the project engaged 12 individual producers that grew cover crops on their farms that reported results to the project coordinator. Interest in the project is best illustrated by the number of attendees at outreach events such as “Soil Health Field Days” and “Workshops”. The total number of 599 interested stakeholders attended the various events that consisted of local and regional soil health professionals and experienced farmer cooperators that help train farmers who are new to the concept of improving soil health. In addition to the direct attendees at outreach events, project managers who had speaking engagements in which information from the demonstration was presented at conferences and seminars to include: Western RC&D conference in Missoula, MT; (200) Western RC and D Conference, Lewiston, ID (150), Dunn County Soil Conservation Field Days: (approx. 30 each year), Diversity, Direction and Dollars, Dickinson, ND (450), Stark and Dunn County Soil Conservation Banquets (54 -100/year). Other minor speaking engagements reached and estimated 80 people.

    Youth are the future of agriculture. Students from Dickinson State University and regional high school vocational agriculture classes were invited to the field day events. We are pleased to report that Vo-Ag instructors from 6 to 20 high schools participated by bringing students; some as far as 100 miles away.

    Crop rotations invoked in the demonstration were established to demonstrate the effect that increasing soil organic matter (OM) can have on various soil health measurements. Soil organic matter increased from 2.66 to 2.73% during the course of the project. Illustrating that improving soil quality is not a fast process, but one that requires considerable number of years. While that actual percent change in OM was not large, trends were established and encouraging. Water infiltration rate, is an important indicator of the effect that increased OM can have on soil quality. Especially, since western North Dakota is considered to be semi-arid, water conservation is critically important. The average water infiltration rate increased from 1.38 to 2.23 inches/hour, which is a significant increase. Soil cover and soil compaction were monitored with sequential pictures taken throughout each growing season from 2008 to 2012. The pictorial changes in soil cover and compaction were dramatic resulting in reduced erosion and compaction. The farm manager was quoted as saying, “The fields are more mellow and easier to farm”.

    Soil Foodweb, an analysis of soil biota, indicated that bacteria levels were high at the onset of the demonstration, but were declining by the end of the project. Moreover, while soil bacteria were on the decline, desirable soil protozoa were on the increase by the end of the demonstration. Soil protozoa facilitate nutrient cycling and by grazing on nitrogen rich organisms and serve an important role in nitrogen mineralization. Reduced tillage affordable through no-till seeding equipment eliminate soil disturbance that destroys soil structure and inhibits fungal development, which is beneficial for plant relationships and helps increase root contact with the soil. Fungal hyphae facilitate water and nutrient uptake by the plant. Although, total Foodweb fungal measurement was low, there was a trend for increased fungal activity, especially between the years 2011 and 2012.

    Over the course of the demonstration, year-over-year precipitation, crop yields, and crop price varied widely. Ranking the field rotations according to average net return over variable costs, the rotation in Field 6 ($166.80) was the most profitable, which was followed by Fields 3, 5 and 8 ($114.87, $100.53, and $115.39, respectively). Wheat price and a greater number of forage crops in the rotation resulted in lower average return over variable costs for fields 4 and 7 ($74.26 and 96.83, respectively), and the lowest average return over variable costs occurred when all crops in the rotation were forages in fields 1 and 2 ($59.45 and $58.69, respectively).

    An incentive program was offered to producers from the three participating soil conservation districts (SCD) at a compensation rate of $37.50/ac, if they would seed up to two 20 tracts of cropland to cover crops to improve soil health on their land. A total of 896 acres were seeded to cover crops with varied results. NRCS or SCD personnel verified the plantings in which the season long plantings were more successful. 2009 was the most successful year for plantings that followed spring crops and 2012 yielded very poor stands following spring seeded crops. Eighteen Soil Foodweb tests were conducted each year on the producer’s land as well. Subsequently several of these producers have hosted tours as part of an SCD Soil Health Tour. Five producers spoke at the 2011 Soil Health Workshop and four spoke at the 2012 Soil Health Workshop. These producers, especially two, continue to be very active in training other producers about soil health.

    Improving the soil resource on farms is the most important single that pays huge dividends in return, but the process requires a time investment. As soil quality improves, fertilizer and chemical inputs can be reduced, because the Soil Foodweb is working for the farmer “growing nutrients”. In time, improved soil amenities provide higher productivity and yield stability during drought conditions. Stakeholders that took the time to attend field day and workshops gained a greater appreciation for the power of well managed soil and method for attaining improved soil quality.

    In conclusion, there are producers that were not actively adopting practices that would build soil OM on their farms before this demonstration project started, but by the end of the project, they were and remain actively farming using sustainable soil management practices.


    Soil health (soil quality) is the capacity of a soil to function. These functions include; regulating the water cycle, sustaining plant and animal life, filtering and buffering organic and inorganic materials, cycling nutrients. It is these functions that this project highlighted and demonstrated improvement of. Adoption of strategies to improve soil health by producers also improves water quality, makes more efficient use of naturally occurring moisture, sequesters atmospheric carbon dioxide, reduces energy intensive inputs reduces costs and increases profitability. By reducing soil disturbance and increasing crop diversity, the soil will become more habitable by micro flora and fauna which make up the soil Foodweb. It is this Foodweb that builds soil organic matter, the heart of a healthy soil. Producers of crops and/or livestock in western North Dakota have benefited from this demonstration. Less soil disturbance, more crop diversity and the maintenance of a living root in the soil for the majority of the growing season will improve soil health. These principles of soil health are also compatible with alternative grazing systems. Currently many producers in western North Dakota are practicing, or switching to, no till cropping systems. Producers (regardless of tillage system) continue to struggle with crop rotation diversity, and are just being introduced to the use of cover crops to improve soil health. The demonstration exemplified how cropland management is critical to improving soil health.

    Project objectives:

    1. The primary objective of the project was to improve the soil health knowledge of producers and resource people in southwestern North Dakota.

    2. The project sought to motivate producers to implement practices on their operations that would improve soil health.
    3. The project desired to demonstrate an alternative cropping system utilizing no-till, cropping rotations, and cover crops that will improve soil health.

    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.