On April 11, the North Dakota Extension Service sponsored a seminar about the relationship of soil health and cover crop selection and production at the Langdon Research Extension Center (LREC).
By Lisa Nowatzki
Speaking on five interrelated topics were Naeem Kalwar, Extension Area Specialist, LREC; Anitha Chirumamilla, Extension Agent, Cavalier County; Jasper Teboh, Research Soil Scientist, Carrington Research Extension Center (CREC); Larry Cihacek, Soil Scientist, North Dakota State University (NDSU); and Hans Kandel, Extension Agronomist at NDSU.
Kalwar gave a presentation on the benefits of soil testing to establish vegetation on unproductive areas. During the discussion, Kalwar gave several examples of fields in Cavalier County that benefited or could have benefited from soil testing before seeding or planting crops in the area. Kalwar also discussed the role of soil testing in areas with poor drainage before tiling. He gave one example of a producer who tested their soil before tiling an area and another example of another producer who did not test the soil before tiling the field.
With Kalwar’s help, the farmer who tested the soil before tiling the field corrected the drainage problem without installing a tiling system in the field. The other producer installed tiling in a poor drainage field and still had drainage problems after the tiling was installed. Kalwar’s message-soil testing can help any situation including areas of poor drainage, what mixture of cover crops to plant, and what seed varieties will do well with the current soil.
Chirumamilla talked about some research projects and what cover crops worked and what did not in and around Cavalier County. The first challenge addressed by Chirumamilla was the very short growing season and when to plant cover crops. Each area and each farm can be a unique situation.
Because Cavalier County plants a great deal of canola, it also faces a unique challenge. Any crop that is in the same family as canola, encourages the same diseases and insect infestations as in the canola crop. Therefore, it is beneficial to plant cover crops that are not in the same family but that address the goals of the producer.
Seeding crop covers is also difficult. Cover crops can be seeded automatically with seeders or aerially by plane. The problem with some cover crop seeds concerns seed size. Many cool weather root crops like radishes and turnips have very tiny seeds that get stuck in the ground foliage and do not germinate.
Chirumamilla used four producers with four different goals when planting cover crops. One farmer wanted to get rid of excess moisture and to plant a cover crop mixture for his cattle. The next farmer wanted to plant a cover crop that helped with high salt values in the land; the farmer planted a perennial salt tolerant grass mixture. The third producer planted a deep root vegetable cover crop to help with excess moisture, and the fourth farmer planted a cover crop after storm damage to his field. According to Chirumamilla, all of the producers were successful because they tailored the seed mixture of the cover crop to their goals for the land.
Cihacek discussed soil productivity and soil health. He began with defining and measuring a healthy soil. Many factors are included in achieving healthy soil like erosion control, water management, efficient nutrient cycling, weed management, livestock grazing and crop types and rotation. Encouraging soil health building and management includes planting cover crops to remove excess water and prevent evaporation. Soil health is defined by the presence or lack of soil erosion caused by water and wind erosion.
Next Kandel discussed the challenges of incorporating cover crops into the farming system. Cover crops serve several functions. They add diversity, increase nutrient capture, remove fallow or overwintering, help with water management, build aggregation, increase weed suppression and increase the biomass. Cover crops can be defined or classified by function like nitrogen fixers, nutrient scavengers, soil builders, soil looseners and soil erosion preventers. Plant a cover crop that fits in with the farm needs and goals.
Finally, Teboh discussed one truth about soil health on the local farm. His message was that each farmer and each plot or section of land has its own needs, requirements and goals. He emphasized that the person who knows what the land needs is the farmer/producer who uses the land. He told the audience members that they were the soil and cover crop “experts” for their farm and that they should listen to their heart.
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