Serving Minnesota and Northern Iowa.

Baloun gives conservation assessment

By Janet Kubat Willette

Date Modified: 01/14/2014 1:10 PM

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BLOOMINGTON, Minn. — Minnesota's state conservationist says our grandparents knew a thing or two about soil health, without calling it soil health.

They knew that healthy soil grew great corn and great trees, Don Baloun said at the 77th annual meeting of the Minnesota Association of Soil and Water Conservation Districts held earlier this month. They knew the importance of crop rotation and of green manure.

The Natural Resources Conservation Service's soil health initiative hopes to get farmers thinking about the soil once again. Farmers have shifted their thinking away from the soil to immediate problems, be it pests, fungus or a lack of a specific nutrient. As a result, the soil isn't a living system anymore. But, soil health can be restored with a focus on practices that improve the soil. Healthy soil will pay in many ways, Baloun said.

"I don't think this is going to go away. I think it's here to stay," he said of the focus on soil health.

The nation is going to need farming systems that are even more productive and environmentally friendly, he said.

Baloun covered a variety of topics in his presentation and in an interview after. Here's a sampling:

Results: Congress and private landowners want to see measured results for dollars spent for conservation, he said. More edge of field monitoring is needed to provide that data.

Nitrogen: Farmers must get to where they are putting nitrogen on at the right time and the right place using the right source. They must also figure out how to apply nitrogen closer to the time when it will be used by the crop.

Needs: There are 146 million acres of cropland in the United States that are in moderate to high need of conservation practices.

Ag drainage water management is another challenge. "We have to get good and this and get good in a hurry," Baloun said.

Soil and Water Conservation District staff need dedicated dollars instead of having to apply for grants to keep their best people.

Cover crops: In Minnesota, figuring out how to establish a cover crop in August is a priority, Baloun said. In 2013, 32,000 acres were planted to cover crops through the cover crop initiative. Cover crops received a boost because of the prevented plant situation in the state.

Advances in tiling and hybrids make it possible to use no-till systems where they were unsuccessful previously, Baloun said. The conditions have changed since the 1980s, and he suggests it is time for farmers to go back and try the system again.

Cover crops might work well in the no-till system, he said. Cover crops have different benefits, some scavenge nutrients, others are for erosion control. In Minnesota, 90 percent of the cover crops planted were single or two species mixtures, with tillage radish and cereal rye the most common species planted.

Technology exists to get cover crops planted in August, Baloun said. It could be slower germinating seeds or seeding a coated seed with the last nitrogen sidedress application.

The conservation community needs to work with farmers and cooperatives to advance cover crop acreage. Farmers listen to their advisers from the cooperatives. Cooperatives need to know that while they may sell less nitrogen, they will make up the income from selling cover crop seeds, sowing cover crops or terminating cover crops.

Conservation: Minnesota ranks first in the number of contracts and third in dollars obligated from 2009 to 2012 in the Conservation Stewardship Program. If farmers are managing at a base level, they don't have to be a sinner to get the dollars. Rather, it allows farmers to keep the management they have and pays them to go a notch further.

Certainty program: Minnesota is the first state in the country to give water quality certainty. This is a huge game changer for farmers, Baloun said.

The certainty program is moving ahead in Minnesota. In the Whiskey Creek Watershed in northeastern Minnesota, 75 individual field assessments have been completed and two landowners are ready to be certified, said Don Bajumpaa with the Wilkin County Soil and Water Conservation District.

During a session at the convention, the Minnesota Agricultural Water Quality Certification Program was discussed. Representatives from the four pilot districts spoke and offered insight into how the program is going thus far.

In the Middle Sauk Watershed, Dennis Fuchs of the Stearns SWCD said farmers are lukewarm to the program and are unsure what certainty buys them.

Bajumpaa said there isn't any livestock in Wilkin County, which may make it easier for producers to qualify for the program, but it is certainly no cakewalk. It's tough to meet the established standards on every field, he said.

One thing he noted was that farmers aren't given credit for what they do to stop wind erosion, namely installing field windbreaks.

As the Legislature looks at more regulation, maybe certainty is a bigger deal than we thought, said Daryl Buck of the Winona SWCD.