Serving Minnesota and Northern Iowa.

Soil health initiative gains ground

By Janet Kubat Willette

Date Modified: 04/29/2013 2:28 PM

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ROCHESTER, Minn. — The Natural Resources Conservation Service is launching a new Soil Health Initiative geared toward improving the state of the state's soil health.

As part of the initiative, NRCS staff gathered in Rochester on April 2 for a Soil Health training seminar.

Two farmers spoke at the event and talked about their farming practices.

Travis Willford farms a mile from the Iowa border in the Harmony area. He's a Fillmore County Soil and Water Conservation District supervisor.

He and his father, Arden, farm together. They switched to no-till in 2003 to save time, labor, fuel and equipment. Prior to the switch, they used conservation tillage, Willford said. It's a century farm and they have a conservation plan dating to 1959. There are a lot of contours, terraces and waterways on the property.

Rod and Gail Sommerfield and their son, Rick, farm near Pine Island. They switched to no-till 12 years ago because it saved money. They added strip tillage 10 years ago for fertilizer placement.

They generally strip till their corn and no till their soybeans, Rod Sommerfield said.

His goal is to have soil organic matter of 5.5 or better in all his fields in 10 years. Most of his soils were 1.5 organic matter after being farmed 150 years. Their farm has been in the family since 1892.

Soil health isn't generally something farmers talk about at the coffee shop, but Sommerfield said he views what's in the soil and what's above the soil as interconnected. He's the kind of guy who looks at a forest and sees everything from the worms and roots in the ground to the trees, their leaves and the birds singing in the trees.

Willford said soil health wasn't something he thought about when he and his father switched to no-till. The more he's learned about soil health, the more he's thinking about it.

NRCS is hoping to get more farmers thinking about it. The Soil Health Initiative includes a special cover crop initiative offered through the Environmental Quality Incentive Program.

Through the Soil Health Cover Crop Initiative, farmers plant a multi-species mixture of cover crops on the same acres for five years. Examples of cover crops include: Cereal ryegrass, clover, oats, oil seed radishes and barley.

Willford has planted cover crops. In fall 2011, he planted rye. In the spring, he planted into the rye and sprayed it the day after planting. His primary rotation is corn and soybeans, but he also does two years of corn followed by one year of soybeans on some acres and a rotation of corn, soybeans, oats and two years of hay on other acres.

Sommerfield has tried cover crops, but said it's challenging to make cover crops work. His rotation is primarily corn and food-grade soybeans. They may add winter wheat to the rotation to increase diversity.

The choice to add livestock rests with Rick, who officially joined his parents' farming operation on Jan. 1.

Willford does utilize hog manure on his cropland.

Sommerfield said it's important for NRCS to support farmers who try new initiatives designed to improve soil health. He promoted the idea of producer groups where farmers can talk about what's working and what they're seeing in their soil.