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Improving Soil Health May Require More Use of Cover Crops

Author: Julie Buntjer

WORTHINGTON — Farming practices haven’t been kind to the agricultural landscape since farmers first began tilling up the prairie soils of southwest Minnesota more than a century ago.

The common two-crop rotation of corn and soybeans has contributed little organic matter to the soil and even less cover to protect the landscape from the winds that often blow across the region.

Jay Fuhrer, dubbed the Waterway King of North Dakota (he’s a Natural Resources Conservation Service conservationist in Bismarck, N.D.), was in Worthington on Thursday to address soil health and the advantages of beneficial crop rotations, cover crops and livestock grazing on farm fields.

Before a crowd of more than 70 attendees at Minnesota West Community and Technical College, Fuhrer shared how he spent the first half of his career building drainage ditches and designing waterways because North Dakota farmers couldn’t get water into the soil profile. Every time it rained, the water flowed across the landscape. That, combined with wind erosion, meant a lot of nutrient loss on farm fields.

By the 1990s, Fuhrer said a team of conservationists came together as a team and decided their approach had to change.

“We can’t keep going the way we are — it’s non-sustaining,” he said, adding that with the focus placed on conserving a degrading resource base, the team developed ideas to rebuild soil and recreate the pore spaces that once existed.

Keep Reading in Daily Globe

Regenerative Agriculture and the Dawn of Planetary Engineering

Author: J.S. McDougall

Regenerative agriculture is the dawn of planetary engineering. And that’s great news for the future of the planet. Here’s how I know.

We have five hay fields on our farm. They are the kind of rolling, green, and gorgeous fields that are typical across Vermont’s pastoral green mountains. All five of the fields have been incredibly productive over the past forty years using our area’s conventional methods for hay farming–frequent tilling, a corn rotation, chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides. Our hay was regarded as some of the best in the area. And we produced a lot of it.

Then, in 2012, we stopped tilling. We stopped spraying chemicals. We stopped rotating in corn. And, as a result, fields that once produced three cuttings of broad-leafed, green, tall grasses struggled to produce two cuttings of thin, dry, yellowed grass. Our hay production collapsed.

Despite that, we stuck to our idealistic guns: no tilling, no chemicals, no corn. And, now, three years later, the grass growth is still dismal in all of our fields…except one.

This one field–our eastern-most field–is not struggling to produce grasses. In fact, this particular field is now producing far more than it ever did under conventional management. This field, this year–when all grass production across the northeast is at alarming lows–is producing a fourth-growth of broad-leafed, green-as-can-be, lush, tall grasses. The improvement in this one field has one farmer (me) doing backflips of joy.

I attribute this field’s booming growth to changes in our management and changes in our thinking.

Keep Reading in Huffington Post

Beyond the Beginning: The Zero Till Evolution

Introduction: A Biological System Evolves

The risk-takers of past decades who were among the first to park plows and cultivators – believing they could plant crops into untilled stubble and still harvest good yields – may have never dreamed they’d launch a farming revolution. Yet their cumulative efforts worldwide have done just that.

“Increasing numbers of farmers are converting to no-till, making it a global phenomenon,” says Jon Hanson, newly retired research director of the USDA Agricultural Research Service Northern Great Plains Research Laboratory at Mandan, North Dakota. “In South America farmers are adopting no-till in a big way, and worldwide 95 million hectares [235 million acres] are in no-till. No-till is helping to conserve soil around the globe.”

The modern no-till movement on large-scale farms became possible with the invention of herbicides, such as 2, 4-D and paraquat in the 1940-50’s, permitting weed control without tillage. The absence of tillage results in a residue mulch covering the soil surface and requiring seeding practices or equipment designed to sow directly into mulch-covered soil.

The no-till system retains more than 90 percent of crop residue on the soil surface. By contrast, the moldboard plow retains less than 10 percent of residue; the chisel plow and disk retain between 25 and 75 percent of residue; while ridge-planting and strip-till planting systems retain 40 to 60 percent of residue.

Download the Report from the Manitoba-North Dakota Zero Tillage Farmers Association

Farmers Put Down the Plow for More Productive Soil

Author: Erica Goode

FORT WORTH — Gabe Brown is in such demand as a speaker that for every invitation he accepts, he turns down 10 more. At conferences, like the one held here at a Best Western hotel recently, people line up to seek his advice.

“The greatest roadblock to solving a problem is the human mind,” he tells audiences.

Mr. Brown, a balding North Dakota farmer who favors baseball caps and red-striped polo shirts, is not talking about disruptive technology start-ups, political causes, or the latest self-help fad.

He is talking about farming, specifically soil-conservation farming, a movement that promotes leaving fields untilled, “green manures” and other soil-enhancing methods with an almost evangelistic fervor.

Such farming methods, which mimic the biology of virgin land, can revive degenerated earth, minimize erosion, encourage plant growth and increase farmers’ profits, their proponents say. And by using them, Mr. Brown told more than 250 farmers and ranchers who gathered at the hotel for the first Southern Soil Health Conference, he has produced crops that thrive on his 5,000-acre farm outside of Bismarck, N.D., even during droughts or flooding.

He no longer needs to use nitrogen fertilizer or fungicide, he said, and he produces yields that are above the county average with less labor and lower costs. “Nature can heal if we give her the chance,” Mr. Brown said.

Keep Reading in The New York Times