Understanding soil health in North Dakota & return visits

If you are visiting Dwayne Beck, then Jay Fuhrer from NRCS is another must visit in this part of the world to get a grasp of how to build soil health.

I spent a couple of hours talking with Jay about the importance of soil health and the building process.  Cover crops are such a buzz word back in UK and the more I learn about them, the greater their value appears to be.

Jay discussed how people hadn’t realised that they were degrading soils through cultivation and that also they were not improving them. After all, the soil is our prime asset and they are certainly not making any more of it.

Cover crops are a new thing to me, but there are several people in the UK who are further down the line with their experiments, with some real successes.  Jay illustrated the importance of deep tap roots for punching through compacted layers and fibrous ones for opening up pore space in the upper layers.

Improved Soils With Cover Crops

Above: Improved soils with cover crops

He illustrated as others did, that it takes a long time to build just 1% of organic matter, up to 10 years and it can be easily lost through cultivations and oxidation!

The other benefit of cover crops is their ability to protect the soil. Where, for example, excess water will compress the soil, cover crops help to mitigate this problem. The whole process of improving the soil takes time as well and Jay felt it may be worth considering removing the straw from high carbon, but slow decomposing, wheat crops in the first couple of years until the balance was improved within the soil.

I left with an apt description from him that soil health is like a bucket to hold nutrients and water that only gets larger with greater biodiversity.

Next, I went to see Marlon Richter, who converted to no-till in 1998.  Marlon had previously had some real issues with erosion and crop performance in the spring, but the improvements he has since encountered were immeasurable.

He had increased his organic matter content from 0.8% up to 2.5 and even 3-4% in some other fields through the use of cover cropping, and a diverse rotation and integrated grazing were all additional factors in this improvement.  The top two inches of soil were far more active, he was getting fewer weed issues and he was also finding that residues from previous crops broke down considerably quicker.

Marlon In Triticale With Vetch Cover . Great Cover , Bad For Hay Fever Sufferers Like Me!

Above: Marlon in triticale with vetch cover. Great cover, bad for hay fever sufferers like me!

The longer I spent talking with Marlon, the greater his attention to detail came across. He spoke about drilling slightly deeper than normal, the importance of changing drilling discs before they were too worn and likened it to a sharp knife cutting through raw meat: a blunt one ain’t much use!  He had also played around with cover mixes quite a lot over the years and found that the optimum was a 6-7-way mix.

After travelling through a thunderstorm-riddled Minneapolis from Bismarck to Philadelphia, I visited Steve Groff to learn more about cover cropping. If there was ever someone who was in the right place at the right time, it would probably be Steve, as his business seems to have all the components imaginable.

Steve has been experimenting with cover crops for many years and was another example of someone who was balancing his erosion-prone soils with covers and no-tillage.  It was a fascinating site visit and he clearly has a good export business for his cover mixes in place.  But I was interested to see how far he was pushing things through experimentation. While I was there they were undertaking a trial of planting a cover crop in between the rows of a growing corn crop.  The idea was that eventually when the corn crop is harvested the cover will grow up through the residue and maintain the year round cover over the soil. Fascinating.

Inter -row Cover Crop Planting Experiment

Above: Inter-row cover crop planting experiment

One of the great things about Nuffield is the network of people you make and new friends from other countries.  I’ve had two visits from Australia recently; firstly from Allan Mayfield, accompanied by NIAB’s Jim Orson and Paul Miller, and had an enjoyable afternoon taking them round the farm and discussing a variety of agronomic topics.

Then this week I had fellow Australian 2014 Scholar Greg Gibson from Tasmania stay with me for a couple of days. It was brilliant to catch up with Greg and share stories about farming from both countries and he also got some harvest experience while he was here.  The Nuffield network is a great bi-product of the process and you certainly end up being part of an extended family.

Greg Getting A Flavour Of Our UK Wheat Harvest

Above: Greg getting a flavour of our UK wheat harvest.

Harvest is in full swing as I write on a rare wet morning, and so travels are on hold with me for a short while now. Hopefully I can report on harvest progress later on and I have then got to start planning my visits to Brazil and Argentina, and New Zealand if I can squeeze it in.



Russell McKenzie farms 750ha on predominantly heavy clay on the border between Cambridgeshire, Bedfordshire and Northamptonshire. He grows seed on contract as well as soft and feed wheat, and his usual rotation is wheat, OSR and spring beans. A Nuffield Scholar, Russ has been researching direct drilling in extreme weather in 2013 and 2014.