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Farmers find healthy soil works for crops, bottom line

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Fields planted for comparison
Part of this field on Doug Toussaint's farm near Wahpeton, N.D., is planted with cover crop to compare crop production methods.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

Doug Toussaint's field was in critical condition — and he was the one killing it. 

The clay soil in the Red River valley an hour south of Fargo was compacted. He tried a form of extra-deep plowing known as ripping, but it only made the problem worse. 

For two straight years, the field was too soggy for planting because the soil couldn't absorb rainfall.   

Doug Toussaint examined the soil surface.
Doug Toussaint examined the soil surface in a small field he recently planted with a mix of grasses. Toussaint has also added Reed Canary grass to his crop rotation and says last year it was his most profitable crop.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

He turned to North Dakota State University soil expert Abbey Wick, who quickly saw the problem: short-duration crops planted year after year with "nowhere for the water to go."

The cure? Give the land a break. Don't plow it.

Turning the soil over breaks it down and reduces organic matter — decaying plants that feed bacteria, fungi and other microbes — that help prevent compaction and let water move through the soil. 

This year Toussaint's field looks very different. He planted a cover crop last fall. Grasslike spears of rye are thick and green between rows of soybeans. 

Research shows healthy soil can reduce erosion, slow runoff into rivers and cut the need for fertilizer. Despite those benefits, observers say it remains hard to convince farmers to leave behind traditional tillage. No-till practices are used on less than .05 percent of Minnesota farm fields, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's 2012 census; reduced tillage happens only about 30 percent of fields.

"It's a way of life, it's a culture, it's something that you do," Wick said of tilling the soil. "To stop doing that and to sit back at the shop while everybody else is out tilling is really tough for a guy to do."

Discussion of soil health
Farmer Nick Toussaint, left, discussed the soil's health with NDSU soil scientist Abbey Wick and USDA soil health specialist Hal Weiser near Wahpeton.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

Toussaint is among those Red River farmers who've bought in to no-till and found good things come from changing practices. By expanding his crop rotation and using cover crops, he's cut fertilizer costs on some fields. That's especially important now when crop prices are low.   

There are several projects in Minnesota aimed at changing farm tillage practices. A Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources project will encourage the use of cover crops in southeastern Minnesota starting this summer. 

The University of Minnesota is studying alternative cover crops and the USDA has a variety of soil health research and education initiatives.

Some farm groups support the change. The Minnesota Corn Growers Association has two soil health research projects. Research director Paul Meints says farmer interest was reflected in turnout at a demonstration day he attended last summer in western Minnesota that drew farmers the Dakotas, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa. 

An earthworm pulled from the soil.
North Dakota State University research specialist Rodney Utter held an earthworm pulled from the soil on Doug Toussaint's farm near Wahpeton. Utter says earthworms are a sign of healthy soil.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

Planting cover crops can be a challenge in Minnesota and the Dakotas where a short growing season doesn't leave much time to plant a second crop after the fall harvest.

But farmers will adopt minimum or no till practices if they see it as a wise business decision, Meints added.

"I think if we can show a production practice like a cover crop that works and it does all of the things we want it to do but does not create a yield loss or profit loss to the grower, adoption can come very, very quickly."

Wick says Red River farmers pay attention when she shows them the low percentage of organic matter on their land, but it took years to reduce the organic matter, and it takes years to build it up again.

Toussaint, 58, farms about 3,500 acres, raising corn, soybeans, rye, wheat, barley and reed canary grass. He's currently using limited tillage or cover crops on about 500 acres.

Doug Toussaint examined an earthworm.
Doug Toussaint examined an earthworm pulled from the soil on his farm.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

He say he's already seen benefits from just two years of cover crop and no tillage. But for him, healthy soil is also about the future. 

"To me it's like money in the bank," he said. "In the account is X amount. It's going to be fine for my lifetime, I'll never get to the zero balance. But the next generation, or third generation, they may get to that lower balance. Hopefully our soils will be so far ahead that we never hit that zero balance."