Wilkin County Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) held their second annual field day, where farmers learned about soil health practices from an array of experts, Wednesday, July 14.
The field day was held at the newly-implemented SWCD Soil Health Demonstration Site north of Breckenridge, Minnesota, and it was the first to include demonstrations and information directly gathered from the demonstration site — a 60 acre field split into three different tillage management systems, SWCD District Technician Kimberly Melton said.
One-third of the demonstration site employs no-till, one-third of the field employs strip-till and one-third employs conventional tillage methods. Each section is split in half with cover crop on the north end and no cover crop on the south end. The SWCD will utilize the field for five years, rotating the crops each year and monitoring soil health changes and trends.
“There’s been so much positive feedback,” Melton said of the field day. “Right now, the field day is over, but everyone is standing around talking.”
The field day included a soil, water, economics and soil pit session, lunch, then demonstrations led by agricultural experts. SWCD District Manager Don Bajumpaa said he was impressed by the turnout and participation.
“You know it’s a success when people are looking at the information and asking, ‘Well, how can I start doing this?’ Then you know you’ve piqued their interest,” Bajumpaa said.
The day was focused on educating farmers on the importance of soil health. If soil is healthy, everything else follows, Bajumpaa said. A good soil structure leads to less wind and water erosion, less contamination in major waterways like the Red River of the North and, much to a farmer’s delight, better yield.
Practices like planting cover crops and employing strip- or no-till techniques can heal and protect soil, Melton said, as many of the demonstrations illustrated. Bajumpaa said they currently have around 2,300 acres of land — about 20 landowners — signed into soil health programs in Wilkin County.
“For the first year of having a soil health program, to have that many people signed up is awesome,” he said.
The demonstrations kept the audience’s attention with a wind erosion simulator, rainfall simulator and soil structure test. The presenters kept it light and engaging, ending the day with a “soil undies” demonstration. Resource Soil Scientist Brando DeFoe, USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), led the demonstration with Jon Quast, NRCS soil conservationist. The two showed how the conventional tillage, strip-till and no-till soils ate up a pair of cotton underwear. The conventional tillage barely damaged the underwear — good enough to wear, they joked — due to a lack of microbial activity in the soil. Meanwhile the no-till underwear was tattered beyond recognition.
“One teaspoon of soil has as many as a billion living organisms in it,” Bajumpaa said. “They’re all working together to do their thing. Visualize a rainforest and how diverse and rich it is in terms of ecosystem, and we really have the same thing happening under our feet. We just don’t think about it. When you go through and destroy the rainforest, you devastate it. And it’s the same thing when people do tillage. It really disrupts the environment in the ground.”
DeFoe and Quast also led a demonstration showing how a sudden and heavy rainfall infiltrates soil differently depending on the tillage technique used. The water went right through and out the bottom of the conventional tillage soil sample, while it soaked into the no-till sample.
During a growing season, there is commonly too much water in the spring and not enough water in the late summer and fall. Not to mention, infrequent, but heavy rains are becoming more of the norm in the Midwest, Minnesota Department of Agriculture Research Scientist Jeppe Kjaersgaard said.
Practices like no-till and strip-till help conserve the spring water until it’s needed later because the more organic matter in the soil, the more water it can hold.
“That means when we have more rain in a shorter amount of time, we want the soil to be able to take it in,” Kjaersgaard said. “It’s both for the crop, but on a bigger scale, the more water we can hold in the field, the less run-off we have. And runoff is typically a bad thing because of flooding but also because runoff carries soil and nutrients with it.”
Phosphorus and nitrogen in the soil ends up in waterways like the Red River. The Red River flows north to Lake Winnipeg in Canada, which has seen a surge of harmful blue-green algae over the last several decades.
In 2006, Lake Winnipeg’s algae blooms were considered to be the worst problem of any large freshwater lake in the world, according to Canadian Geographic.
“If we can have more of the no-till and strip-till practices, it’s going to keep that soil in the field and keep it from getting into our rivers and ditches,” Bajumpaa said.
The SWCD has five goals for their demonstration site over the next five years. The first — establishing a minimum of six demonstration plots to compare the impacts of conventional tillage, strip-tillage and no-tillage — they have already completed.
In the coming years, they plan to annually monitor the physical, chemical, and biological properties of the soil; quantify and communicate the risks and returns, for each management system, to help farmers better understand input costs and profits for each; hold a minimum of one field day annually for the public to increase adoption of soil health promoting practices; and work with soil health researchers and agency partners to identify research gaps and incorporate activities/measures where practical and feasible.
The project would not have been possible without the private partnerships and sponsors the SWCD has been working with, Bajumpaa said. Corporations like Cargill, General Mills and a host of local companies have offered contributions to help offset operational costs.
Through the support of the community and beyond, the SWCD is also able to offer Wilkin County farmers cost-share opportunities and free use of tools, such as pound-infiltration rings, electrical conductivity probes and penetrometers. The tools are available in the SWCD office.
“Our door is open,” Melton said.
The SWCD office is located at 1150 Highway 75 North in Breckenridge and is open from 8 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday-Friday. The SWCD can also be reached by phone at 218-643-2933, ext. 3.