Serving Minnesota and Northern Iowa.

Consumers may need to lead charge to protect soil health

By Carol Stender

Date Modified: 10/22/2012 2:58 PM

E-mail article | Print version

MORRIS, Minn. — Jay Fuhrer was the self-proclaimed "waterway king" of North Dakota.

It was the standard answer at one point to water and soil erosion issues, said the Burleigh County National Resource Conservation Service district conservationist.

Then, the county's NRCS committee had an "ah-ha" moment.

Fuhrer, speaking to more than 250 people through a seven-site video conference link in Minnesota, said the group realized they couldn't continue their farming and conservation practices.

"We said, 'We can't degrade this further,'" Fuhrer said from the event's Morris location. "We were at the bottom. Building waterways was our solution, but we realized the foundation principles (of soil management) weren't in place."

Fuhrer explained how Burleigh County changed field and pasture management methods. The NRCS and farmers partnered on the effort.

Farmland was planted to wheat and seasonally grazed, adding diversity. Farmers were planting peas, corn and soybeans. They planted cover crops and used no-till. Cattle producers used winter grazing.

It didn't happen overnight, Fuhrer said.

The Burleigh County NRCS hosts one to two out-of-state groups that want to learn more about soils each week, Fuhrer said.

"The excitement is finding your road and, as you go down that road, to see things evolve," Fuhrer said.

Not everyone will be able to do things exactly as Burleigh County farmers and ranchers did, but the principles are the same, he said.

"It's unique not only to your state and county, but it's unique also to your farmers and ranches."

Several Minnesota farmers have already taken steps to rebuild soils.

Grant Breitkreutz has a 1,300-head herd near Redwood Falls. Alfalfa and wheat are among his crops and he's converted some tillable land to grassland. He's worked with NRCS to develop his system. The operation has 15,000 feet of fencing and 10,000 feet of waterways above ground.

They started winter bale feeding last year.

Tim Dritz is a strip-till farmer from Henricks. With reduced tillage it seems as if wet spots are getting smaller.

Jim Wulf is a livestock producer from Starbuck. He had been part of the family's 700-cow Limousin operation near Morris. He was in charge of cow herd pasture management. The family had a pasture management plan and recognized the benefits of rotational grazing.

He purchased the Starbuck farm last fall and decided, with his family, to go on his own.

They use cover crops and rotational grazing. They graze their 300-cow herd on their own land and on U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service land.

Troy Salzer, a livestock producer from Barnum, farms in a wooded area. Salzer's farm doesn't have rich soils. He found that using crop diversity and cover crops has put back some of the soil's components.

Chris Blanchard is an organic community supported farmer from Decorah, Iowa. He focuses on minimum disturbance tillage. he does a lot with contour strips.

Minnesota NRCS state conservationist Don Baloun is also excited about the effort. Baloun said people are starting to recognize the importance of soil nutrients. Graziers and livestock producers have, for some time, talked about rebuilding soils.

"I am here to tell you from a conservation standpoint, it's all about the soils," he said.

He had a message to young producers.

"Those of you who are younger than me and you want to have an impact, the one thing you can do is bring this message home," he said. "Having said that we have to be careful."

Care must be taken when making the changes. Sometimes when initiating a change, Mother Nature throws a curveball and the change is the first thing to be blamed.

Fuhrer pointed to five principles in rebuilding soil health: Keep the soil covered; minimize soil disturbance; crop diversity; continual live plants; and livestock integration.

"You can't tolerate any wind or water erosion if you are going to build soils," Fuhrer said. "It doesn't work. I'm 30-some years of testimony to that fact. When we were building our waterways, we weren't building our soils. We don't have erosion under control in this nation."

Once soil health is restored, there is soil biodiversity, he said.

It doesn't matter what crops are grown, Fuhrer said. What matters is cropping diversity. He encouraged producers to use all four crop types in the annual rotation.

Fuhrer was asked how to convince farmers about crop diversity with the high price for corn and soybeans. Consumer groups may do the convincing, he said.

"We try to find the path for soil health and education, but what I have seen to date is that the most influential people will be the consumers," Fuhrer said. "What it boils down to is soil health, food health and people. Can you blame the farmer when corn is at $8 or $9? No. He is making a living. But when you look at this nation as a farm, we have little diversity on it."