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Taking steps to preserve fields

By Janet Kubat Willette

Date Modified: 10/03/2013 4:32 PM

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NORTHFIELD, Minn. — John Becker stood in a pit, scraping away soil as he followed a root from a tillage radish to its end.

He found it 28 inches down. The tillage radish was planted Aug. 2 in a cover crop mix that also included crimson clover and ryegrass.

The mixture was planted on a prevented plant field that was flooded after a July 13 rain dumped eight inches in four hours in parts of Rice County. Nearby Rice County Road 1 was closed after the rain. The field was also covered with 12 inches of snow on May 2.

Becker planted the seed mixture at 15 pounds to the acre with an air seeder. The parcel had received only two-tenths or three-tenths of rain from Aug. 2 to Sept. 12, said Debbie Becker, John's wife.

Debbie said they hope to bring up the nitrogen they applied last fall with the cover crop. John wants to no-till the field in the spring.

This is the second year he's planted tillage radish as a cover crop. Last year, the field with the tillage radish was the first field he was able to plant.

Rice County farmer Kurt Schrader grew tillage radishes in 2012 and grew the best-looking corn ever on the field following the radishes. The radishes stayed green into November and had rotted to nothing by May 25 when he planted.

The Beckers and Schrader were among the farmers who shared their experiences with conservation tillage and cover crops at a Cultivating Conservation in the Cannon River Watershed meeting held Sept. 12. The event was sponsored by the Cannon River Watershed Partnership, Minnesota FarmWise and local farm families. About 40 people attended.

Tom Coffman, district conservationist for the Natural Resources Conservation Service in Rice County, said the county has started a Soil Health Discussion Group. The informal group will next meet in mid-December to share ideas.

A group from the county recently traveled to Burleigh County, N.D., to see cover crop use. The area is a leader in soil health, Coffman said. They saw broadleaf cover crops growing between rows of sunflowers. The cover crops were knee high and the sunflowers nose high.

"Bare soil, it ain't natural," said Karl Hakanson, agriculture program coordinator for the Cannon River Watershed Partnership. "The less bare soil, the better off we're going to be."

Can-do attitude

Tremendous erosion occurred this spring and instead of shaking heads in awe and disbelief, it's time for farmers to act.

Farmers can do something about erosion, Hakanson said. They have to get better at conservation and use several practices together to achieve desired results.

Steve Pahs, district manager for the Rice County Soil and Water Conservation District, showed the difference tillage can make on soil using the slake test.

He displayed two clumps of soil, one from a conventionally tilled field and the other from a field that's been strip tilled for seven years. They are the same soil type and were collected 200 feet apart.

The conventionally tilled soil disintegrated when put in water. The strip-tilled soil held its shape and even after an hour in water remained mostly intact.

Soil that isn't tilled allows more water infiltration, Pahs said. He advocates no till or strip till to reduce soil erosion and to build soil structure.

Rice County farmer Tim Little has used no till for four years in his corn-soybean rotation. He has seen huge benefits in reduced soil erosion and lower fuel cost. He hasn't given up any yield and in some cases has gained yield.

Fellow Rice County farmer Mike Ludwig said his no-till soybeans yielded less than his conventional soybeans the first year, but by the third year the no-till soybeans were yielding more than the conventional.

Dave Legvold suggested farmers tip toe into no till or strip till instead of jumping in whole hog.

Legvold, who farms near Northfield, switched to no till soybeans in 1982 in order to have more time for his public school career. He used a one-pass with a field cultivator in the spring before planting corn. He was pure no till from 1989 to 2003, when he tried strip tillage.

He tried strip tillage for three more years before purchasing his own rig, made possible by funding he received through the Conservation Stewardship Program. The CSP funding also allowed him to purchase a Trimble guidance system for his John Deere 4650.

"Many people are afraid of leaving bushels in the field," Legvold said. "I'm not, I'm afraid of leaving dollars in the field."

Legvold strives for continuous improvement. He said he's fortunate that students from the St. Olaf Science Department do research on his farm. He has good, rich data.

He's sensitive to articles in the general press about too much nitrogen used on farm fields, too much sediment leaving fields and increased tile flow. When the public asks questions about this and other issues, farmers need to have answers, Legvold said. They need to have research that says how they used their nitrogen and the on-farm data that says their farming system is using the nitrogen that was applied.


The Beckers also talked about their buffer. A one rod buffer is required, but they used the Clean Water Fund Buffer program to put in a 60-foot-long buffer along a ditch that crosses their property. They are able to hay the buffer.

It was seeded down in spring 2010 and they took off 3.6 tons per acre of round bales last year, John said. They feed the hay to their cattle.

It's nice to have a field border to drive on, Debbie said. Also, it filters the water before it flows overland into the drainage ditch.