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Tour focuses on cover crops, soil health

By Staff | Jul 26, 2019

Sue Sitter/PCT Paul Overby (center) chats with farmers in his field of oats and clover.

Representatives from the North Dakota State University Extension office and area agricultural firms led farmers from Pierce County and beyond on a tour of local fields to discuss cover crops and soil health Tuesday.

The tour of three farms, two in Pierce County and one in Rolette County, began at Farm Credit Services in Rugby. Farmers and ag professionals came for the event from Pierce and other North Dakota Counties, as well as Manitoba, Canada. One researcher from Sidney, Montana joined the group.

The tour was part of a joint effort to study cover crops and their use on the Northern Plains called “How Far North Can We Grow: 49th Parallel Cover Crop Project.”

Project manager Paul Overby explained cover crops to the Tribune. “When we refer to cover crops, we’re referring to crops that are planted to continue the growing season post commercial or cash crop harvest, or grow in the spring prior to planting cash crops.” Overby said the crops “may be grazed” by livestock, but “they’re not going to be harvested with a combine.”

“The principle behind cover crops is to have a living root in the soil as long as the season will allow it. So, from April 1st until November 1st, we’d like to have something living in our soil wherever possible. Lawns do it, right? As soon as the snow starts melting in March, you can see the little green starting to peek out in April, and until it freezes, it’ll stay green, right? In our fields, we don’t have anything growing until mid-May, and then we harvest in August, or mid-August, and nothing grows until freeze-up. Cover crops fill that void on either side of the harvest. That’s the goal of cover crops.”

Chris Augustin of NDSU extension demonstrated the effects of wind and water erosion on soil with and without cover crops to begin the tour. Next, attendees boarded a bus, sponsored by Merchants Bank, for the first stop of the tour.

The bus drove west to Brian Paul’s farm, where Paul’s daughter, Emily, showed test plots of various cover crops planted to address issues such as soil with high salt content.

Emily Paul is the sales and product developer for Pulse USA, a Bismarck seed firm.

“We sourced genetics from plant breeders across the globe, largely for our Pulse business, so field peas, lentils, fava beans, cow peas that’s how our company started,” Emily told the tour participants.

“One of the major things (the business) has evolved to is cover crops,” she added, noting Pulse has seen a dramatic increase in demand for cover crops and forage seeds in recent years.

“Cover crop acres, really since 2012 have increased significantly, and the last few years, it’s been leaps and bounds.”

“In 2014, we (Emily and Brian Paul) had a lot of discussions about what could be done to help alleviate some of the saline issues (at the Paul farm).”

Emily and Brian Paul discussed how the saline soil tended to cluster in certain spots, and decided on cover crops to combat the problem and restore soil health.

“What we decided to do was to plant this salt tolerant mix,” she said, pointing to knee-high flowering plants and grasses where the tourists were standing.

“One thing that I would hear dad say was it’s just notably different how well it works to mellow out the ground, and drive the tractor and equipment in there. It’s just a lot better in these areas where we’ve done it,” Emily said.

Emily asked the farmers in the group to raise their hands. “How many of you are incorporating cover crops already?” she asked.

Several farmers raised their hands.

The Paul farm also had plots of cover crops for livestock grazing and to keep soil rooted to prevent winter erosion and provide shelter for wildlife. A special mix for planting late in the season took up another section. Emily said the mix would help break up residue and prevent adverse soil conditions in winter and spring.

Emily showed another plot of cover crop designed to combat soggy soil conditions in regions from Southeastern North Dakota to Illinois.

The Pauls answered questions about planting techniques for various mixes, and how to combat kochia, a common weed in Northern Plains fields.

Brian Paul talked about using cover crops in rotation with wheat and other cash crops. “You always have to keep cover crop in your rotation, because (adverse soil conditions) will come back, and then things won’t start growing again.”

After lunch at Farm Credit Services, the tour headed north to Overby’s farm.

Overby told the Tribune he came up with the project’s “How Far North” name.

“It’s a play on the fact that Canadians helped come up with this,” Overby said. Canadians and North Dakotans had collaborated in past years on no-till farming projects and cover crops, and although the “How Far North” project is now confined to the U.S., Overby said he still collaborates with Canadians on certain parts due to the fact soil and climate conditions in northern North Dakota and Canada are often similar.

“One scientist from the University of Manitoba still consults with us, but this is a U.S. project, because we receive some of our funding from the USDA,” Overby said.

Standing in his field north of Wolford, Overby discussed an NDSU study of cover crops and their role with nitrogen in soil with tour members, and showed examples of inter-seeding with his oats and clover. The process puts a cover crop in along with cash crops for added soil benefits.

The tour moved to another section of Overby’s land, designated as a part of General Mills’ Regenerative Ag program.

In that section, Gabe Brown and Kent Solberg of Understanding Ag led a discussion on the program and the corporation.

“We’ve got five cooperators in North Dakota, and 43 in Manitoba/Saskatchewan who are a part of this,” Solberg said of the program.

“General Mills got in contact with me about a year ago, and they were looking for a way to improve the profitability and the quality of the product being produced on farms today,” Brown said.

Brown said Understanding Ag focuses on ecosystem health “from the soil on up.”

Describing the need for high-quality consumer products, Brown noted, “Let’s be honest about it: General Mills got bit pretty hard by the glyphosphate (weed killer) in Cheerios issue, and they’re looking at that, so the goal is you have to move producers away from some of the products we use a little too frequently (in crops).”

Ezra Aberle of Center Points NDSU Carrington Research Center also presented data on interseeding.

The day ended in Rolette County on three plots of land owned by Nathan Neameyer, who shared his experiences planting sunflowers with cover crops and other intercropping trials.

Overby informed the group of another intercropping tour, to be held in Manitoba July 31 to August 1. “It’s at the WADO Research Farm near Melita,” Overby said.

Overby encouraged area farmers to attend the tour. “I think this will push everyone’s buttons and get them to think outside the box,” he said.

Those interested in attending may contact WADO at (204) 522-3256 or (204) 522-5415.

Augustin also invited those seeking information on cover crops to contact him at (701) 857-7682 or email chris.augustin@ndsu.edu. Information is also available at www.facebook.com/soilhealth.

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