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Soil health gains traction in farm country: Reduced tillage, cover crops offer benefits

RENVILLE -- It doesn't matter whether she's grubbing around in farm fields or road ditches, or peering from the relative comfort of a tractor cab. The information that Jodi DeJong-Hughes of the University of Minnesota Extension collects for her r...

Farmers are adapting equipment to seed cover crops in the region while fertilizing row crops in the latter part of the growing season. Test plots seeded in late summer in Renville County showed it was possible to seed the cover crops while the corn and soybeans were growing with minimal damage. Submitted
Submitted Dean Dambroten experimented with inter-seeding a cover crop on his Renville County farm.
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RENVILLE - It doesn't matter whether she's grubbing around in farm fields or road ditches, or peering from the relative comfort of a tractor cab.

The information that Jodi DeJong-Hughes of the University of Minnesota Extension collects for her research shows both economic and environmental benefits to reduced tillage practices.

DeJong-Hughes offered a look at those benefits to an audience that is increasingly interested in them. Over 100 farmers attended a cover crop and reduced tillage meeting hosted Wednesday in Renville by the Renville County Soil and Water Conservation District and Hawk Creek Watershed Project.

The interest didn't surprise DeJong-Hughes, who said she is seeing large crowds at her presentations throughout the region.

She was joined by six farmers from the area, who shared their first-hand experiences with reduced tillage practices and cover crops.

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Economics was the motivator for Dave Wordes, a Renville County farmer. He had survived economic challenges as a hog producer only to watch soybean prices tank in 2000. He started reduced tillage practices to reduce costs, and hasn't turned back.

"I've seen the benefits that Jodi is talking about," said Wordes of the improved soil health in his fields. "It's amazing when you get underground and see what's happening."

It's what he saw on top of the ground that first helped nudge Kyle VanOverbeke, a Danube area farmer, into reduced tillage practices and today the use of cover crops. He realized that the "drift" he saw on his farm was comprised entirely of soil from his fields, he explained.

As part of a research project on soil erosion with colleagues, DeJong-Hughes poked around in road ditches at eight locations around the region. She measured as much as 2.6 to 32.6 tons of topsoil in a ditch acre, measured as a half-mile long by 20 feet wide. On average, a ditch acre held nine tons of topsoil. It represents $50.84 worth of lost nutrients blown from farm fields, she told her audience.

A loss of five tons per acre per year is considered acceptable. But over 40 acres, that represents 16 dump truck loads of lost soil. Some of that Minnesota soil has been found in Central Park of New York City, she said.

Improving soil health by reducing tillage and adding cover crops improves fertility, allows for better water infiltration and holds the soil.

The difference between reduced tillage and aggressive tillage in terms of what happens to the soil is like that between a sponge and a brick, according to DeJong-Hughes.

There is also a difference not seen. Research shows that aggressive tillage contributes to global climate change by releasing large amounts of carbon dioxide.

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But without a doubt, adapting reduced tillage practices or cover crops comes with its challenges.

"There is no cookie-cutter way of doing this," DeJong-Hughes said.

Dean Dambroten, a farmer and technician with the Hawk Creek Watershed Project, said the hope is to start an informal network of farmers in the area who could meet and share their experiences and help each other.

DeJong-Hughes noted that one of the obstacles farmers face is getting the practical, first-hand information they need if they want to adopt reduced tillage practices.

She also pointed out that the average age of farmers is 56 and seems to be climbing. "Are you going to be doing this 10 years from now?" she asked at the start of her presentation.

One answer came later, when Wordes said he certainly intends to continue with reduced tillage practices for years to come. He started experimenting with reduced tillage in 2001, and is now committed to it.

"The longer I'm into this, the more I'm convinced we don't have to do this deep tillage anymore," he said during a panel discussion.

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