Soil…As Valuable as Diamonds?


By Katie Heger
Katie and her husband, Steven, raise corn, soybeans, wheat, pinto beans and field peas in Underwood, North Dakota. Katie is a farmer, wife, mother of five, teacher and blogger.

crop-chaffe-residue-left-on-soil

They say diamonds are a girl’s best friend. The bigger and sparklier the gem, the more it draws attention. Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t turn down a diamond – but for me, a farmer in central North Dakota, healthy soil is the sparkle that helps keeps our farm sustainable.

Protecting the health of the soil is good for my land and also ultimately protects our waterways. It’s a big responsibility. Here are a few sustainable practices we use on our farm that help to do this.

Conservation Tillage

To plant a crop, farmers must first prepare the soil. If you garden, you’ve likely tilled your garden bed to cultivate land for seeds. Farmers do this, too, just on a much greater scale. With conservation tillage, we leave corn stalks and wheat stubble from the previous season’s crop on the ground. This prevents soil erosion (it’s windy in North Dakota, so dirt can blow away) and allows for nutrients to be absorbed by the soil when the stalks, stubble, roots decompose providing organic matter and nutrients for the next crop.

It is very much like a compost pile the size of hundreds of football fields. Last year’s crop residue also serves as a blanket, warming the soil beneath. This allows us to plant earlier in the spring, allowing more time for plants to grow. It also creates an inviting habitat for birds and small game. Increasing organic matter, maintaining nutrients, conserving moisture and preparing the soil to grow the best quality crop is essential for our farm in order to be sustainable.

Crop rotation

As its name implies, we rotate crops by year and field. Different crops require different nutrients. For example, soybeans create and deposit nitrogen into the soil. This builds up over the season, so the following year we can plant corn, which requires a large amount of nitrogen, without having to add additional nitrogen fertilizer on most fields.

Crop rotation also helps with pest and disease management. Planting the same crops on the same field, (ie. corn for two or three years in a row) can increase the opportunity for diseases and pests to find a home within or on the plants. Sometimes these pests and diseases can be resolved with crop protection products once they occur, but on our farm we rotate crops to reduce the need for product, allowing us to using pesticides only when necessary.

Buffer strips

We leave strips of grasses, brush and wild flowers between the fields where we grow crops and nearby water sources. The width of the strips are decided upon by us. We take into consideration several things when deciding how wide the buffer is: the grade of the land, the type of soil, the plants growing, potential for alternative use and whether or not it poses a risk to lack of crop and/or machinery getting stuck. Our self-designated buffers range from approximately 12 inches to several yards. This is important for several reasons. Buffer strips help keep soil in place despite heavy rains or melting snow. They also capture nutrients before they reach waterways, protecting both the soil and the water.

Soil may not be flashy, but it is a diamond in the rough, supporting health for plants and animals alike.

This blog is brought to you by America’s soybean farmers and their checkoff.


2 Comments

Kitty Banning

I might add, in SW KS the crop rotation helps in weed control as well. On another note, we don’t even come close to having the water problems you folks have so some of the buffer strips you talk about would just be hiding places for insects that would damage crops,(grasshoppers, and the disease wheat streak mosiac). We have acres and acres of CRP out here as well that give refuge to the wildlife and stop in wind erosion. Terracing helps stop any water erosion we might have. Just a side note from our part of the country. Thanks for writing this article. We, too, cherish our dirt. In fact as the drought drug on around here, I spent many days chiseling fields trying to get the dirt to stop blowing away and cried as I watched what felt like my very blood being blown away. I love the dirt too.

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Lynn

Hello! I understand that no-til is the new way for soil conservation and I understand the many advantages. However, it seems that it utilizes a chemical to “kill” the previous crop so that it can begin decomposition once harvest has occurred. Is this accurate and if so, what compound is used for this?
Thank you.

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