Life in the pits: A look at soil management and crop health

By Jodi DeJong-Hughes

The small-group field day equipped participants with the skills to identify different levels of soil structure and help them understand how tillage and crop management strategies affect the soil. It was held at Galen Skjefte's field on September 10-11, 2019 near Granite Falls. 

Tillage has been implicated as a major contributor to soil degradation and erosion. It loosens the soil, making it prone to both wind and water erosion. The eroded soil also carries nutrients away from fields and into waterways, where soil can clog ditches and water structures with sediment. In Minnesota alone, wind and water erode over eight tons of soil an acre each year, according to USDA.

trenches

Participants were able to connect the visual and physical impacts below ground to how it is treated above ground.

Using four soil pits, participants learned how soil texture, crop management, and topography influence a crop and soil quality. Each soil pit was a visual and textural reflection of management choices from the past 100 years.  Understanding the importance of soil health and ultimately changing crop management practices will build soil aggregation, improve water infiltration and storage, and reduce soil erosion.  

Most importantly, participants were able to connect the visual and physical impacts below ground to how it is treated above ground. Attendees were divided into groups to view three unique stations to further their understanding about soil structure and management techniques. Presenters included soil specialists from Minnesota, North Dakota, and Manitoba.

soil cores

Two soil cores taken from the shoulder of a hill (L) and midway down the slope (R). The dark brown, high organic matter soil has eroded downslope.

The first station included discussions of soil structure, the benefits of aggregated soils, and the habitat earthworms and microbes need to thrive. It also included a water infiltration demonstration and a discussion of problem soils 

At station two, the Erosion Soil pits (top of hill, bottom of hill) demonstrated the power of erosion to lower yield potential, add variability to the field, and degrade our water resources.

The chisel plow field vs the grassed area at station three, looked at the effects of tillage on the soil structure, biology, and bulk density. This hands-on, small group field day trained farmers on September 10, 2019. As a result of the field day, attendees should be able to take a shovel to any part of their field and have a better understanding of what they are seeing.

On September 11, 2019 SWCD, NRCS staff, and Minnesota West Ag students attended the field day.  Training government agency staff to identify soil erosion and cropping issues enables them to better make management recommendations to their clientele, Minnesota farmers.

Results

Twenty two farmers, fourteen college students, four crop consultants, and fifteen government agency personnel attended the field days.  An evaluation was emailed to participants with a 25% return rate.  Of the respondents:

  • 81% said they have a situation where they can use what they have learned at the field day.
  • 86% said they will change at least one practice based on what they learned at the field day.
  • 70% of the respondents are using reduced tillage practices.

Over 61,000 acres of crop land were either actively farmed or managed by the survey participants. This does not include the ag land that government staff can influence in their counties as well. 

From the responses, 15% (representing 9,175 acres) will try and reduce a tillage pass this next season and 17% (representing 10,400 acres) will incorporate a cover crop into the rotation.

In addition, twelve UMN students used the soil pits to practice for the national soil judging competition.

Partners: UMN Extension partnered with Renville, Yellow Medicine and Swift County Soil and Water Conservation Districts, MN Ag Services, Hawk Creek Watershed Project, MN Soil Health Coalition, Minnesota Corn Growers, and local farmers.