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Experts stress soil health as a priority

Untilled soil produces the same or better yields than tilled soil, according to experts from South Dakota State University Extension. SDSU Extension's Anthony Bly, soils field specialist; Peter Sexton, sustainable cropping systems specialist; and...

Anthony Bly, a Soil Field Specialist with SDSU extension, speaks a packed amphitheater of over 200 people about cover crop testing he's done in the past six months during a soil health expo on Thursday at Mitchell Techinical Institute's amphitheatre in the technology center. (Matt Gade/Republic)
Anthony Bly, a Soil Field Specialist with SDSU extension, speaks a packed amphitheater of over 200 people about cover crop testing he's done in the past six months during a soil health expo on Thursday at Mitchell Techinical Institute's amphitheatre in the technology center. (Matt Gade/Republic)

Untilled soil produces the same or better yields than tilled soil, according to experts from South Dakota State University Extension.

SDSU Extension's Anthony Bly, soils field specialist; Peter Sexton, sustainable cropping systems specialist; and Dwayne Beck, Dakota Lakes Research Farm manager, discussed the impact of no-till practices, cover crops and diversification on soil health and plant yield.

"We need to really focus on soil health," Bly said. "It's our factory. It sustains our society and food production for the rest of the world, as well."

The Mitchell Technical Institute auditorium was filled Thursday with attendees of the South Dakota Soil Health Challenge, where Bly and the others spoke. Leaving soil alone prevents wind and water erosion, Bly said, and untilled soil takes in more water from rainfall.

Bly, Sexton and Beck suggested maintaining soil health through diversification, specifically by rotating between corn, soybeans and small grains, and using cover crops to increase fiber and nutrients in the soil.

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Broadleaf-based cover crop mixes - made up of brassicas, legumes, radishes, turnips or lentils - planted in the fall were found to produce good biomass - organic material that decomposes to nourish crops - but they have less fiber and break down faster, leaving less residue the following year.

Grass-based cover crop mixes, on the other hand, have a higher fiber content and leave more residue in the spring.

Both are good options depending on soil conditions, experts said. In eastern South Dakota, Sexton said farmers were worried about having too much water in the soil, so a broadleaf-based mix was selected to allow water to evaporate. Plus, the breakdown of the cover crops led to higher corn yields.

Farther west in a drier environment, farmers often want more residue to keep water in the soil, so a grass-based mix may be the best choice.

"Generally, as a rule of thumb ... the species and the material that are higher in fiber are going to persist longer," Sexton said.

Grass-based mixes are also best for raising cattle, Sexton said. The best cover crop mixes for cattle are made up of 50 to 75 percent grass, so a farmer must balance his needs between water retention and cattle growth.

Bly said there is a generational gap between tilling and no-till practices, and most of the people who attend events like the Soil Health Challenge are already trying to protect soil health and are seeking to learn how to increase yields or soil nutrition.

About half of all farming acres in South Dakota are untilled, Bly said, but he would like to see that number increase.

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Bly said many people who adopt soil health practices do not see an increase in yields for several years because it takes time to improve soil health, but it is important to stick to the practice and not get discouraged.

"It's really a mind-changing event," Bly said. "Once you have your mind and thoughts focused on what you need to do, then, in a sense, you're sold out to that process, and you're going to force yourself to do many different things to make it successful."

Other benefits include lower input costs, less machinery time and lower fuel costs, Bly said.

Related Topics: AGRICULTURE
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