Soil health tour shares practices

ABOVE: Dean Sponheim discusses the benefits of cover crops on Tuesday during the I-90 Soil Health Tour’s visit to the Knights of Columbus Hall in Fairmont. Sponheim was one of two farmers who spoke at the event and have successfully implemented cover crops and other conservation practices.

FAIRMONT– The annual I-90 Soil Health Tour made its stop in Fairmont on Tuesday. The annual event was organized by the Minnesota Soil Health Coalition, the Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Martin and Faribault County Soil and Water Conservation Districts. This year’s speakers were Dean Sponheim and Andrew Linder, two farmers who have successfully implemented cover crops, strip-till and no-till techniques into their operations.

Sponheim farms over 800 acres near Nora Springs in northern Iowa and also operates a business which provides seeds and application services for cover crops which he started after implementing the practice on his farm. He said roughly 90 percent of his land was no-till at one point.

Linder farms nearly 2000 acres with his father and business partner near Easton in Faribault County.

Both men described themselves as promoters of conservation practices. These techniques are expected to improve soil health and water quality while also simplifying farm operations without negatively impacting yields.

Planting a cover crop like barley between cash crops will help anchor topsoil in place while the cover crop sequesters nutrients from the soil and suppresses weed growth. Once the crop has matured it can be harvested for feed or left out on the field where its decomposition will then return those nutrients to the soil where they can be utilized by subsequent crops.

“(Neighbors) kept telling me I was putting in too much nitrogen, but if my cover crops can grab it and keep it and I can use it again, I’m in. It wasn’t because of conservation, it wasn’t because I was taking the nitrate away from the soil, it wasn’t for erosion purposes,” said Sponheim.

Linder said while implementing the practice carries with it a degree of uncertainty, implementing new practices is both worthwhile and necessary.

“We need to get comfortable with being uncomfortable because this cover crop stuff is really nerve-wracking when you’re starting. It’s nerve-wracking even if you’ve been doing it for some time,” said Linder.

Strip-till and no-till systems reduce the amount of tillage soil receives which can disrupt the natural systems that help the soil retain nutrients and maintain its integrity. Limiting soil disruption will then help improve the amount of water and nutrients present within it while also reducing runoff and erosion.

Sponheim estimated switching to no-till techniques saved him more than $14 per acre last year compared to conventional tilling by reducing the complexity of tilling which in turn reduced the amount of manpower and equipment which allowed for greater efficiency when planting.

“We use less trips, less fuel (and) less time in the tractor,” said Spongheim.

Spongheim hopes his continued usage of these techniques will gradually improve his soil quality to the point where he’ll be able to use substantially less water and fertilizer.

Both Spongheim and Linder believe that while no two operations are the same, these practices could be successfully implemented on anyone’s farm.

“If I can do this … and I’m still here, I think everyone in this room can do the same or something similar,” said Sponheim.

They stated that switching to reduced tillage and planting cover crops is affordable and works well in a variety of soils while also being compatible with manure or fertilizers.

Pat Duncanson was one farmer who attended the talk and has chosen to implement the practices the speakers promoted.

“We’ve been aggressively reducing tillage and implementing cover crops for about eight years,” said Duncanson.

Even though Duncanson has already begun implementing regenerative agriculture practices he said the event was a chance to hear what his peers have been doing to implement these practices in their operations.

“This looked like a good opportunity to learn what other farmers are doing because an awful lot of what we’re doing we learned through trial and error,” said Duncanson.

One highlight for him was seeing another person’s analysis of the practices’ economic impact.

“We’ve done our calculations and it was interesting to see somebody else’s calculations to have the reassurance to see what we’re seeing confirmed,” said Duncanson.

While Sponheim and Linder both primarily discussed the economic benefits of reduced tillage and cover crops they also spent some time highlighting the environmental and social impacts of their implementation.

Sponheim noted farmland which absorbs precipitation can also provide substantial benefits for people living nearby by preventing floods.

“The public is starting to notice. I’m on Twitter and I see tweets of people snapping pictures of the dirt in the road ditch. We used to not pay much attention to that and now non-farmers are starting to say ‘hey farmers, you get some of our tax dollars through different subsidies, are you doing what’s best for us?’ Water quality is huge. We start talking about nitrates and phosphorous in the water … they’ve gotten better but we still got a ways to go,” said Linder.

Sponheim suggested landowners interested in implementing these practices remember the three P’s of planning, patience and persistence and stated some experimentation was required to achieve optimal results.

Linder concurred and said, “there isn’t a right way to do it, there’s a way that works best for you.”

Both farmers encouraged interested farmers to reach out with questions and comments. Later this week the soil tour will make stops in Stewartville and Hokah. It visited Heron Lake on Monday.


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