Walsh County topsoil needs cover crops for upcoming winter
Perfect storm brewing
with lack of shelterbelts
COUNTY – The circumstances are ripe for a perfect storm of blowing Walsh County topsoil during the upcoming winter months. Long-standing shelterbelts are being removed and of the approximately 26 miles of trees planted by Walsh County Three Rivers Soil Conservation District in 2013, only about five miles of field windbreak were planted. The remainder was planted around farmsteads and for wildlife habitat. The wet spring has also resulted in thousands of unplanted acres and many acres of highly erodible lands previously seeded into grassland and protected by the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) have returned to production.
Although acres enrolled in the farm program that were unable to be planted must be protected from wind and water erosion, conservation practices such as strip or no till practices, and cover crops have little research to show a positive cost-benefit ratio for the heavy soils of the Glacial Lake Plain of eastern Walsh County.
Given the realities of today’s high tech large scale equipment, the declining number of small farms, high land values and some of the highest commodity prices seen in decades, windbreaks may be seen by some as problematic due to lost acreage and the potential for delays in spring planting.
In the midst of these challenges to widespread adoption of some conservation practices, the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) works through county NRCS offices to fulfill its mission to become a conservation leader for all natural resources, ensuring private lands are conserved, restored, and more resilient to environmental challenges, like climate change. NRCS works with landowners through conservation planning and assistance designed to benefit the soil, water, air, plants, and animals that result in productive lands and healthy ecosystems.
The NRCS has several programs that aid in achieving this mission. The service has five programs utilized in the county, beginning with the most well-known – the Conservation Reserve Program or CRP. The Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), the Wetland Reserve Program (WRP), and the Conservation Technical Assistance Program(CTA) are other programs available through Walsh County’s NRCS office.
Rita Sveen, NRCS’s Walsh County District Conservationist, firmly believes that building healthy soils and using practices that make the soil less susceptible to wind and water erosion in eastern Walsh County is an economically sound strategy for farm management.
Sveen has been in the NRCS for 22 years, serving the last 20 years as a District Conservationist in the Red River Valley in the Hallock, Minn., Cavalier and Park River locations. Sveen says she does get landowners in her office who express concerns about the number of shelterbelts that are being removed and not replaced.
“The NRCS is here to encourage and to provide technical and financial support for approved conservation practices,” said Sveen. “ We work in partnership with Three Rivers Soil Conservation District (SCD), which is funded by the county and the state. The SCD plants and sells trees to farmers and other rural landowners. They also provide important public outreach and conservation education to schools and the general public on the benefits of conservation.”
One of Sveen’s goals is to see producers try to move in the direction of less soil disturbance. “Recent scientific research from the USDA Agricultural Research Service (ARS) has proven that soil organic matter will build and improve if actively growing crops and crop residues are kept in-place to supply a constant food source for macro and micro-organisms in the soil,” said Sveen.
However, this improvement does not happen overnight. This is why Sveen is encouraging farmers to start with small steps such as planting diverse cover crop mixtures on prevent plant acres or strip-tilling small plots of land for a 5 year trial.
“It would be great if the Agricultural Research Service could establish test plots in the Red River Valley that could prove the economic value of the use of cover crops and strip-till or no till,” said Sveen. “These practices have been proven and are widely used in the western part of the state. We need to demonstrate their value in our soils and climate.”
Sveen defines a good land steward as someone who has genuine concern about the condition of their soil, water, plant and animal resources, not only on their own land, but for the greater community as well. Increasingly, good stewardship involves a solid partnership between landowners and land operators. In my career I have seen some very solid partnerships where both parties work together for the best use of the land. This might include agreements on planting, caring for or renovating windbreaks; leaving grassed waterways to prevent water erosion; or leaving some standing stubble for wildlife.
Carl Unruh, landowner and land renter in eastern Walsh County, uses the conservation practices of cover crops and windbreaks. “We are going to try to make cover crops work for us each year,” said Unruh. His mixture this year includes turnips, radishes, sudan grass, common vetch (a legume that produces nitrogen), and field peas.
Unruh also maintains shelterbelts on his rented land at the request of the landowners and also added a new windbreak this year. “Windbreaks present a little bit of a challenge in terms of keeping the weeds under control,” says Unruh, “but we need some windbreaks in this country to slow the wind erosion down, so that is why we maintain them.”
Former SCD supervisor, Gary Babinski, farms in the flood plain and low terrace land of far eastern Walsh County. In addition to the current economic realities in agriculture and the scale of today’s farms, Babinski feels growers don’t have the time to properly maintain shelterbelts. “It takes time to keep the windbreaks free of weeds and clear broken branches,” said Babinski. “We are also so far removed from the circumstances of the 1930’s when we had persistent drought and wind conditions that we have forgotten what it can be like.”
Babinski also points out that the prevalence of row crops in the eastern part of the county means there is no crop residue left on the land, making it more susceptible to erosion. In addition, the row crops are harvested later, making it difficult for a cover crop to get established.
Yet, Babinski has planted a cover crop of radishes, turnips and oats on 700 acres. “It dries out the soil quicker in the spring and brings up leached nitrogen for next year’s crop. I have found that the benefits to the soil outweigh the costs,” said Babinski.