Play the latest episode:


Brought to you by:



You'll be hard pressed to find someone who knows more about soil health than Jay Fuhrer. The soil health specialist spent nearly 40 years with the USDA and is now pushing the envelope at the Menoken Conservation Demonstration Farm just east of Bismarck, N.D.

In this edition of the Cover Crop Strategies podcast, brought to you by Verdesian Life Sciences, Fuhrer shares some key observations from Menoken, in addition to breaking down the 5 principles of soil health: soil armor, minimal soil disturbance, plant diversity, continual living plant/root and livestock integration.

Fuhrer also reveals his top 4 lessons learned from decades of studying the impact of cover crops. Plus we pose the following question: Is it more important to feed the soil or feed the plant? 

Subscribe to Google Play
Subscriber to Stitcher
Subscribe to TuneIn







The Cover Crop Strategies podcast series is brought to you by Verdesian Life Sciences.

More from this series

At Verdesian Life Sciences, we believe that supplying healthy water and soil for the next generation is just as important as supplying efficient nutrients for every crop farmers grow. For us, sustainability and profitability go hand in hand. That’s why we call ourselves The Nutrient Use Efficiency People. We have dedicated ourselves to providing prescriptive nutrient use efficiency solutions that improve plant uptake and reduce fertilizer losses, helping preserve the environment and make the most of your investment. Learn more at or talk to your ag retailer today about Verdesian products.


Full Transcript

Noah Newman:

Hello and welcome to another edition of the Cover Crop Strategies Podcast. Great to have you with us as always. I'm your host, Noah Newman. Big thanks to our sponsor, Verdesian Life Sciences. Let's waste no time jumping right in with today's guest, soil health legend Jay Fuhrer.

Jay Fuhrer:

My name is Jay Fuhrer. I had worked previously for USDA for about 40 years and always maintained relationship with the Menoken Farm, also, which is a conservation demonstration farm just east of Bismark here.

So I grew up on a small grain livestock farm, which straddled the North Dakota, South Dakota state line. And so I always had a love for agriculture and I had a love for plants, plant diversity, animal, animal diversity because I was familiar with it and it's how I evolved. And so it seemed a natural fit for my USDA career, as well. And so it was the start of it for me. So I always had that type of passion.

And then I was conservation planner, Noah, for many years with USDA. And I spent a good deal of my career on a pickup end gate at the end of the field of the client and the spade. And so that's my short version of how that all occurred and got me where I'm at today.

Today I do a little part-time work for the Menoken Farm, so plant tissue analysis, sample analysis, soils, compiling the data and utilizing it in our cropping systems, grazing systems, gardens, et cetera, at the Menoken farm. So that's the short version to it.

Noah Newman:

Well, there's the origin story. Yeah. I wanted to jump right in about the Menoken demonstration farm, a project you guys launched in 2009. If you could just tell our audience about it and what the ultimate goal is and what you guys are hoping to learn from it.

Jay Fuhrer:

Well the Menoken farm is pretty unique in the US. It's a conservation demonstration farm. It's not a research farm. It does look at longterm monitoring in terms of soils and terms of plants and animals.

And so at this particular farm, the owner is the Burleigh County Soil Conservation District. And so that's rather unique in this country. And so they own and operate. And so at this point in time in my career, I work part time for them and I help them host groups.

A normal summer for us at Menoken Farm is going to be somewhere between 30 to 40 groups that come each summer. So it'll be 30 to 40 days that are set aside to discuss cover crops, cover crop integration, livestock, grazing systems, diversity in terms of the different crops that we take a look at. So we try to return diversity to these fields, as well. And then the monitoring that goes with each of these.

So we do a bit of planting green with our low carbon trucks, so specifically soybean. And we do a bit of after harvest on the small grains. So we still put some in, cover crops for instance, after harvest. We do 60-inch corn with cover crops planted in between. And it's generally speaking, most every time a cover crop combination. So you're trying to rebuild a landscape and you're trying to bring food in home for the predator-prey relationship. And I think this is a longterm overview of what the Menoken Farm hopes to take a look at and hopes to achieve. And ultimately, if it moves our carbon levels in the right direction, we'll lean further into those type activities.

But we're never really ever doing what I would call a standard methodology in terms of cropping or grazing systems. It's always something a bit more pushing the envelope. And I think that's where a lot of the excitement comes in. You're going to see a failure there, no doubt, because you're going to push the envelope a long ways.

Then sometimes we start to see things that evolve, Noah, that are actually working for us. I'll give you an example. One of those items that pushed the envelope number of years ago was cover crop combinations. And so you step outside of the traditional box a little bit and look around and you use monitoring as your guide. And then you start to see something that increases carbon levels or the soil aggregation, the infiltration. You start to see an improvement in some of these items. Then you start to move into that path a little bit further yet.

So that's the gist of the Menoken Farm. It's 160 acres, has 10 crop land fields, has livestock. Soil District owns their own livestock, which is also very unique. And you're looking at a scenario there where there's two buildings. So one's an educational building where we can gather and a lot of different entities, private and public, will come there and we'll have a bit of a tour. Then we'll have some sit down conversations on whatever topics they would like to visit about.

And more recently, Noah, we've added an urban conservationist, as well. This is created a niche that we probably underestimated. I think we knew it had a lot of potential, but we probably underestimated it. Because the interest in the groups, for instance, the gardening groups that come because we do inside and outside, high tunnel and outside gardening, as well. And so the urban groups, you're looking at a strong interest. People like to know they have a good quality food and a reliable food source. I mean I think we all know those type things and it certainly plays out in the urban setting very strongly.

So in addition to our farmer, rancher, gardener, urban conservationists, urban conservation interests, you collectively put all those together and you're probably going to end up with 30 to 40 events that summer and then some over the winter, as well. So it's all part of a day to day activities at the Menoken Farm.

Noah Newman:

Yeah, it sounds like, as you said, a good place to push the envelope and make those failures and learn from those failures. And you touched on it with the cover crop combinations, the mixes. What would you say is the biggest thing you've learned about cover crops at Menoken?

Jay Fuhrer:

Oh, there's so much to learn about a cover crop. If I think back, Noah, about why did we start looking at cover crops? And this has been a little while back now, but it really goes back to the resource concerns that we were dealing with. And in our particular northern plain setting, if I just think in terms of maybe the top, let's just take the top four.

So to me they would be wind erosion, water erosion, salinity, and carbon deficient soils. And those, I've got a top 10... But if I just took the top four and you just think about those, the two different erosion aspects. Salinity is basically, we need to transpire water in lieu of evaporate water. And then carbon deficient soils, that fourth one, I think is universal. So we are in an export business in agriculture. And then how do we offset that?

What are we willing to do in our cropping systems or our grazing systems to help replace carbon? To bring that and restore that regenerate, if you like that word, that's a good one, too. How do we do those type things? And so it really started with addressing resource concerns. And you start looking at what a cover crop does or has potential to do in the right setting. It has potential to address all four of those top hits. And so you start looking at, "Wow, this has got potential."

And depending on what we are willing to do in our cropping systems or grazing systems, and then of course it opens up the path for livestock integration, because we're firm believers and livestock on the land.

And so you start to look at what built our soils. Well, in our environment here in the northern plains we were glaciated half a dozen times. And so you look at what built these soils and we had the high diversity prairie grass here and we still to this day you'll have a hundred plus species per acre. And then you add the ruminant animals. Lewis and Clark identified that really well for us in their manuals, especially when they talked about the area from pure South Dakota to Bismarck, North Dakota in that area, how they could seed massive amounts of animals wherever they looked. Mostly grazing animals but then also the predators. And of course, the predators eventually became the rancher in terms of moving the ruminant.

 And so we start to look at what built our soils and then we start to try to restore a landscape and if we can. Most of our cropping systems today, Noah, they're really not capable of restoring a soil. But if we start looking at what built them in our particular region, wherever you are in the world, and you start to understand what build your soils, and I think we can start to mimic those type environments. And that's when I think we see some positive movements in carbon, for instance. So that, that's maybe a long answer to your question. But a lot of the adoption and the desire to have a cover crop, it's stemmed from our resource concerns.

Noah Newman:

Let's take a time out now to thank our sponsor, Verdesian Life Sciences. They have a special message for you at Verdesian Life Sciences, we believe that supplying healthy water and soil for the next generation is just as important as supplying efficient nutrients for every crop farmers grow. For us, sustainability and profitability go hand in hand. That's why we call ourselves the nutrient use efficiency people. We have dedicated ourselves to providing prescriptive, nutrient use efficiency solutions that improve plant uptake and reduce fertilizer losses, helping preserve the environment and make the most of your investment. Learn more at Now back to the podcast.

Yeah, it sounds like cover crops are an important piece to that system's approach to soil health that I know you take and focuses on five principles. So I'll ask you, what are the five principles of soil health?

Jay Fuhrer:

Well, the five principles that we've always dealt with, the first one, and I believe this one should always be first, is armor.

Until we stabilize a field, it's difficult to make any other improvements. So I always list armor first and I always try to apply it first. So you get the field stabilized. And so when you're looking at armor, if you have a green plant for armor, cover crop for instance, then you have a carbon inlet because every green plant is a carbon inlet. Well now, you're using more plant diversity and you are using plants during a period of time you probably didn't normally have a green plant growing. So that's a big change. So stabilizing because we needed in our environment here, we needed to stabilize wind and water erosion. You're going to deal on those forever, but you need to get them suppressed because you really can't improve carbon levels or even lean into any type of soil regeneration if you have erosion. There is no level of erosion that is tolerable. You just have to suppress it and you have to bring it down to basically no erosion. So our armor would be the first.

And then I think the second one would be soil disturbance because we know with tillage, you're going to lose some carbon. You're going to lose some CO2. So you start taking a look at how do we minimize soil disturbance? So I've got a number of clients over the years that were organic or traditional tillage people. How do you get from three operations to two? How do you get from two to one? Or how do you get from one to none? And so you start to bring that disturbance down and you start to minimize the loss of carbon to the atmosphere. And I think this was a big change initially for us. We're mostly no-till in this region now. And there's degrees of it. So we have some with some disturbance, we have some what I would call a no-till system with no disturbance. And so we have degrees of it, but I think the second one is soil disturbance. So we had armor, now we go to soil disturbance, we start to minimize that.

Third one to me would be plant diversity. And here's another option where you can bring in a little more diversity by adding a cover crop to what you're already doing. Even if you took a traditional corn bean rotation. Corn being the warm season grass, beans being the warm season broad leaf. If you add a cover crop, preferably a grass, if you can have some grass like rye or oat or barley or wheat or something that either comes in there in terms of a fall seeded or during the growing season or something that you could even plant your beans green into the next year. Now you're adding a cool season grass, so you got a third crop type, now you have more different crop exudates that are occurring in the soil.

And I think that plant diversity, again, it goes back to we know here we had over a hundred species and still do in our native grassland. So when you take a hundred species out, you replace it with, let's say two, a corn bean, you can see where it struggles to perform the same soil functions that a community of a hundred plus native plants can do. So there's really no comparison there. And so anything we can do in our cropping systems to mimic that diversity by adding the cover crop, big change.

Fourth one I always look as continual live plant. So with continual live plant, you always have a carbon inlet. So the first four to six weeks of a new plant's life, that's really when you are having the exudates put into the soil. So the first four to six weeks, sometimes a little bit longer than that, then eventually plant physiology reverses that, it wants to make rain. And so you don't have the exudate start to taper off dramatically. But the continual live plant always keeps the refrigerator door open for the biology. So they're always able to feed on these execute dates for longer periods of time and more frequently during the year. So continual live plant. And it also opens up the door for livestock integration. All these things become a little easier then.

So the fifth one, Noah, I look at is livestock integration. And this particular one, it doesn't always start out as the most important on a lot of operators' horizons. But ultimately when they start taking a look at, soil principles and restoring carbon levels, et cetera, livestock start to play a more important role all the time. Because essentially, the ruminant is taking these higher carbon materials and they're converting them to lower carbon materials, and they're a walking biology distributor on the landscape. And we start to look at the role they play as being somewhat similar to what Lewis and Clark described to us in their journals. And so I think livestock integration plays so many roles. And if you look at the cover crops, again, if you're willing to manage graze them and graze the top half of that plant and trample the bottom half to the soil surface, then you're feeding the ruminant and the soil with that cover crop. And there's always more protein and energy in the top half of the plant. So they're a higher plane in nutrition.

So at the Menoken Farm, we like to move them daily. So we'll move them to a new paddock every day. And then they're always on that higher plane of nutrition. And then we weigh them after each 4H change. And that allows us to monitor pounds of beef per acre and average daily gain per critter. So you start to get a little more of the economic data in it as well when you do that.

But those five, armor, soil disturbance, plant diversity, continual live plant, livestock integration, those are the five that as a conservation planner I've worked with for many years. And ultimately, they help you restore a landscape.

And what I like so much about them is their principles. They're not recipes. And so there are so many different ways to do each principle because every farm is so unique. Every state and county is so unique and they all have their own resource concerns and they all have their own availability of everything from labor to crop schemes. Some have crushing plans for oil and some don't, and some have ethanol plans, some don't. I mean, there's so many different variables. And what I like about a principle is you can adjust underneath that to make it work for an individual farm.

Noah Newman:

Yeah, that's a good point about the principles, how it's not a recipe. Every operation is different and something that might work for one operation might not work for another.

Jay Fuhrer:


Noah Newman:

So we talked to lot of farmers, and this is an interesting debate. I think I know how you're going to answer this one, but I've heard some farmers say it's more important to feed the plant and then others say it's more important to feed the soil. So which one would you agree with?

Jay Fuhrer:

Over the years, I've done a little of each. It depends on... I think longterm feeding the soil is ultimately what we need to do. So by monitoring the soil, it allows us to know what's happening in it.

But we've been trying to work with, I think of it as Elaine Ingham's philosophy, from the viewpoint of microbes, carbon, and nutrient. So when you're looking at a cropping system, I like to look at it from that viewpoint. And so when you do that, sometimes you are looking at taking maybe some sap analysis and you're understanding if you're short in something. And if you are, then you can start taking a look at addressing that as a foliar. So there's times that I feel you're doing both.

And ultimately, we're feeding the soil when we bring in the principles, you're really feeding soil, you're restoring that soil. And so it's mostly with carbonates, in terms of diversity of plants and in terms of the cover crop integrations, all of that is feeding that soil. But then there are times in the cropping system where you are looking at that plant, as I mentioned earlier, maybe using some type of analysis, like a sap analysis, et cetera. And then most likely you're going to do some kind of foliar. So long term, generally speaking, I think you're feeding the soil. But there are times where I would say, yes, you're also going to feed a plant to achieve an objective for that particular year. And so I see a little bit of each, but the longterm goal and objective to me would be to feed the soil.

Noah Newman:

There you go. All right. Bringing it back to cover crops now. Let's do a little bit of cover crop myth busting. So what would you say is maybe one of the bigger misconceptions about cover crops and something you've learned about them over the years?

Jay Fuhrer:

Well, I think that I'd probably start with that one, Noah, with my own thoughts on cover crops.

2009, we started the Menoken Farm, but prior to that, we also through the Soil District, had a five-acre plot where we did a lot of work on. And so if I go back a little bit further, I think it was 2006, we did our first combinations. And I'm looking at cover crops. It's a drought here in 2006, and I'm looking at cover crops as, "My God, why would we plant these? Taking all our moisture, we're already in a drought. How are we possibly going to take a look at making this cover crop evolve in addition to cash crop?" It seemed impossible. And of course, we had moved into some no-till systems prior to that and we started getting some cover on the ground. Basically, we were starting to finally hydrate our soils.

And what I didn't see coming at that time was that when we brought in the combinations, these plants helped each other. And that was one of my aha moments in cover crops, that this was not something that I was putting in place that was going to take every last bit of nutrient and water. This was something that was going to cut down our big evaporation rates. It was going to give me carbon in the soils. I didn't understand the bigger picture of it, initially. And it took me a while to understand the whole plant physiology of the covers. And so when we talk about from the viewpoint, "Well, is it going to take some water?" Yes. But there's always more than one side to a resource concern or a question or anything like that.

It's also going to improve our salinity. It's also going to cut down our evaporation rates and we're going to have more transpiration. Consequently, if you get a large enough area, it might even show up in your humidity a bit. All of these things are on the table in the bigger context.

But if the question is simply, "Well, does it take my water?" Yeah, it's going to take some water. But you got to look at the whole bigger picture on why you're doing this. And initially, I had to get educated on cover crops and I had to start to understand what they could do. Because initially, in my opinion, "Well, this is going to cost me some extra money to bring this in as seed costs and then labor costs and equipment costs." And what I had to see was I had to see that it would show up in the monitoring end. And it showed up. It showed up. And so we finally started moving the needle a bit in some areas of resiliency.

We talk about resiliency, but to actually achieve it and to see it, that's different. And to do that we had to improve carbon levels. Well, once we improved carbon levels, all of a sudden we became less concerned about the water aspect because now we're cycling nutrients, we're returning carbon to the soil. All these things are... It's played out so differently because I think we had accepted a degraded resource. We just accept, "This is the way it is. We have to minimize everything because this is the way it is." And now of a sudden it opened up a door and I was happy to walk through it.

Noah Newman:

Yeah. You've touched on this throughout the interview. Everyone has a why to what they do in life. Why is soil health so important to you?

Jay Fuhrer:

Well, I think because if I go back into the early part of my career and I go back into the 80s and into the 90s, I often think I wasted the first half of my career because I was treating symptoms. And these symptoms, I was putting in physical structures in terms of waterways and diversions. You're building a physical structure to help this water leave the land. And instead, we needed to be working on how do we change by bringing in soil health principles, to help us get the water into the profile. Because when we got an inch of rain, we didn't get an inch of rain. Most of that ran off because we had sealed all the pore spaces up.

It's a standard joke now when I talk to some of my old clients and you say to them, "How much rain did you get?" Let's just say it rained the night before. And you say, "How much rain did it get?" Their answer is now, "All of it." And that is the greatest answer on earth because it changes everything. And so I think that's really where that stems from, Noah.

Noah Newman:

Yeah. Jay, this has been a great conversation. Half hour's just flown by. I know you're a busy guy, so we won't keep it too much longer, but before we let you go, is there anything to look forward to this year or any upcoming experiments you're doing at Menoken that you're really keeping your eye on, that's got you really excited? Anything you can think of off the top of your head?

Jay Fuhrer:

Well, I think the two that we're just completing, planting green work, that was about over a three-year period. And we're just winding that down. And then we're ramping up fostering life. And fostering life, we're working with Blue Dasher Farms out of South Dakota to identify everything that's alive in our landscape. And so I'm talking everything from soil biology to the insect world, vertebrae, invertebrate, plant, nutrient, everything that is live and plays a role. So we're going to be concentrating on that for the next two years. And that's bring brings in cover crops and the cropping system, simultaneously. So you're looking at 60-inch corn with covers and cover crop combinations. And it's a lot of monitoring, but I think it's going to be some good information for us. And again, we don't do research, but we do plant monitoring and soil monitoring. And so we're really trying to get this life inventory. So fostering life is going to concentrate on what's alive on your landscape, and how do we provide food in home?

Noah Newman:

Well, people want to keep up with the latest at Menoken or maybe even want to pay you guys a visit, where can they go to learn more about the Menoken demonstration farm?

Jay Fuhrer:

Well, I would suggest is there our website. And then our YouTube channel is Menoken Farm. So YouTube, we get a lot of hits on it, Noah. If you go to YouTube and you do a search on Menoken Farm, it's probably going to pull up a lot of different videos from different speakers. We've had come in on various topics, everything from cropping systems to grazing systems to cover crops to gardens, et cetera. And those have been widely used by a lot of people to stay current with what's happening.

Noah Newman:

All right. That's going to wrap things up for this week's edition of Cover Crop Strategies. Once again, thanks to our guests, Jay Fuhrer. Great stuff from him. Thanks to you for listening. And thanks to our sponsor, Verdesian Life Sciences. Don't forget, for all things cover crops, head to See you next week.