Talk to someone who’s done it before. Try a little. Experiment.

That’s the advice of Derek Woodke, a Morris, Minnesota farmer who manages his fields with a combination of no till, strip till and vertical tillage in an effort to improve soil health, and therefore crop health.

He was one of three western Minnesota farmers who shared their experiences with reduced tillage during a soil health field day organized by the University of Minnesota in Morris Sept. 7. The men, whose farms span 60 miles from Clinton to Lowry, Minnesota, with Morris in the middle, have decades of experience with minimal tillage.

Mark Chase uses vertical and strip tillage and interseeds cover crops on his Big Stone County farm. He advises those who are new to it to find a mentor.

“There’s getting to be quite a community out here of people doing it,” he says.

Pockets of farmers in western Minnesota are starting to strip till, by the observations of Jodi DeJong-Hughes, a University of Minnesota Extension educator who works closely with farmers in promoting soil health. She organized the field day and served as a moderator of the farmer panel. It helps promote soil health-building practices, she says, when farmers share their stories.

It’s a big and sometimes costly shift to take on for some farmers.

Jared House is administrative manager at the Grant Soil Water Conservation District in Morris. Working with young producers, he’s heard their struggles making a switch to reduced tillage and other soil health practices As they take on more responsibility from the older generations, they face the issue of the unknown.

House explains it like taking over a restaurant. They’ve got the old, favorite recipes that they know customers love. It pays the bills.

“The cooks want to do it the old way,” House says. “It’s hard to think outside the box because the box will pay the bills.”

It’s hard to keep experimenting when it’s costly. Megan Horsager has experienced those woes first hand. She farms with her dad, growing sugar beans and other crops, between Benson and Montevideo, Minnesota. She’s interested in implementing practices like no till and cover crops that build soil health.

“But so far, it hasn’t been a good return on investment,” she says.

The sugar beets in particular need a good seedbed to get started, she says, and she’d like to see more research on how to do that without aggressively tilling and clearing her fields of crop residue. Horsager shared her struggles with failing crops and reduced yields that resulted from attempts at building soil health. It’s not something she can keep investing in if she wants to keep farming, she shared.

Farmers on the panel and others encouraged her to find a mentor, ask questions and keep trying. Gregg Stoen started strip tilling his 1869 family homestead farm in 2005. He says conferences are a great place to exchange ideas. Starting small worked for him.

“Don’t change all your acres. Try one field,” he says.

Stoen first reduced tillage on most of his rolling fields where he often had washouts and ravines. He no longer has problems with washouts. Reduced tillage helps keep the soil’s structure intact, including pore and channels where water can infiltrate instead of running off. Sometimes it takes a little push to try something new, he says. One year, a snowstorm hit before Stoen could till his corn stalks under like he usually did. Thus, the field switched to no till. He’s seen big changes.

“In three or four years, it’s totally different soil,” Stoen says. “You can see the change.”

Chase has noticed better water infiltration. He no longer sees water ponding in his fields. He had an all-in approach. Chase sold his chisel plow and his digger and didn’t look back.

“I jumped in wholeheartedly,” he says.

He was sick of spending so much time on fieldwork, Chase says.

“The manpower wasn’t there, so we had to do something quicker,” he says.

Another benefit is saving on tractor hours, Stoen says, meaning your tractors last longer. By moving a lot less dirt with minimal tillage, fewer parts need replacing on the equipment, Woodke added.

“The soil does change,” Woodke says. “It takes a little time, but it does change for the better.”

Farmers like him are making soil health practices work, even on the state’s cold and heavy soil. Those dark soils of western Minnesota are rich with organic matter and nutrients.

“We have some of the best soils in the world in Minnesota,” DeJong-Hughes says. “That’s why we can abuse them.”

But the abuse has gone on far too long. She wants farmers to take care of the soil and keep them in place. Field day presentations delved into the properties of soil and farming methods that keep it healthy. Attendees compared two soil pits, one at the top of a slope and one at the bottom. They tested water infiltration rates on plots planted with different cover crops, and analyzed the condition of soybean plots where a rye cover crop was terminated at different times - before, at or after planting.

One of the most striking visual examples was the patch of ground where a lineup of seven tillage implements sat parked where each had made a pass across the land. From aggressive tillage to conservation tillage, the rows faded from the large clods of black soil turned over by the moldboard plow to the wide, dusty stripes churned by the strip till machine.

The moldboard plow inverts the soil, making a big change in the landscape. It also has impacts on the soil that can’t be seen so easily. DeJong-Hughes described how plowing warms up the soil. Bacterial activity takes off when it’s given oxygen, she says, which is expired as carbon dioxide.

“They’re just burning off your carbon,” she says.

A slow burn is better, she says. If a field can’t be managed with no till practices, she advises to till as shallow as possible and make fewer passes. The disc ripper is good at breaking up clods and residue. Its most damaging tool is its curved shanks. Often, fall tillage with a disc ripper requires another pass in the spring to level the ground and break up crusting that occurs after a rain.

The soil is fluffy on the top, but deeper down it gets very hard, University of Minnesota agronomist Jennifer Hahn says. She used a penetrometer to show the compaction. A chisel plow with the shanks swapped for narrower, less twisted varieties is slightly gentler on the soil. With the soil cultivator, 3-inch clods were common, meaning it still disrupted the soil significantly. Strip till, the least invasive aside from no-till, essentially tills a third of the field.

“To me, it’s a great compromise between tillage and no-till,” DeJong-Hughes says.

Keeping Minnesota’s rich soil in place is especially important. Combined with the power of the wind on the prairie, erosion is a problem. Clay soils can blow thousands of miles, DeJong-Hughes says. An analysis of “snirt” - snow covered in dirt - collected from roadside ditches found brown soil from Texas in the upper Midwest.

The analysis also found that misplaced soil contained valuable nutrients that farmers pay good money to apply to their fields.

“Your nutrients - N, P and K - they’re gone,” DeJong Hughes says.

Leaving crop residue behind after harvest helps. The snirt study looked at soil loss from a field covered with 45% residue and one with 15% located a mile apart. The ditch by the covered field lost 3,200 pounds of soil to an acre of adjacent road ditch. The more sparsely covered field lost 6,400 pounds.

The speed at which implements pass through the field also impacts soil movement. High speed tillage and event high speed seeders can move a lot of soil. It can be as erosive as a moldboard plow, says Marla Reikman, a land management specialist who was visiting from Canada where she works with the Manitoba Agriculture department.

From the implements that pass over fields to the plants covering the ground, there’s much to think about when it comes to improving soil health. Farmers are encouraged to attend the winter Soil Management Summit to share ideas and hear about the latest research.

The University of Minnesota Extension and the Minnesota Office for Soil Health is hosting the summit Dec. 7 and 8 at the Arrowwood Resort and Conference Center in Alexandria, Minnesota.

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