On September 12, more than 40 people gathered at the Spring Brook Stables barn outside of Northfield for a field day sponsored by FarmWise. This partnership between the Freshwater Society and the National Park Service has been collaborating with the Canon River Watershed Partnership to increase farmer participation in soil and water conservation within the Rice Reek sub-watershed.
Attendees included local farmers, representatives from the Rice, Goodhue and Dakota County Soil and Water Conservation Districts, Natural Resource Conservation Service and local leaders from the Central Valley Co-op. The emphasis for the day was assessing an integrated approach to conserving water and soil resources on the farm; because every farm is different, approaches to conservation challenges need to vary from site to site.
The day began in Mike Daly’s impressive dairy barn for lunch, socializing and presentations. The Rice county SWCD began with a discussion on measuring soil health and the conservation benefits of good soil structure, demonstrating the difference between resilient and degraded soil with a live slake test. A panel of local farmers that had been meeting periodically to help plan the event included Tim Little, Mike Ludwig and Dave Legvold. The panel discussed the benefits they see from conservation tillage that included visible protection from erosion, a net positive for their bottom line from reduced inputs and a relative low risk start-up. Brad Becker from Dakota County SWCD along with Kurt and Keith Schrader talked about the ins and outs of upland sediment controls. To wrap up lunch and the formal presentations, Adam Birr, head of research for Minnesota Corn Growers discussed the organization’s latest work and what is in store for the future.
After lunch the tour moved on to the Becker family farm, where John and Debbie Becker displayed both the 60- foot buffer along their ditch that leads to Rice Creek as well as the cover crops they used this year on acres that were too wet to go into production. A soil pit made the benefits of Tillage Radishes as a cover readily apparent; a deep root structure brings stability as well as working to keep nitrogen fertilizer applied previously from leaving the landscape.
The final stop on the tour was at Dave Legvold’s farm where the group got a first-hand look at conservation drainage. Dave demonstrated how the system is used to manage the flow of water from the tile system under his field and keep water in the soil profile when it works with the production cycle. This allows plants to make use of water and nutrients for a longer period of time – a benefit especially in drier years – and helps prevent those nutrients (specifically nitrogen) from leaving the farm. Mark Dittrich with the Minnesota Department of Agriculture talked about some of the latest research in conservation drainage and how to evaluate if your land is a suitable candidate.
Not every farm can use every practice that was highlighted. Soil type, crop rotation, tile management and a host of other variables need to be evaluated in order to determine how to best accrue benefits to both the bottom line and natural resources. As Karl Hakanson, the host and close partner at CRWP noted, “Farms are systems and we need to think of them from that perspective in order to make the best use of all of our resources.”