This past Friday, I had the opportunity to help support and participate in a field day in southern Washington county, hosted at the farm of one of the board supervisors for the Washington Conservation District. Tim Behrends grows corn and soybeans on approximately 160 acres near Hastings, Minnesota and over the past several years, has utilized several conservation practices to help build healthy, resilient soils.
Field days are an incredibly important outreach tool in the ag ecosystem. The basic recipe includes a host farmer with something interesting to show in their operation, a collection of their neighbors and peers, some type of farm/management practice tour, breakout sessions of networking/discussion, and the opportunity to share a meal together. These folks don’t relish getting in conference rooms and viewing powerpoint presentations – they want to be able to walk around and examine farming equipment, get down and dig a bit into the soil, touch and compare plants, and chat about what’s working here versus there. They compare notes across the board – weather, seeds, soil, equipment, plant development, nutrient management, time, labor needs, cost, etc. Everybody’s operation is different, yet the themes connecting them are the same: what maximizes crop yield (and profit) while protecting their most valuable resource (soil) and minimizes the time, money, and effort required by the farmer. It’s not a one-size-fits-all answer, so opportunities to share and learn from your peers who are trying different things is invaluable.
The focus of Tim’s workshop was showcasing his no-till and cover crop practices. Last fall, Tim planted a cover crop of cereal rye into his no-till soybean residue. He terminated (killed) the rye at different times this spring (early and late termination) and then planted corn into the soybean residue. With approximately 20 other farmers in attendance, Tim showcased some equipment in his yard and then the group took to the fields to look at the progress of his corn crop.
One really cool observation the group made was looking at soil temperatures across fields with different management practices. Soil temperature is an important metric that heavily influences plant growth. If soils temps are consistently too low or too high, you’re going to get stunted plant development.
Using a handheld temperature probe, attendees found that the soil surface temperature in Tim’s no-till fields with cover crop residue were 6-12 degrees F cooler than a neighbor’s conventionally tilled field. Furthermore, if you dug down a few inches in the soil, the cover crop fields were about 5 degrees F cooler than their respective soil surfaces, while the conventionally tilled field had an only one degree difference from its surface temperature. Having residue on the fields has helped moderate soil temperature, which means more water and nutrients will likely be accessible to those plants versus plants in fields with no residue shielding the soil.
The farmer group split into smaller groups and conversations over the next hour, but eventually everybody moseyed back to the barn to share some last observations, hear from some of the field day hosting partners, and get some burgers and brats. We were glad to partner and sponsor the event with the Minnesota Ag Water Quality Certification Program, and we also had program updates from the Farm Service Agency at the NRCS, the Minnesota Soil Health Coalition, and our own agronomist Jennifer Hahn about our *new* non-structural BMP program.
My favorite part of the field day, aside from getting to know and chat with some of our local farmers, was learning about a more unique soil health demonstration. Mark Gutierrez, Executive Director at the Minnesota Soil Health Coalition, brought an interesting foldable display that when opened and set up, showed the various tattered remains of four different pairs of men’s cotton briefs.
Needless to say, it’s a bit odd to show off underwear at a farming event, but it definitely got everyone’s attention. The demonstration, called “Soil Your Undies” (not kidding), involves burying a new pair of cotton briefs about 6 inches into the ground and then leaving them there for 60 days. When you finally pull them up, the level of ‘wear’ on the underwear is a sign of how active your soil microbe community is. The more wear, the more happy microbes you have churning and working your soil, and the healthier your soil is.
There just happened to be some extra new briefs lying around the demo, so I thought, why not? Let’s see how the soil microbes are doing in my little home garden. I came home, and buried some underwear. See you in 60 days, undies!
We have more ag-centric events headed your way later this summer, including a small acreage workshop for people interested in exploring what’s possible with 10-40 acres coming up on August 1st. Be sure you check out our farmer resources and events page on our website!