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Go beyond no-till to improve soil

When Bryan Jorgensen turns his family’s agricultural enterprise, Jorgensen Land and Cattle, over to the next generation, he wants the fields he now manages to be in better condition and more productive than when they started raising crops there in the early 1900s.

To achieve that goal, Jorgensen has utilized 100% no-till practices since 1991; developed precise nutrient application methods; and pursued a deeper, more thorough understanding of soil science.

“We’ve gone well beyond no-till,” he says. “We implemented precise nutrient placement on our air seeder and planter to make applied nutrients more efficient. We also incorporate cover crops and biological products to improve soil health.

Key Points

Jorgensen Land and Cattle Co. moves beyond no-till.

Fertilizer efficiency and plant health boost productivity.

Livestock and cover crops help regenerate the soil.

“We’ve greatly improved our soil texture and tilth,” Jorgensen says. “One of our main needs is to retain the scant amount of rainfall we usually receive. No-till helps achieve that. When biological activity of our soil is high, moisture sinks into fields instead of running off.”

Jorgensen adds that they monitor soil tests to see if any nutrients are too low, adding them if necessary. “My main goal is to allow the soil to build and provide an environment for biological activity to increase, which allows more natural nutrient release to the crop,” he says.

“You have to recognize the symbiotic relationship of the plant and the soil. First the soil feeds the plant, then the plant feeds the soil. Adding more nutrient than you need wastes resources. Applying the wrong herbicide at the wrong time can inhibit the ability of the crop to uptake necessary nutrients.”

In recent years, Jorgensen has turned to cover crops to add nutrients and enhance the physical characteristics of his soil between growing seasons.

“You want biological activity going on between crop seasons because that’s what builds your soil,” Jorgensen says. “If there’s nothing growing on the soil, microbial action begins to die back. With livestock, cover crops are especially fabulous. You can graze them, and livestock deposit additional nutrients. As soil quality builds every year, input resources are more efficient, and crop quality and quantity should increase.”

The Jorgensens’ air seeder and corn planter, used to plant all their crops, have the ability to apply both a high-grade liquid starter and biological products in the seed furrow, as well as place nitrogen and sulfur requirements within 3 to 5 inches beside the seed furrow. All the products are carried onboard.

The tending equipment efficiently refills product in the field. Since planting and nutrient application are completed simultaneously, Jorgensen says their planting-season efficiency has improved between 30% and 40%.

“Because our soils have dramatically improved, we raise a bushel of corn on 0.6 pound of applied nitrogen and a bushel of wheat on about 0.9 pound of applied nitrogen,” Jorgensen says. “The only phosphate source is 4 gallons per acre of 7-25-5 starter in the seed row on most crops.”

With limited rainfall, a straight corn and soybean rotation is too intense, so the Jorgensens implemented a five- or six-year rotation that includes spring and winter wheat, oats, field peas, millet, alfalfa, corn and soybeans. Milo is grown in place of corn when conditions get very dry.

“Until 25 years ago, the predominant rotation pattern was winter wheat followed by a fallow season,” Jorgensen says. “The thought was that fallow allowed soil to regenerate, but the opposite was true. Tilling ground destroyed biological structure, and fallow time reduced microbial activity to a very low intensity.

Poor soil quality meant rains ran off, so moisture was lost and erosion occurred. We can grow more with less and improve our soils. There’s no exact recipe for every producer, but understanding soil science and working with Mother Nature leads to better results.”

Sorenson is a Yankton, S.D., writer.

Bryan Jorgensen digs into the topsoil. Recently, the Jorgensens began using cover crops to follow or precede their crops to enhance soil quality, incorporate necessary nutrients and provide grazing forage for livestock.

The Jorgensens redesigned their air seeder to include a small hose that places nutrients in the seedbed as they plant their crops.

The Jorgensens recently began planting a mixture of cover crops before or after their corn, soybean and wheat crops to improve soil quality, increase soil nutrients and produce forage for late- and early-season grazing.

This article published in the March, 2011 edition of DAKOTA FARMER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2011.