USDA-NRCS photo
USDA-NRCS photo


By Kindra Gordon

April 22, 2019 is Earth Day – a great time to recognize those who truly are our earth’s stewards. Having grown up on a family farm, visiting with farmers and ranchers about their crop and rangeland conservation efforts are among my favorite stories to listen to and share. It reminds me of my own family’s long-term efforts to sustain the land for the next generation.
Over the past year, I had the pleasure of visiting with several North Dakota producers about their conservation efforts. They definitely have some ideas – and enthusiasm – worth sharing. May you be inspired to follow their lead and find ways to continue enhancing your conservation efforts.

Cover Crop Bonus
In 2019, Delvin Fannik’s family is marking a special milestone – their family grain and cattle farm near Max, N.D. celebrates 100 years in operation. In anticipation of the next generation possibly operating the farm one day, Delvin says he and his brother have been implementing changes to ensure long-term soil health on their land. This has included taking several conservation steps over the past decade – from reduced tillage to equipment for drift management and the addition of cover crops.
They’ve been especially pleased with a mix of millet, turnips and radishes following their pea crop. “We began doing it for the betterment of soil health to aid root structure, organic matter and water infiltration,” Delvin explains.
He adds, “I’ve enjoyed seeing the benefits of the deep rooted crops. We farm a lot of sloped farmground, and with another set of roots planted, we’ve seen it hold the soil better. We are also seeing the soil hold a lot more water [rather than it all pooling into a low spot], and this allows us to get in the field faster in the spring.”
The Fannik’s initially drilled in cover crops after harvest in August, but have more recently experimented with aerial seeding in late July so the cover crops can get established earlier. “I believe the more growing time you can allow the cover crops, the more you are stimulating the microbial soil organisms,” explains Delvin.
As an added bonus, the cover crops also offer fall grazing for the Fannik’s cowherd. Cattle are turned out onto the cover crop forage about four weeks following a killing frost. “This is also improving our field’s organic matter by adding manure and hoof action to increase the decomposition of the crop residue on the field,” says Delvin.

Willing to adapt
“We are often starved for moisture,” says Tyler Stafslien as he talks about his 2,000 acre grain farm which is situated in the center of western North Dakota in McLean county. Thus, when Stafslien returned as the fourth generation to oversee the farming operation after his dad passed away in 2003, he began to explore conservation methods.
By 2005, Stafslien transitioned to minimum tillage, and of the practice says, “It made sense to conserve moisture and reduce trips over the field.”
Over the past decade, as Stafslien has learned more about conservation from his local NRCS field office staff more conservation practices have followed. Stafslien has planted trees; he’s added cover crops; and he has adapted precision technology to help reduce inputs and protect the environment using low drift sprayer nozzles and GPS equipment.
A recent project also included dedicating five acres to a pollinator planting. Stafslien explains that an area of his farmland included utility poles that were difficult to farm around. Initially, he thought about planting the five-acre area back to grass, but NRCS soil conservation technician Diane Krzmarzick in the local field office suggested the idea of forbs and grass species that benefit pollinators. Recognizing the importance of bees and other pollinators to the environment, Stafslien made the idea a reality and is interested in more pollinator plantings in the future.
Pollinator species planted included: Blue Grama, Plain Coreopsis, Western Yarrow, Black-Eyed Susan, Purple Prairie Clover, Maximillian Sunflower, Hoary Vervain, and Ironweed.

Enthusiastic
explorers
“I haven’t been this excited about farming since we quit summer fallow,” says Harlan Johnson, who has farmed for more than 40 years near Crosby, N.D., in the northwest corner of the state along the Canadian border. His son Phil joined the operation four years ago after graduating with an engineering degree from Montana State University.
What has the Johnson’s so excited about farming? It’s their interest in companion crops, also called intercropping. Harlan says Phil was instrumental in researching the concept, which has been growing in popularity in Canada over the past decade, and convincing him to explore it for their farm.
Phil explains that companion cropping puts two crops together – such as flax and chickpeas, and this ultimately provides a boost to soil microbes and fertility which then boosts crop production. “An oil seed and legume work well together, and the research suggests instead of 1 plus 1 equaling 2 you get 2.2 – or an extra 20% in yield,” says Phil.
The father-son duo first began experimenting with about 10% of their acres planted to companion crops in 2017, with intentions to expand incrementally. Crops traditionally grown on their Divide County farm include durum wheat, hard red spring wheat, flax, oats, sunflowers, corn, millet, and canola. Companion crop combinations they are trying include flax and chickpeas, peas and canola (often called peaola by Canadian farmers), and yellow mustard and green lentils.
In reflecting on his more than four decades farming, Harlan says he has seen the benefits of conservation practices firsthand. “I grew up summer fallowing; we saw big gullies and our land was wearing out. It wasn’t any fun,” he says. Twenty years ago, Johnson stopped using summer fallow and transitioned to no-till. About a decade ago, added cover crops.
Of their most recent efforts, Harlan says, “We are trying to be diverse and get cool season and warm season grasses and broadleaves into our crop rotations.” Harlan notes that research he and Phil have reviewed suggests soil microbes can become lazy without plant diversity, whereas a live root in the ground, especially one that fixes Nitrogen, offers benefits to soil activity. He and Phil estimate that through this approach, they may achieve a 30 lb. Nitrogen credit simply from the plants used.
 “Our goal is to keep living roots in the ground, so we never let the roots go into sleep mode and we can recycle nutrients faster…We hope it will help us be more profitable,” Phil concludes.