Soil health benefits can be ‘wild’ – West Central Tribune

RENVILLE — As she spoke about no-tillage and the benefits of experimenting with cover crops, Kari Olson clicked the images on a large screen for an audience of more than 100 at the Renville County Community Center.

Amid the images and video clips of combines, sprayers and crops emerging from cover crop residue was one of a very large antlered white-tailed deer.

The male was munching on the greens of a fall cover crop, and Olson confirmed what his Feb. 9 audience had assumed. Along with other benefits, cover crops are a big plus for wildlife.

Olson is the fourth generation to operate the family farm near Hawley. She works with her father, Rob Olson, who began the transition to no-till farming 18 years ago. Seven years ago, he started experimenting with cover crops.

“The main goal in all of this is to build the ground for future generations,” Olson said.

Olson isn’t the first to realize how the practice of planting fall cover crops can also benefit wildlife. Holly Hatlewick, district administrator for the Renville County Soil and Water Conservation District, said she hears it from many farmers who work with her office to plant cover crops.

Last year, she filmed a local farmer who used cover crops and reduced tillage. An avid hunter, he told her that he also appreciated being able to spend more time hunting instead of spending long, lonely hours plowing his land. “Holy shit, why did I waste my time?” she said, he exclaimed.

Cover crops in Renville County

Hatlewick and Heidi Rauenhorst, director of the Hawk Creek Watershed Project, told the Tribune that they are seeing increased interest in cover crops among area farmers. The two organizations sponsored Olson’s visit last week. The Renville County SWCD and the Hawk Creek Watershed Project also offer a cost-share program for farmers interested in cover crops.
The number of acres planted to cover crops declined last year due to drought, Rauenhorst said. Many simply didn’t believe there would be the moisture to plant them last fall, she explained. Otherwise, she said the interest is increasing every year.

Kari Olson of Hawley Rural spoke February 9, 2022 at the Renville Community Center on no-till and cover crops.

Tom Cherveny / West Central Tribune

Hatlewick said about a third of those who applied for cost-share funding were new to covering crops. This tells him that interest in them is growing.

Olson graduated in 2018 from North Dakota State University with a bachelor’s degree in agricultural economics. She started cultivating with her father right after graduating from college.

The benefits of no-till on the 2,300 cultivated acres, which include land originally occupied by his great-great-grandparents in 1872, go beyond improving soil health.

No-till reduced their fuel, labor, and equipment costs while producing what Olson called comparable yields for the corn, soybeans, and wheat they raise.

The formula improved the bottom line, she told her audience.

While the entire farm is direct seeded, they are experimenting with cover crops on part of the acreage. Originally, his father planted cover crops on strip-cropped acres to “let the plants do the work for us.”

Ring-necked pheasant walks through a cornfield north of Willmar
A ring-necked pheasant walks through corn stubble in a field along County Road 5 north of Willmar on the afternoon of Friday January 21, 2022.

Mike Moore / West Central Tribune

They appreciate wildlife. Olson said he worked with Pheasants Forever to do an analysis of their land. This helped them identify acres where the yields did not justify the input costs. They placed unproductive land in perennial cover for the benefit of pollinators and wildlife. “Just try to cultivate the right soil,” she said.

Cover crops and no-till practices come with challenges, many of which Olson described for his audience. She also stressed that growers need to experiment and find what works best on their own land. “That’s what works for our operation. I’m not here to tell you what to do,” she said.

Olson said she didn’t have to adapt to no tillage or cover crops, but the changes weren’t always so easy for her dad. She pointed out that he grew up farming with his parents and others who identify a plowed field as a “clean” field.

Cover crops thrive amid rows of corn in this Renville County field.  As the corn shrivelled and dried out, the cover crops benefited from increased sunlight penetration.  Test plots were planted in Renville County and included mixtures of rye, clover, rapeseed and brassica.  Submitted

Cover crops thrive amid rows of corn in this Renville County field. As the corn shrivelled and dried out, the cover crops benefited from increased sunlight penetration. Test plots were planted in Renville County and included mixtures of rye, clover, rapeseed and brassica. Submitted

Overcoming the mindset of what a field should look like may be the biggest hurdle for many. Olson said there are very few other farms in the Hawley area that use no-till and cover crops like they do. When a windstorm kicked up clouds of dirt from their neighbors’ fields, they could only hope that their neighbors noticed that their soil was holding up.

Olson said his father once convinced a local farmer to try no-till in a soybean field. After the harvest, his father asked him how the field looked. “Great,” the man replied. Will he try not to plow again? his father asked.

“Surely not. It sounded like shxx,” she said, the farmer replied.Excuse me, that’s what he said, not me,” Olson said.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. In the fall, images of deer, pheasants and other wildlife among the stubble and cover crops of the Olson farm look better to many than black, plowed fields devoid of wildlife.

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Kari Olson of the Robert Olson Farm near Hawley told a Renville County audience that the use of cover crops attracted wildlife to the land.

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Cover crops are shown in a cornfield in Renville County. They continue to improve the soil and its fertility after crop removal while reducing the potential for erosion and carbon sequestration.

Submitted