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Initiative focuses on ND soil

Published January 23, 2013

Good soil health is vital in maintaining and improving North Dakota’s economic prosperity and minimizing the impact of land management practices on the environment. That’s why the NDSU Extension Service and N.D. Agricultural Experiment Station are spearheading a soil health initiative to reduce soil problems and improve land management.

“The soil health initiative is a very high priority,” said Ken Grafton, NDSU’s vice president for agricultural affairs; N.D. Agricultural Experiment Station director; and College of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Natural Resources dean. “We will be addressing ways for landowners to manage their resources for agricultural, recreational and wildlife needs by addressing salinity and sodicity problems and fertility management.”

Soils with high levels of salt and sodium accumulations are a major concern in North Dakota. They affect 12.6 million acres, or 25 percent of the state’s agricultural land. About 90 percent of the state’s producers have experienced some reduced productivity because of salinity.

Recognizing the impact that salinity and sodicity are having on North Dakota’s agricultural production, the 2011 state Legislature appropriated $2.1 million for the soil health initiative. Also, Gov. Jack Dalrymple declared Jan. 6-12, 2013, Soil Health Week because “soil health and function are of vital importance to the health, well-being and sustainability of the people of North Dakota and their quality of life.”

Since 2011, NDSU has added three scientists and three Extension specialists to address soil health and land management issues. They are based in the School of Natural Resource Sciences and at Research Extension Centers at Carrington, Hettinger, Langdon and Minot. NDSU also has created six support staff positions for this effort.

“Salts are native to North Dakota’s glaciated mineralogy,” explained soil health and land management team member Chris Augustin. He is the Extension area soil health specialist at the North Central Research Extension Center near Minot. “The past 20 or so wet years have moved these minerals to the topsoil. Water then evaporates, leaves salts behind and creates the white spots that reduce crop yields.”

The soil health and land management team is building its program with input from an advisory committee. Members include representatives from NDSU, commodity and other ag-related organizations, the state Health and Agriculture departments, Natural Resources Conservation Service, soil and water conservation districts, USDA’s Agricultural Research Service, State Water Commission and State Board of Agricultural Research and Education.

“The support and partnerships from the representatives on the committee are greatly appreciated, and their input will help guide and prioritize the NDSU’s soil health research and Extension efforts,” said Chris Boerboom, NDSU Extension Service director. “It also provides opportunities for NDSU, state and federal agencies, retail partners and commodity grower organizations to network, and helps increase awareness of the importance of soils to North Dakota’s vitality.”

Already, the soil health and land management team has been awarded more than $6.2 million for projects, including:

  • Tile drainage and subirrigation
  • Salinity and sodicity research and Extension efforts in eastern North Dakota
  • Learning how increased dust and road use from energy development in western North Dakota are impacting wetlands
  • Determining the impacts of climate and erosion on soil change and implications for soil quality
  • Evaluating sharp-tailed grouse habitat selection in the Grand River National Grasslands
  • Restoring the Elkhorn Ranch in southwestern North Dakota
  • Reducing sodification in high-risk northern Great Plains soils
  • Renewing the land and increasing beef production on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation

To aid in their research and Extension efforts, the team has created research and demonstration sites, including a cover crop demonstration near Edmore and a sulfur trial on canola near Langdon.

The team also has been disseminating information on soil health and land management to producers and others through demonstrations at events such as the Big Iron farm show and the Northern Ag Expo, field tours, workshops and presentations at conferences across the state, interviews with news media, and publications such a fact sheet on saline and sodic soils.

One key issue is for producers to distinguish between salinity and sodicity, according to team member Abbey Wick, Extension soil health specialist and assistant professor in the School of Natural Resource Sciences.

“You can’t treat salinity and sodicity the same,” she said. “You may have salinity and sodicity existing at the same time, but once that salinity is leached – the calcium and magnesium salts, they leach first – then the sodium sticks behind and attaches to the clays, and you may have a sodicity problem.”

The team is seeking another $450,000 in funding for research on the impact of cropping systems, soil tillage and nitrogen regimes on soil health and crop productivity; how soil salinity damages soybeans, contributes to arthropod pest infestations and impacts soil nitrogen reserves; and the residual effects of nitrate on nitrogen fixation and soybean yields, as well as how to empower producers to manage for soil health through improved Extension programming and training at the county level.

“Through the soil health initiative, producers will be better suited to adapt to changes in soil conditions, climate, cropping systems and environmental situations,” Grafton said .


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Vice President for University Relations
North Dakota State University
Phone: +1 (701) 231-1068 - Fax: (701) 231-1989
Campus address: Old Main 204
Mailing address: Dept 6000 PO Box 6050, Fargo, ND 58108-6050
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Last Updated: Tuesday, May 19, 2015 11:37:10 AM