Research HighlightsStudying Soil Health Through Unique Partnership at North Dakota’s SHARE farms
By Carol Brown
A unique farmer–researcher relationship has been going on in North Dakota for nearly a decade and counting. The Soil Health and Agriculture Research Education (SHARE) farm is a project created for conducting field-scale research by North Dakota State University (NDSU) Extension and farmer cooperators along with commodity group support.
“The first SHARE farm is in southeast North Dakota near Mooreton, and it began in 2013,” says Dr. Abbey Wick, NDSU Extension soil health specialist. “We started a second SHARE farm in 2019 near Logan Center in the northeast part of the state.”
In addition to NDSU backing, the North Dakota Soybean Council, Corn Council and Wheat Commission have supported the SHARE farms from the beginning. In 2019, the project gained additional funding from the Northarvest Bean Growers Association and the North Dakota Barley Council.
Wick says they are looking at practices for soil health improvement that farmers are truly interested in adopting. She and the NDSU researchers had received input from area farmers and the supporting commodity groups for guidance on what was most important to study. At the Mooreton site, the research focuses on tile drainage, cover crops and tillage.
The SHARE farms are unique as the farmer owns and continues to farm the land as he normally would and adopts new soil health-building practices as they work with NDSU. The Mooreton site is in a three-year rotation of corn, soybeans and wheat. Data has been collected each year to measure performance from the three crops in all the established research scenarios.
“Ken Johnson owns the Mooreton SHARE farm. He plants the crop, takes care of the crop, and harvests it how he usually would. We have our different treatments in place, and we take the measurements for them,” Wick says. “Communication is important as we’ve asked Ken for a long-term commitment, now in its eighth and final year.”
Soil Health Studies at Mooreton
To explore whether tile drainage works in the Red River Valley’s high clay soils, the team and Johnson tiled half the field. In addition, Wick says area farmers had questions about managing soil salinity. The field was naturally divided perfectly to research salinity management on both tiled and untiled ground.
“We set up various tillage treatments — strip-tillage with a shank and with a coulter, vertical tillage, full tillage and no-till — on both the tiled and untiled ground, and in saline and non-saline areas,” she says. “We’ve also used cover crops on the farm to see how they fit into each part of the yearly crop rotation and with the ground treatments.”
The team hosts field days on the SHARE farms so farmers and others can see the activity and research results. And Wick believes there are changes happening because of the SHARE farm research results.
“The first change we saw was that Ken was reducing his tillage on more of his acres,” Wick says. “In the southeast corner of North Dakota, we’ve seen adoption of reduced tillage, strip-till and cover crops. We’ve measured this through our Extension programming, which also helps guide the SHARE program.”
Johnson is working on changing some of his farm management methods, which is something for someone who’s been farming for more than 40 years.
“I’ve been reducing tillage and using more cover crops now,” Johnson says. “I’ve been experimenting on my other acres with cover crops including cereal rye, turnips and radishes and in some cases, using wheat as a cover crop, too.”
Johnson has been most pleased with the salinated soil areas at the Mooreton site. There are salty soils in a quarter of that field, and they were growing, he says. He was surprised at how well these areas have recovered.
“The tiling has helped, but half of that quarter is not tiled,” Johnson reminds. “I think it’s been the combination of tiling, cover crops and reduced tillage that has helped to reduce the salinity in that field.”
The Future of SHARE Farms
This is the final year of research being conducted on the Mooreton SHARE farm. The field has gone through two full cycles of the three-crop rotation plus a few years in the beginning to get the project going, samples taken, and field tile installed. Setting up the second site at Logan Center was easier, Wick says, now that the researchers have things figured out.
“We’re working with Sam Landman at the Logan Center site, which is in a four-crop rotation, so it should go for eight years,” says Wick. “It took a little time to find this second location. With the project being 8- to 10-years long, we don’t want farmers locked into something they don’t want to do because we want the project to be a good experience for everyone involved.”
When considering other SHARE farms, Wick’s goal is to get a new site going as one location wraps up. But as future sites are chosen, there are many variables to consider. Wick must take into account the commodities who help fund the project and University commitment for these longer studies.
She is hoping to pair new SHARE farms with the Research Extension Centers (REC) to tap into the expertise and resources they can provide. The farmers in the areas near the RECs know the researchers well and have established relationships with them.
“The work being done on the SHARE farms is important, and equally important is our commitment and focus on the farmers in new areas of the state,” Wick says. “We want to find the best practices that will work for them where they farm, because it will be completely different than what we found in southeast North Dakota.”
NDSU Soil Health website: https://www.ndsu.edu/soilhealth/
“Soil Sense” Podcasts:
- Episode 5: Challenges of Building Soil Health in Cool and Wet Climates
Sam Landman, Logan Center SHARE farm
- Episode 15: SHARE Farm Reflections and Insights
Ken Johnson, Mooreton SHARE farm
This project was funded by the soybean checkoff. To find research related to this research highlight or to see other checkoff research projects, please visit the National Soybean Checkoff Research Database.