SHP Explores Wheat’s Role in Soil Health

SHP’s Wheat Week – held September 8-10 – consisted of three consecutive days of virtual events exploring wheat’s role in soil health.

Day 1: The Wheat Industry’s Perspective on Soil Health


In this panel discussion, SHP Senior Director John Mesko spoke with representatives from across the wheat industry about why and how their organizations are investing in soil health initiatives.

Jay Watson of General Mills shared the food company’s goals for sustainability and how they are aligning with farmers to improve soil health through education, coaching, creating community and working to determine sustainability measurements. 

Keira Franz of the National Wheat Foundation (NWF) explained how wheat profitability is tied to areas where water is a constrained resource and how this creates a need for growers to utilize natural resources in an efficient manner. The NWF involvement in creating wheat specific trials with SHP stemmed from their National Wheat Action Plan

Justin Gilpin, CEO of Kansas Wheat, discussed wheat’s benefit to soil through wheat straw, yield gains in row crops and weed control. He also touched on their involvement in the Rainfed Agriculture Innovation Network (RAIN).

And Charlie Vogel, Executive Director at the Minnesota Wheat Growers Association, talked about Minnesota’s unique wheat growing environment and how that brings challenges and opportunity for growers. 

Day 2: SHP Kansas Field Day 

Featuring SHP farmers Justin Knopf and Mike Jordan


Day two of Wheat Week focused on Kansas growers. Knopf Farms showed how their SHP wheat trial will focus on building soil health qualities, like biological activity and nutrient cycling, to “jump start” the ground (which they just recently began farming) and change its productivity and sustainability. They also took attendees to a field where they incorporated a multi-species cover crop mix this year and are utilizing grazing by partnering with his neighbor’s cattle herd. 

Kansas SHP farmer, Mike Jordan, explained his interest in cover crops and his historically limited success with them. He’s working to figure out if and how cover crops work over a five year period in semi-arid conditions. 

Central Kansas District Crop Production Agent, Jay Wisbey, talked to growers on the challenges of the 2020 wheat growing season along with what they should consider for the 2021 season.

SHP Kansas Field Manager Keith Byerly then demonstrated an aggregate stability test, along with a soil biological test that growers can do on their own farm.

Day 3: SHP Minnesota Field Day

Featuring SHP farmers Glenn Hjelle and Trinity Creek Ranch


The last day of Wheat Week focused on Minnesota. SHP farmer Glen Hjelle provided an overview of his wheat trial and took attendees on a tour of the equipment he utilizes and how it has changed to meet his soil health goals.

Missy Geiszler, Vice President of Research at Minnesota Wheat, shared current trends for wheat growing conditions along with challenges growers face in that region.

Trinity Creek Ranch took attendees inside how they partner their soil health goals from their grain operation with their livestock. They gave background on their wheat trial, along with their journey to interseeding. Attendees got to go behind-the-scenes in a sunflower field to get an honest look at the progress they are making in adding diversity and keeping the ground covered with a flowering plant throughout the entire year. And, finally, Trinity Creek took the group on a tour of their  machinery building to see how they custom-built an interseeder to meet their needs. 

SHP Field Manager Anna Teeter compared the aggregate stability between a long term no-till field and Trinity Creek Ranch’s SHP field trial site, which they recently acquired and where they are working to improve its soil health. 

The week finished off with an  SHP growers’ panel, where farmers answered questions from attendees.

12. Kent Solberg – Diversity in Crops, Farm Operations Empowers Soil Health

Kent Solberg is a livestock and grazing specialist for the Sustainable Farming Association, as well as a field consultant for Understanding Ag, and a farmer. He is interested in the ability of well-managed soil to transform farms, families, and even communities. He believes diversity is key.

“We’re focusing on these key principles of soil health: keeping the soil covered, minimizing disturbance, increasing plant diversity, keeping a living root in the soil, and integrating livestock,” said Solberg.

Many farmers interested in building better soil health on their farms are investing in keeping the soil covered and minimizing disturbance, but fewer are thinking critically about plant diversity and integrating livestock.

According to Solberg, including at least one of each of the three plant functional groups – grass, legume, and broadleaf – in a crop rotation can increase the health of the farm’s soil exponentially. In a typical corn/soybean rotation, farmers have a grass present in the corn crop and a legume present in the soybean crop, but adding a broadleaf can make a world of difference.

“Even if it’s not a crop we can harvest, we’re harvesting solar energy, we’re putting carbohydrates through photosynthesis into the ground, we’re freeing that microbial community, we’re keeping the soil covered – all of that building soil biology,” he said. 

Better soil biology builds soil aggregation, which increases the ability of the field to handle and hold water and impacts trafficability. Solberg admits that it is difficult to put a value on trafficability and being able to get into the field at the proper time, but that we all know intuitively how critical timing can be to farm productivity. With that in mind, trafficability is a tremendous factor worth considering. 

A lot of this is about being creative, says Solberg, and setting aside a few acres of your farm to try something new. Adding livestock could be a great way to bring a younger family member back to the farm, but if a livestock herd is not in the cards for you, he encourages thinking about custom grazing. A farmer can have the soil health benefit of adding livestock without the labor if he or she is creative about it.

“All the things we can control in the production and potential profitability of our farm fall under the ability to help that soil capture and store water and build that nutrient cycling,” said Solberg.

Learn how to implement additional crop and animal diversity to benefit your soil’s health in this podcast.

Planning for Harvest: Utilizing Cover Crops as Forages

Harvest is approaching quickly and, with that, many people are thinking about getting cover crops seeded, if they haven’t already. As you plan for your cover crop, think about what your goals are. Do you plan on harvesting those cover crops for stored forages? Will you have livestock grazing the cover crop? Regardless of which you choose, these steps will help make sure your forage harvest is successful.

Cover Crops for Harvested Forages

Harvested forages can be an added benefit from planting a cover crop. When planning for your cover crop, there are some things you should consider before sending the seeder to the field. While other crops can be used, the most commonly harvested cover crops for forages in the Midwest are cereal rye and the other cereal crops.

Cereal rye, wheat, triticale, and others can all make good forages for livestock. Make sure to review your seeding rate. Typically with a harvested forage, we will increase a rate by 50-100% to increase our final yields. For example, my typical cereal rye cover crop rate may be 45-60 pounds per acre. When planning to harvest that cereal rye for a forage, I recommend increasing that rate to 90-120 pounds rye per acre. This will help to increase total yield per acre when we go to harvest.

Also, consider adding fertilizer to the cover crop. Since we are now looking for an increase in biomass and will be taking a crop off, as well as stover, we will be removing those nutrients from the soil and not returning them. Talk to your SHP Field Manager or trusted agronomist to see what they recommend for a cover crop nutrition plan.

When it comes to harvest of the cover crop, timing is key. When and how you harvest will determine the nutritional value of the resulting forage. With cereal rye and other cereal crops, chopping or baling at the boot stage will ensure the best palatability and nutrition quality. As cereals get to the point of heading out, the lignin increases, which decreases forage quality and palatability for animals. Late-harvested cover crops are more ideally used as a low-quality forage part of a ration or bedding.

Cereal rye, in particular, can be difficult to dry down, so chopping is a good option. You can also make sure the stems are conditioned into small pieces, wind rows are wide, etc. to ensure conditions are ideal for drydown.

If you typically focus on planting early, harvesting forages from cover crops may cause a delay in those fields by a couple of weeks. For this reason, soybeans are a good option to follow harvested acres.

Grazing cover crops

Having livestock harvest the cover crops themselves is also an efficient way to add quality feed to your forage plan and to extend your grazing season. If you plan to graze the cover in the fall, one of the first things to look at is timing. Will there be enough time between seeding and when you intend to graze the cover crop for it to get off to a good start and produce a decent amount of biomass? 

One consideration may be seeding methods. Aerial seeding the acres intended for grazing may give the cover crop the longest time period for growth. If you would prefer to broadcast seed or drill following harvest, prioritizing those acres you plan to graze earlier in your harvest schedule will help to make sure you have more time to get seeding and potential growth. Looking forward to future years, plan ahead and plant an early corn hybrid or soybeans where you plan on grazing to give the cover the biggest growth advantage. Adding a winter-kill cover crop species – such as oats, radish, turnips, etc. – can add additional nutrition and biomass value to a grazing system.

Fence is a large consideration too. Does the field have any current fence and is it suitable for the livestock you plan to graze? In some cases, electric wire is enough to keep livestock in safely, but also consider what your state considers “lawful fence”. In Iowa, a fence for cattle must utilize 3-barbed wires or meet the other requirements defined by Iowa Code 359A.18.  If your cows get out and cause damage to crops or an accident, a single hotwire would not be adequate to meet those requirements. Make sure to double-check what is recommended in your state and by your insurance company.

Once your perimeter fence is adequate to keep your animals in, do you plan to continuous or rotational graze? Continuous grazing would be the simplest route. Rotational grazing would help your cattle to have a more uniform graze, which also allows for more consistent nutrition due to the reduction of selective grazing allowed.

Consider what species would be best for growth and grazing purposes. Check out our blog post comparing different types of cover crops. Talk to your local SHP Field Manager or agronomist to figure out what seed will fit your operation best. 

Based on where your farm is located, cover crop yields for grazing can be highly variable. Early seeding can help to improve yields, but early frost, late harvest and other factors can all play into the amount of biomass that the cover crop will provide for grazing purposes. It’s always good to have additional stored forages available.

Mike Buis

Type of Operation:
Mike, with his brother Jeff, farms 3,100 acres. Most of the cropland is in a corn-soybean or corn-soybean-wheat rotation.

View on Soil Health:
Conservation Compliance provisions require Mike, who grow crops on highly erodible land (HEL), to use conservation practices to be eligible for federal programs such as disaster assistance, conservation programs, or crop insurance premium subsidies. Although he is not required to do so, he’s added cover crops to his HEL land to ensure he is going above and beyond to minimize soil erosion.

Reason for Joining Soil Health Partnership:
He began working with the Soil Health Partnership in 2016 to experiment with cover crops.

Trials Partnered with SHP on:
Mike broadcasts wheat cover crop seed at approximately 60 pounds per acre with a fall fertilizer application (immediately after harvest) and incorporates both with a vertical tillage tool. Wheat is not harvested, so he terminates the wheat cover crop in the spring when it is approximately 12-14″ tall by burning it down with an herbicide application. Because there is no spring tillage, he plants directly into the cover crop residue with a no-till planter.

His trial is featured in the Benefits of Cover Crops Business Case.

Other Soil Health Practices Being Implemented:

Mike has about 1/3 of his acres in no-till and 1/3 in minimal tillage. He also expanded the acres he plants cover crops beyond his SHP research field.

Advantages Experienced Using New Soil Health Practices:
The biggest benefit of the wheat cover crop, in Mike’s experience, is that he uses fewer herbicides during the growing season. He estimates the value of this weed control benefit to be worth at least $10/acre. Also, although he is not required to add cover crops to his HEL, doing so ensures he is going above and beyond to minimize soil erosion-and significant increases in soil organic matter on Mike’s research field between 2016 and 2018 suggest that Mike might see long-term benefits in soil water holding capacity and nutrient cycling and availability as a result of using cover crops.

Implementing cover crops on his HEL was a natural fit for Mike after he started experimenting with cover crops on his SHP research field. Because he had already adopted minimum-till on his HEL in order to meet conservation compliance requirements, there was no additional cost, other than the seed itself, to seed or terminate the cover crop. Putting a dollar value on weed control has encouraged Mike to increase the use of cover crops.

Roger Zylstra

The Zylstra farm is a third-generation family farm in Lynnville, Iowa. Roger’s parents began farming in 1948, and he purchased it from them in 1982. Now, Roger’s son, Wes, farms the ground and Roger works alongside him.  Together, they grow 700 acres corn and soybeans, as well as a contract finishing hog operation of 5400

The Zylstras have only recently added cover crops to their farming practice. The first year, they did a small field and put in cereal rye. It went very well, so the second year they did 300 acres of cereal rye. Roger says a cool, damp spring presented challenges, but the learning curve continues.

“We are dedicated to seeing this through,” Roger says. “I do think it will pay dividends in the long term.”

For 30 years, the Zylstras have practiced no-till on most all of their ground. Roger calls it the only practical way to farm their highly erodible land.

“I’m convinced we can improve the soil by doing cover crops, no-till and good nutrient management,” Zylstra said. “I’m looking forward to the research results and knowledge we will gain by participating with the partnership.”

Greg Whitmore

Greg raises corn, seed corn, corn silage and soybeans on about 2,600 acres, some of which he can trace back to his ancestor, a Civil War officer, and an 1879 homestead in Shelby, Nebraska.

Greg has deep roots with the Soil Health Partnership, joining at its inception in 2014. “I joined because I was using cover crops and no-till. I wanted to see if the economic and environmental gains and soil quality were real or just perceived,” said Greg. “Since joining, I have seen less wind and water erosion and better water infiltration and retention.”

Most of Greg’s cover crops follow the harvesting of silage for erosion control, and to help with nutrient retention of manure applications. Other cover crop acres follow seed acres, where he grows corn under contract with a seed company to produce seed corn for them. The cover crops help with weed control.

Greg practices no-till on most of the acres.

“I use strip-till ahead of the corn acres to place nitrogen, phosphorus and sulphur below where I will plant the seed,” Greg said. “On the manured acres, I can apply most of our nutrient needs with effluent from a large local dairy through our center pivots, which we must manage to meet state and federal guidelines.”

Greg says that a lot of little things can make the difference between success and failure. He’s had his cut of both, and wants to share that with other farmers to help them, and to learn from their experiences, as well.

Trinity Creek Ranch

Mikayla Tabert and her husband Benjamin are the third generation of Trinity Creek Ranch in Red Lake Falls, Minnesota, which her grandparents started in 1952. They farm alongside her parents, David & Peggy Miller. Together, they have a cow-calf operation that consists of 150 beef cows along with a small feedlot. Their diverse grain operation includes raising corn, soybeans, wheat, peola (field peas grown with canola), alfalfa, turfgrass, cereal rye and sunflowers. They also sell forage and cover crop seed.

The family enjoys experimenting with new practices and constantly challenges themselves to find ways to improve soil health and profitability. This often leads to fun internal competition about what they should try next with each family member having their own idea.

The family believes cover crops improve soil health and profitability, so they joined Soil Health Partnership for additional help collecting data to prove the practice and track changes in the soil. They would like to see fellow farmers adopt conservation practices, so they plan to use their data and experience to encourage others to consider utilizing cover crops.

Currently, they are considering testing 60-inch corn to increase interseeded cover crop growth and growing corn with interseeded cover crops for winter grazing that will not be harvested. They plan to continue to reduce the use of strip-till in order to become 100% no-till, expand their use of complex cover crops for grazing and to grow multiple crops together through polycrops and relay cropping.