Treading new ground: Helena farm family uncovers importance of soil health

Marilyn, Jim and Tim Dusenberry stand on their Helena Valley farm. The no-till drill behind the tractor is a key component of the family’s soil health initiative.

Photos scourtesy of Eliza Wiley, DNRC

It was 2012, and the Dusenberry family was frustrated. Across their 600-acre farm and livestock operation in the Helena Valley, years of sound stewardship and management practices didn’t seem to be making any real difference.

“We were disappointed in the output of our land,” said Tim Dusenberry. “We were using more and more fertilizer, the cost was up to 75 to 80 dollars an acre, and the returns were still low. It was time to look at a new way of doing things.”

Linda Brander, a resource specialist with the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, happened to be at the Dusenberry Farm in 2012 for her annual purchase of hay. As they stood visiting, she told Tim about a DNRC grant program she managed that had provided funding for several soil health projects. In order to be eligible, she told Tim, a producer need only work with the local Lewis and Clark Conservation District. 

Change isn’t always easy, and in the world of agriculture it can be especially difficult. Margins are thin under the best of circumstances and developing new management practices takes time and money – and what if the new approach doesn’t work? For these and other reasons, many producers tend to stay with the methods used by their parents or grandparents. But Tim’s parents, Jim and Marilyn, say their son has always been an innovator. After hearing about the program, Tim jumped on the internet.

“I knew nothing of cover crops and had actually thought of them as a nurse crop,” he said. “The phrase ‘soil health’ was foreign to me. After researching cover crops I was more excited about them and decided it was would be a good experiment to see if it would work on our operation.”

DNRC, the Lewis and Clark Conservation District and staff from the USDA’s Natural Resource Conservation Service sat down with the Dusenberrys to help them develop their grant proposal.

The project launched in April of 2013. Three different plots were set up on a total of 64 acres, each with its own soil type and management issues. Through soil sampling and discussion with the Dusenberrys of their management goals, a unique seed mix of cover crops was developed and planted on each plot.

At its most basic, a cover crop is a mixture of plants seeded in late summer or fall on a harvested field. The specific combination of plants – from legumes such as peas to oats, grasses, clover, even radishes and turnips – is tailored to the management goals for the field. Radishes and turnips, for example, are effective in breaking up compacted soil. Legumes enhance nitrogen levels. When grazed by cows, plants with tall stalks such as oats are flattened and mashed into the soil by the animals’ hooves, where they break down to add carbon and organic material. Cover crops can also be effective in mitigating the new year’s crop of weeds.

Through his research, Tim also learned that a no-till drill was a key component for seeding cover crops. Pulled behind the farmer’s tractor, a no-till drill lays the seeds in the ground with minimal disturbance, unlike a cultivator, which digs deep and breaks up the soil. The family purchased a used no-till drill at the start of the demonstration project and has been using it ever since.

“Healthy soil has voids within it,” Tim said. “If you till it, you’ve crushed the soil and made those air spaces smaller. There’s less room for microbes and roots and reduced capacity to retain water.”

The most dramatic illustration of no-till benefits came in a 36-acre leased field. Every year Tim would cultivate and plant the field, and then watch as spring rains created a five-acre “lake” in a low spot, which would drown out the crop. After the first year of no-till seeding, the lake was a bit smaller. The next year it was smaller yet. Without disturbance the soil was rebuilding those open spaces, increasing its capacity to absorb and hold moisture.

“That spot has shrunk to basically nothing,” Tim says. “No-till really saved us in this particular field.”

After two years of using cover crops, the results were “astounding,” Tim said. As soil health improved, cash crop yields jumped up. Their calves, turned loose each year to graze the cover crops, put on more weight and sported deep glossy coats. Weeds were reduced.

In 2014 and 2015, the Dusenberrys added two more components to their soil-health practices: a CO-2 injector and a new method for livestock grazing. The injector is a custom-built piece of equipment that collects the exhaust of the tractor engine, cools and condenses it, and blows it into the soil at the time of planting. The CO-2, said Tim, benefits mycorrhizal fungi, a group of living organisms which coexist with plants and help supply them with nutrients.

Mob grazing, a kind of high-intensity, short-duration grazing practice, is the Dusenberry’s latest soil health innovation, implemented late in 2015. Using portable electric fencing, a group of 30 cows are concentrated in small pasture “cells” of one to five acres, where they graze and stomp down the grass or cover crops and deposit manure and urine. The animals stay only a short time – between 24 and 36 hours – before being moved again. Each cell is then rested for an extended period. Over time, mob grazing builds the amount of organic material in the soil, boosting nutrients and moisture retention.

After four years, the gains at the Dusenberry farm are impressive.

“We haven’t used fertilizer at all in three years and our crop yields are bigger and better quality. Weeds are reduced, and we’re hoping to eliminate part of the chemical cost associated with spraying,” Tim said. “More and more, we’re using nature as the driving force instead of chemical inputs.”

The Dusenberry’s new approaches have stirred up a fair bit of interest among Helena-area producers, says Chris Evans, supervisor of the Lewis and Clark Conservation District.

“Especially for the Helena area it was really phenomenal to see the success they had. People are seeing the need to cover the soil for moisture retention and protection from erosion in our arid, windy climate.”

Ann McCauley develops and promotes the soil health workshops sponsored by the Montana Association of Conservation Districts. Last year, MACD held five workshops across the state; more than 600 people attended, a mix of traditional producers as well as younger folks just getting started.

“It’s exciting to see people realize, ‘wow, there’s a different way of doing this,’” she said. “We talk about the benefits from the soil health level on up to the marketplace. That’s a big part of the sustainability equation, making it pencil out on the bottom line. There’s time, there’s money and there’s the unknown. That’s part of what the workshops address.”

“If another producer was to ask me about doing a cover crop on their ground, I would explain that it is not a one-year quick fix,” said Tim. “They have to be willing to change the way they view their farming operation. They need to stay with it, commit to the long term and look at the whole system – cover crops, CO-2, no-till, and getting animals on the ground to do their thing.



“For us, I think this is just the tip of the iceberg.”




DNRC and Montana’s Conservation Districts

The Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation works closely with Montana’s 58 conservation districts, which encompass nearly 94 million acres. CDs are local governmental entities operated by non-paid elected and appointed officials, charged with planning and implementing soil, water, and other natural resource conservation activities. CDs also maintain permitting for activities that alter or modify perennial streams. DNRC’s Conservation Districts Bureau provides general, technical, legal, financial and administrative support to Montana’s CDs and 27 grazing districts; between 2010 and 2016, DNRC has provided $231,360.00 in grant funding to conservation districts for the Soil Health Initiative.


Five steps to soil health


1. Limit mechanical soil disturbance. Use a no-till drill to seed crops.

2. Leave armor on the soil. Allow cover crops to protect the soil from erosion, heat, cold.

3. Allow a living root to grow in the soil for as long as possible. Cover crops allow a plant root to feed the soil biology; that biology in turn feeds the plant.

4. Emphasize diversity. For cover crops, use a variety of plants with different functions. The cover crop mix should include at least 7-10 different species. Some improve nutrients, others provide ground cover.

5. Animal impact. Allow cows, pigs and other stock to do what they do best – devour nutritious cover crops, stomp plant material into the soil and fertilize it with their manure.



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