Five soil-health questions with Faribault County farmer Eric Volsen
Faribault County farmer Eric Volsen elaborated on his experience implementing soil-health practices on the 700-acre farm he runs with his wife, Amanda, and their four children. The following excerpts from a Nov. 1, 2022, interview are edited for length and clarity.
BETTER SOIL CONDITIONS: We’re seeing long-term effects. The soil’s turning around; the structure’s there. It’s performing much better with the conditions that we are faced with. We get the binding of the soil with the soil aggregates, the chemistry that goes on with reducing the tillage and letting Mother Nature take over. With the microorganisms, it gives them a chance to rebuild without tearing them up and airing them out. What we’re seeing on top is a better footing in wet conditions — just like the peas. That field would not have been harvestable in a conventional setting. It would not have been passable. With the no-till structure it was able to hold the combines up and they were able to harvest the crop.
CHALLENGES: People that are farming conventionally have certain issues that they’re facing every year, too, with weather and crop situations, disease — whatever it might be. In this soil health world, we’re not necessarily getting rid of problems. We’re trading one set of problems for another. We still have management. We still have things that we need to watch. If we let our cover crops get too far along, that’ll choke out our cash crop. We’re learning as we go, but we are finding out that some of the problems that we are having are very similar to some of the farmers that are farming conventionally. We have to figure out is it really our practice, or is just the year and what it’s giving us?
POTENTIAL SAVINGS: I’m eliminating a field cultivation pass in the spring, possibly two. I’m completely eliminating the fall full-width tillage. I’m putting that money toward strip-till and applying nutrients that way. With no-till, I don’t have any of that cost.
SPECIALIZED EQUIPMENT: On no-till fields, Volsen plants with a 1990 John Deere seeder set at 7.5-inch row spacing. He discovered that cover crops such as rye can be terminated in the spring by crimping, so Volsen modified a roller with chevron crimping bars that crease plants’ stems and cut off nutrients.
THE MENTAL SWITCH: It’s a different system, so just mentally trying to switch over to doing things a different way is hard. But we’ve seen the benefits come from the cover crops, the cows, having multiple crops in a rotation rather than just the corn and soybeans — and we’re leaning toward going strictly to no-till. I would say within the next year or two, I’m really close to not doing any tillage.