South Dakota Farmer Harvests Sunlight

In addition to harvesting corn and soybeans, one South Dakota farmer says he’s “harvesting sunlight.”Paul Hetland, who farms near Mount Vernon, uses a variety of farming practices to promote soil health on his acres, including cover crops.Planted following harvest, cover crops on Hetland’s farm are typically a mixture of brassicas, legumes and grasses. They add nutrients to the soil and help protect it from wind and water.“Our goal is to have something growing as many days out of the year as possible,” Hetland says. “We think of it as harvesting sunlight.”

Sequestering Carbon

“We're trying to put carbon in the soil,” says Hetland. “And those plants, if you think of them just taking that sunlight and pumping it into the ground, that's kind of the way I look at it,” he says.“The plants are converting that sunlight, and they are releasing the extrudes through their roots to feed the biology within the soil. And as those plants die off or as that biology dies off, that turns into fertility and nutrients for subsequent crops.”Agriculture, like many other systems, is carbon-based.“Through the grasses that we plant, we are sequestering carbon in our soil that is not released,” Hetland says.He tries to minimize tillage and soil disturbances to avoid putting the carbon back into the atmosphere.“We're keeping the carbon in our system where we can utilize it. And it just creates this huge resource for us to produce these higher yields that we're trying to build as we make our soil more healthy,” he adds.

What Is Healthy Soil?

Farmers statewide are focusing on building healthy soils in their fields.It’s partly because healthier soil delivers improved yields. But it’s also about playing the long game. Farmers work today to build soil health to benefit future generations tomorrow.“To me, the ultimate measure of healthy soil is the output it produces,” Hetland says. “But along the way, we measure healthy soil by the way it absorbs water.”“Healthy soil allows us to plant a crop successfully under less than desirable conditions,” he says. “It supports traffic. It gives us nutrients so we can reduce our use of commercial fertilizers. It mineralizes and recycles nutrients for us. It just is a system that allows our business to be more profitable.”Some farmers assess soil health by looking at the percentage of organic matter in their soil.“I think organic matter is certainly a good measure, and it's something that we start with,” says Hetland. “Generally speaking, the higher your organic matter is, the more productive that soil can be. It holds more water. It releases more nutrients. So, organic matter is a great start.”“There are physical properties that we look for, as well,” he says. “We see whether the soil clumps, whether we can close a furrow behind the tractorto give us seed-to-soil contact in the spring and things of that nature.”In addition to improving soil health, Hetland’s farming practices also help reduce the use of commercial fertilizers and weed control products.“In essence, we’re creating a system where we’re producing more with less,” he says.
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