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North Dakota Man Benefits from Principles of Soil Health

Mike Zook Mike Zook
Beach, North Dakota
10,000 acres of spring wheat, winter wheat, corn, grass, lentils, peas, safflowers, sunflowers and sorghum
Planting: all no-till
Covers: multi-species

Diversity, intensity, and zero-disturbance. When talking about his farming operation, those are the three goals of Mike Zook in Beach, N.D. He started farming in 1977 and watched the wind that blows through western North Dakota lift his soils and start small dust storms, eroding the topsoil and displacing valuable nutrients.

In addition, Zook said his conventional-till wheat operation had what he called the “cide disease”—that is, extensive use of herbicides, pesticides, and fungicides. “We knew that if we didn’t change, it wouldn’t be sustainable,” says Zook.

In 1988, when Zook started to manage his own operation, he learned about the benefits of continuous cropping, and how it can facilitate the principles of soil health. These principles work with natural laws and include growing as many different plants as practical (diversity), keeping the soil covered year-round (intensity), and limiting physical disturbance (zero-disturbance).

The USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) works with farmers to manage their operations with these three principles.

To manage his diversity, Zook planted almost everything that would grow in a 14-inch precipitation zone. Spring wheat, winter wheat, corn, grass, lentils, peas, safflowers, sunflowers and sorghum all became part of his operation. “We spread our crops and harvest dates in the year– by diversifying the growing season, it minimizes risk,” says Zook. This also meant he could apply the soil health principle of intensity—his continuous crop of diverse plants would cover the soil year-round.

In order to limit physical disturbance of the soil, Zook invested in a tillage system with minimal disturbance. He now uses a no-till drill, which uses small disks to “slice” the ground and insert the seeds, without using any tillage. “When the soil is moved, it’s exposed to the sun and wind. No-till avoids those things,” says Zook.

Now, over 20 years after he began this system, Zook has seen a dramatic improvement in his soil health, which has translated into a substantial increase in his harvest yield. On his wheat alone, he went from harvesting between an average of 30 to 40 bushels per acre, to an average of 60 to 90 bushels per acre. He has also seen an increase in native bird species. Pheasants, sharp-tail grouse, and Hungarian partridges have returned to the habitat near his fields.

Jon Stika, NRCS area resource soil scientist in Dickinson, N.D., was able to evaluate Zook’s operation and called it an excellent example of soil health. A shallow hole dug on the cropland shows that the soil easily forms clumps, called aggregates, and the worm population is thriving. When Zook used conventional tillage and a chem-fallow rotation, he said the soil smelled “sterile” and there was not a worm in sight. Since applying diversity, intensity and zero-disturbance, Zook’s soil smells healthy, produces higher yields, and doesn’t blow away when the wind comes up.

In this photo sunflowers can be seen growing in crop residue. A sunflower crop grows in standing stubble and crop litter/residue. Photo shows handful of soil containing roots and plentiful organic matter. Soil from a spring wheat field on the Zook farm easily forms clumps, called aggregates.
Photo is a close-up of garbanzo bean plants with full pods Garbanzo beans (chickpeas) add to the diversity of crops in Zook's operation. In this photo the 2012 wheat crop is combined. A combine harvesting winter wheat leaves stubble, which is helpful in maintaining soil moisture and improving soil health.