How Plants Farm Microbes to Get Nutrients

It has long been believed that plants get nutrients from the soil microbes but how the transfer of nutrients from microbes to the plant occurs has not been understood. That changed in recent years when a team of researchers from Rutgers University discovered one of the ways that plants harness microbes in the soil to obtain nutrients.

In a process the researchers have named the “rhizophagy cyle” with rhizophagy meaning root eating, soil microbes such as bacteria and fungi cycle between living in the soil and a plant-dependent phase within the cells of plant roots. While in the soil, the microbes obtain nutrients and these nutrients are extracted from the microbes when they are internalized by the plants.

This is an oversimplification but the rhizophagy cycle works like this:  Plants cultivate or basically farm microbes around their root tips by secreting sugars and proteins. These microbes either enter or are drawn into the root cells at the tips. Once in the plant, the microbes are stripped of their cell walls which contain nitrogen and then become trapped in the plant cells. The plant then hits the microbes with a superoxide to break down moreof the microbe cell to further extract nutrients from them. The microbes that have been internalized by the plants spur the development of hairs on the roots and they are then expelled back into the soil through the growing hair tip. Once back in the soil, the microbes rebuild their cell walls and start acquiring nutrients from the soil, until they are attracted to the root tips by the exudates from the plant roots when the cycle starts over again.

Microbes that plants associate with in this cycle are referred to as endophytes. An endophyte is basically any microbe that gets into a plant that doesn’t cause disease and generally has positive effects.

The research at Rutgers on these microbial endophytes has found that in addition to providing a source of nutrients and improving nutrient absorption in plants, the rhizophagy symbiosis also provides other benefits to the plant.

One is that the association with microbial endophytes helps improve plant stress tolerance. Another is that rhizophagy cycle microbes help to modulate root development by triggering root hair development as was mentioned previously and also by increasing root and shoot elongation and root branching.

Interestingly, they also found that the microbial endophytes can help suppress pathogenic fungi in the soil. Once ejected from the root the rhizophagy microbes need to rebuild and acquire nutrients. To do so they often colonize soil fungal pathogens, draining them of nutrients and reducing their virulence.

So far over 50 plant species have been examined and show evidence that they engage in rhizophagy. As such, it appears that the rhizophagy cycle occurs in all plants and may be an important way plants acquire some nutrients along with other symbiotic relations that plants form such as with mycorrhizal fungi or rhizobium bacteria in the case of legumes.

Researchers have also discovered that endophytes found in the microbial colony of a particular plant are often carried with them on the seed to serve as an inoculant so to speak when the seed is planted.  In trials where plants were denied access to the microbial endophytes by sterilizing seed and soil, plant growth and development was significantly reduced compared to plants that were allowed to retain the endophytes carried on the seed.

In a trial with perennial grass, researchers compared two seed lots, one which was produced under moisture stressed conditions and the other produced with normal to above average growing conditions. When the seed of these two lots was planted, they found more problems with stand establishment from the seed lot produced under drought conditions with higher levels of seedling mortality that they attributed at least in part to less endophytes being carried on the seed.

These microbial endophytes may also alter the chemical constituents of plants, which could improve the quality of the crops. For example, carrots produced in the presence of endophytes had more carotene than carrots produced when plants were denied access to the endophytes by sterilizing the seed.

According to James White, a professor in the Department of Plant Biology at Rutgers University-New Brunswick and one of the lead researchers on the rhizophagy cycle, the understanding of how this process works may allow us to grow plants without fertilizers or with minimal fertilizers inputs.

Based on this, tests that provide information on microbial biomass in the soil could provide a good benchmark for tracking soil health. Practices that build soil health will also help to build up microbial communities and should strengthen the rhizophagy cycle.

Keith Brown, Soil Health & Cropping Systems Specialist

SCD Tree Shed: 701-774-2319

Ranching For Profit Workshop Opportunities

Do you want to make your ranch more profitable with less work and stress? If so, make plans to attend one or both of two upcoming Ranching for Profit workshop opportunities to be held in this area. Billed as a learning experience like none offered before, these workshops are designed to provide ranchers with some of the tools needed to start improving their land and creating profitable businesses that can be in families for generations to come.

The first Ranching for Profit workshop will be held on January 11-12, 2023 at the Ernie French Center on the grounds of the Williston Research Extension Center. Hosted by the Williams County Soil Conservation District, the workshop will run from 9:00 am to 4:30 pm both days. Instructor for the workshop will be Dave Pratt who will be covering the topics of Economics & Finance and People & Management.

Dave Pratt is one of the most sought-after speakers on sustainable agriculture and profitable ranching in the world today. He grew up on a small ranch and worked for cattle and sheep ranchers in Northern California where he learned ranching from the bottom up. In addition to his practical roots, Dave holds BS and MS degrees from the University of California and Washington State University. A Range and Livestock Advisor with the University of California Cooperative Extension Service for 15 years, Dave researched cell grazing and strategic issues impacting the sustainability of ranches. In 1991 Dave began working with Stan Parsons, the founder of Ranch Management Consultants. He started teaching the Ranching for Profit School in 1992. When Stan retired in 2001, Dave and his wife Kathy, bought RMC. In 2019, after many successful years they sold the company to Dallas Mount.

Registration fee for the Williston workshop is $30 per person which includes lunch both days. Those interested in attending are asked to pre-register with the Williams County SCD at 701-774-2319 by January 4, 2023.

The second Ranching for Profit workshop will be held on February 7-8, 2023 at the Mountrail County South Complex in Stanley. Hosted jointly by the Mountrail County Ag Agency, Ag Improvement Association, and Soil Conservation District.  The workshop will run from 10:00 am to 4:30 pm both days. Instruction for the workshop will be Dallas Mount covering the topics of Grazing & Ecology and Real World Financial Scenarios.

Dallas Mount is the owner of Ranch Management Consultants. Dallas has led RMC since 2019 and worked with hundreds of ranchers across the U.S., Canada, and Australia.  He helped them position their business for economic profit and ecologic health. After working with University of Wyoming Extension for 18 years, Dallas started teaching the Ranching for Profit School in 2012. Dallas holds a BS and MS from Colorado State University and has spent time working in cow-calf, feedlot, yearling, haying and grazing operations. Dallas and his wife Dixie own and manage a grazing operation near Wheatland, WY.

Registration fee for the Stanley workshop is $30 per person which again covers lunch both days. Those interested in attending are asked to pre-register for the workshop by February 1, 2023. To pre-register, you can contact the Mountrail County SCD at 701-628-2151 Extension 3, the Mountrail County Ag Agency at 701-628-2835 or the Burke County SCD at 701-377-2831 Extension 3.

Helping to sponsor the workshops in addition to the organizations listed include the Soil Conservation Districts in Divide and Burke counties, Agassiz Seed, and the ND Grazing Lands Coalition. The Ranching for Profit program is designed to help you to find the breakthroughs that will improve the health and productivity of your ranch, the profitability of your business and the quality of your life. These workshops will provide bite size sections of the full school. To learn more about the Ranching for Profit program and what others have to say after participating in the program, visit their website at

Hybrid rye – a grain for backgrounding beef calves


Oct 24, 2022

You can mark 2022 as a year that Mother Nature let us swiftly harvest crops in the fall and not out of a snow bank in December. With the flush of harvest being done, many cattle producers are deciding whether to wean calves and sell off the cow, condition them for a month or so, or to put them on feed and sell feeders towards the end of the year. If you choose to put calves on feed, hybrid rye has the potential to be a concentrate source for the fall.

Historically, feeding rye has been limited due to the potential of ergot alkaloid ingestion. Ergotism can negatively affect ruminants, horses, swine, and humans. Alkaloids from the ergot sclerotia cause vasoconstriction which can lead to reduced blood flow to extremities, sloughing of hooves, tails and ears, frostbite, and abortion. Recently, hybrid rye germplasms have shown a decrease in incidence of ergot with increases to grain yield.

During the fall of 2021, we fed 200 head of beef steers for 56 days at the Carrington Research Extension Center. During the trial, we evaluated the inclusion of ground hybrid rye into the backgrounding ration in a comparison to rolled corn. During the trial, calves were fed a total mixed ration of 50% corn silage, 20% MDGS, 15% straw, 12% concentrate (corn, rye, or corn & rye), and 3% supplement and limestone. Our concentrate treatments were control (4 lbs corn : 0 lbs rye), RYE1 (2.5 lbs corn : 1.5 lbs rye), RYE2 (1.5 lbs corn : 2.5 lbs rye), and RYE3 (0lbs corn : 4 lbs rye).

We found that the use of rye did not influence steer weights throughout the study. During backgrounding, steers on the control, RYE1, RYE2, and RYE3 diets averaged 173 lbs, 175 lbs, 168 lbs, and 176 lbs, respectively. The RYE3 calves had the lowest average daily gain during the first month of the backgrounding period while having the largest intake, but they evened out by the end of the study.

We then continued the study into finishing and are currently analyzing that data. With similar results, we are set to begin a second study, feeding hybrid rye this fall. This year’s project will involve rolled and ground hybrid rye as the sole concentrate source in backgrounding rations. We are evaluating the processing levels of the rye and their comparison to rolled corn.

With North Dakota being one of the national leaders in rye production, the grain could be a viable option to feed calves during the fall especially during years when Mother Nature doesn’t agree with our harvesting plans.

Colin Tobin, Ph. D.
Animal Scientist

Bale Grazing – The Next Year

Article by: Karl Hoppe, Ph. D. NDSU Extension Livestock Specialist

Aug 22, 2022

Bale grazing is an alternative method for feeding the cow herd in the winter, when snow is too deep for cows to graze grass, cover crops, or crop residue, or additional or replacement feed is required.

Traditionally, a tractor/loader, feed wagon, and bale shredder are used to process and delivery feed to cattle herds during the winter. With equipment costs and fuel costs increasing, some producers are seeking alternative feeding methods.

One option is to let cattle walk to the feed instead of using a tractor to haul feed to cattle.  

Round bales of hay need to be strategically placed in a field in the fall, in rows 20 to 50 feet apart. During the winter cattle are given access to three to four days or even a week’s worth of feed at one time. The bales to be fed are separated from the rest of the bales by a movable electric fence.

Rather than placing the electric fence posts in frozen ground, electric fence posts are pushed into the sides of the adjoining row of bales. Two fence wire runs are sufficient, and the wire is “leap-frogged” to the next set of bales as needed.

A tractor is not necessary unless snow drifts are limiting the herd access between their shelter and bales.

The summer I visited a ranch that received a USDA-SARE Farmer and Rancher Grant to explore bale grazing. They looked at the effects that bale grazing has on soil health and fertility, and found an improvement in soil fertility where the bales were placed. Nitrate nitrogen levels in the soil were 74 pounds per acre where the bales were fed, compared to 4 pounds where bales were not fed.  

In a subsequent SARE Farmer and Rancher Grant, the ranchers successfully used multiple species (cattle and sheep) for winter bale grazing. Soil health was improved where the bales were fed and in a 20-foot radius around the bale site. The difference in soil health remains is visible for several years.

For more information about these bale grazing projects visit and

For more information about SARE Farmer and Rancher Grants and other SARE grants go to: or contact Karl Hoppe, ND SARE Coordinator at the NDSU Carrington Research Extension Center 701-652-2951.

Karl Hoppe, Ph. D.
NDSU Extension Livestock Specialist

August 2nd Soil Health/ Crop Tour

More and more farmers and ranchers are becoming interested in practices that can improve the health of their soil as a means of improving productivity, profitability and/or resiliency to weather extremes.

If you would like to learn more about what some producers in the area have been doing to improve their soil health, make plans to join the Soil Conservation Districts, NDSU Extension Service, Natural Resources Conservation Service and Ag Improvement Associations in Williams and Divide counties for a soil health tour on Tuesday, August 2.

The tour will begin at 1:30 pm at the Justin & Sara Jacobs farm with the starting point being a field 3 miles north of the junction of Highway 2 and 125th Avenue NW. To provide a reference, 125th Avenue NW is 2 miles west of the junction of Highways 2 and 42.

The Jacobs’ started farming on a small scale in 2016 and have been slowly expanding their acreage. One of the primary goals for their farming operation is to make the land they are using better than when they started. They are using practices that improve soil health such as intercropping, no-till and cover crops as they work towards achieving their goal.

Justin will talk about practices that the Jacobs have implemented or plan to implement on their farm. The stop will feature a flax-pea intercrop they have seeded on one of their fields in 2022 as one of the small pieces to the larger puzzle on their path to regenerative agriculture.

The next stop on the tour will highlight a cover crop project with livestock integration as part of Phil & Harlan Johnson’s farming operation. This stop is located 4 miles west of Highway 42 on 87th Street NW with the turn onto 87th Street NW being about 7 miles north of the junction of Highways 42 and 50.

The Johnson’s have been actively pursuing practices to build their soil health for several years and this project is the next step in incorporating the soil health principles through the use of cover crops for livestock grazing.

They were able to obtain cost-share assistance to put perimeter fencing around a couple quarters of land that encompassed not only cropland but also a small acreage of rangeland which hasn’t been used in many years. Part of the cropland will be seeded to cover crops every year to be grazed along with the rangeland through an agreement with a local rancher.

James Roger, NDSU Extension Forage Crops Production Specialist out of the North Central Research Extension Center, will also be on hand to talk about using cover crops as a forage crop as part of the stop.

From there the tour will work its way into Crosby with a couple other potential stops along the way to look at a pea-canola intercrop and a winter rye-hairy vetch intercrop.

The last stop on the tour will be the Divide County Soil Conservation District’s building located on the southeast edge of Crosby, north of New Century Ag’s truck stop along the highway.

Justin Jacobs, who is also a research specialist with the NDSU Williston Research Extension Center, has a demonstration of 48 different intercrop mixes along with the 7 base crops planted as monocultures seeded on the SCD property and will talk about some of the interactions he is seeing in the study.

Following the conclusion of the tour, all tour participants are invited to stay for a supper that will be served at Divide County SCD building.

Those planning to attend are asked to pre-register for the tour by July 29 so we have a fairly accurate count for the supper. To pre-register you can contact Kelly Leo, NDSU Extension agent in Williams County at 701-577-4595 or email;  Travis Binde, NDSU Extension agent in Divide County at 701-965-6501 or email; Keith Brown at the Williams County SCD at 701-648-9841 or email; or the Divide County SCD at 965-6601 Ext. 3. 

Dakota Gardener: Your lawn mower scares trees

The mower is one of the leading killers of trees in yards, parks and orchards.

By Tom Kalb, Horticulturist

NDSU Extension

Shark Week in America is coming. We can watch horror stories of people getting attacked by sharks all week on television.

Imagine yourself alone in a swimming pool. A trap door in the pool opens and a shark is released. The shark comes toward you. You can hear the water ripple as it swims. It’s rushing toward you, and you are helpless.

This is the way a tree feels when a lawn mower comes near. Absolutely helpless!

Every time you start your mower, every tree in your yard shudders in fear. Your mower—a machine designed to slice through plants with a sharpened steel blade—may soon be brushing against the tree’s bark.

The mower is one of the leading killers of trees in yards, parks and orchards.

Mowers attack bark, the armor of a tree. The bark protects the phloem, a precious layer just beneath the bark where nutrients are carried from the leaves to the roots.

If the bark is damaged, the phloem may be damaged. This reduces the amount of nutrients going to the roots. The weakened roots then struggle to provide the water and minerals from the soil to the rest of the tree.  

Trees generally heal when damage is limited to 25% or less of the bark around the tree. As damage levels increase, the tree suffers higher levels of stress. If the bark is stripped around the entire tree, it will die.

If you love your trees, protect them from your lawn mower.

Place a ring of mulch around each tree and follow the “3-3-3 rule.” Place a ring of mulch that is at least 3 feet in diameter around the tree—even more is better. The mulch should be 3 inches deep but keep mulch 3 inches away from the trunk. Heaping mulch against the trunk can create stem rot and provide nesting habitat for bark-biting voles.

Shredded bark and wood chips are best. These wood mulches conserve moisture, smother weeds and enrich the soil. Wood mulches insulate tree roots, keeping them cooler in summer and warmer in winter. Trees love it.

Rock mulch is much less desirable. It traps heat, creating heat stress in summer. In spring, excessive heat may cause trees to open their buds too early, making them vulnerable to frost injury. Rock mulch compacts the soil, scrapes tree bark and provides no nutrients.

Your tree wants some wood mulch. What are you waiting for? The next shark attack may be coming soon!

For more information about gardening, contact your local NDSU Extension agent. Find the Extension office for your county at

NDSU Agriculture Communication – July 5, 2022

Source: Tom Kalb, 701-328-9722,

Editor: Kelli Anderson, 701-231-6136,



Although producers are tried their hardest to get as much planted as possible this spring, there are fields and especially areas of many fields that were simply too wet to get seeded this spring that will fall under the classification of prevented planting acres. The question is what to do with these acres.

The best option would be to plant a cover crop or annual forage crop on these acres later this summer if they dry out enough to seed. Having desirable plants growing in these areas will help dry the soil down as the plants use the moisture and transpire moisture through their leaves.

Drying soil down with plants is better than relying on evaporation to dry the soil out. One of the big advantages to using plants to dry the soil down is if there are any salts in the soil profile, they will stay where they are as opposed to being brought to the surface where salts will be deposited and concentrated as the moisture evaporates. As we saw during the wet years starting in 2011, the concentration of salts left on the surface as moisture evaporates can lead to expansion of saline areas or the development of new saline seeps.

In addition, having plants growing and living roots in the soil is beneficial to soil health.  Living roots support the soil microbes and between them, they help improve soil structure.

Cover crops also provide the opportunity to add more diversity to the cropping system, which is another one of the soil health principles, however, having a living root in the ground is probably more important even if it is just a single species or simple mix to use excessive moisture and provide soil cover.

In case you haven’t seen it, the following is a good article on Cover Crop Options for 2022 prevented plant acres which just came out in the latest issue of the NDSU Crop & Pest Report:

COVER CROP OPTIONS FOR 2022 PREVENTED PLANT ACRES  – Despite high crop prices, some acres in North Dakota may still be prevent planted during the 2022 growing season. It is essential to establish covers in 2022, at least to use excess soil moisture, otherwise, there will be a high chance of 2022 prevent plant acres going into prevent plant again in 2023. In addition, cover crops can be used for grazing, haying, baleage, preventing erosion, adding plant and microbial diversity, and keeping soils healthy and productive. Like any other decision, selection of cover crops, whether a single species or a species mix, should meet the objectives of the landowners or producers. Premixes may serve some purposes, but they might not meet all. Custom mixes are better suited for farm specific or, even better, field specific objectives.

Here are some potential questions one should ask to finalize a cover crop mix:

1)      Is the field affected by excess levels of water-soluble salts and/or sodicity?

2)      What will be the next crop on the field where cover crop is going to be planted in 2022, to consider and avoid volunteer issues?

3)      What could be the herbicide and weed considerations?

4)      Are there any disease considerations?

5)      Is grazing an option?

6)      Is haying or baleage an option?

7)      Do the objectives include a species that over-winters and greens-up in 2023?

8)      Do we just want a cover to use excess moisture this year or would we like to increase organic matter, stimulate biology, and improve fertility?

9)      Do the objectives include attracting pollinators?

10)   What is the maximum cost per acre we are willing to pay for seed and planting?

11)   What is the plan for managing crop residue or plant biomass in case of no grazing, haying, and baleage?

And there could be other considerations as well.

Given below are some of the most common scenarios and cover crop choices without any specific considerations:

A Single species to Use Excess Soil Water and Provide Soil Cover – If planted immediately after the “final planting date”, sorghum, sorghum Sudangrass or a millet would be good options for producing maximum biomass, as these are warm-season species. Stand-alone seeding rates could be 25 to 30 pounds per acre. Another option could be stand-alone oats and barley or a mix of them for providing an effective cover. Seeding rate for stand-alone barley or oats could be 40 to 60 pounds per acre, whereas, in case of a mix, it could be 50% barley with 50% oats (20 to 30 pounds of barley and oats).

A Three-species Mix to Achieve Multiple Objectives – A simple mix could be comprised of a warm-season, cool-season, and a legume. Examples could include sorghum, barley, and field peas. Seeding rates could be 2 pounds or less of sorghum, 15 to 20 pounds of barley and 20 pounds of field peas. If grazing is an option, forage sorghum can be planted with forage barley and forage peas. Seeding rates will remain the same. Another example could be sorghum, radish, and field peas. Seeding rates could be 2 pounds or less of sorghum, 3 pounds per acre of radish and 20 pounds of field peas.

Another Three-species Mix That Can Achieve Multiple Objectives – A mix of barley or oats combined with radish or turnips and chickling vetch can also help improve soil health, use excess moisture, and prevent erosion. Seeding rates could be 20 pounds of barley or oats, 1.65 pounds of radish or 1 pound of turnips and about 6 pounds of chickling vetch. Please note that areas affected by Clubroot should avoid brassicas.

A Three-species Mix for Moderately Saline and Sodic Areas – A mix of barley, oats, and beets can work well on areas that have soil saturated paste electrical conductivity or EC levels of 6.00 (dS/m) or less and a sodium adsorption ratio or SAR of 7.00 or less. Please note that beets do not compete well with other species, so beet percentage in the mix should be 40 to 50%. That will mean 1.4 to 1.5 pounds of beets combined with 15 to 18 pounds of barley and oats.

NDSU Extension has a publication of how to start growing cover crops in North Dakota (North Dakota Cover Crop Recipe – Starting with Cover Crops in North Dakota – MCCC ( Information about the basics, functions, and goals of cover crops can be found in this publication.

NDSU Soil Health website has a great tool called Searchie for quickly getting information on cover crops for prevent plant. Just follow the steps below:

1)      Click on this link:

2)      Type in “prevented plant”

3)      The search tool will show you where we talk about this topic in videos and podcast episodes. When you click on the link, it will take you directly to the relevant information mentioned in the video or the podcast

Also, NDSU Extension has a 2022 Prevented Planting Analysis Tool, which can be found on this link:

For advice about specific cover crop mixes, please contact your local Agriculture and Natural Resources Extension County agents.

This article was authored by Leandro Bortolon, Extension Cropping Systems Specialist; Abbey Wick, Extension Soil Health Specialist and Naeem Kalwar, Extension Soil Health Specialist.

Consider Options for Prevented Planting

There is an old saying that if you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes. While it took more than five minutes, this spring has certainly been an example of how quickly conditions can change.

Up until about mid-April the outlook for this year’s growing season was pretty dismal as indications were that the dry conditions were likely to continue and the extreme drought encompassing the area was apt to persist. Then, a couple of major April snow storms started changing the outlook followed by a couple major rainfall events during May. As a result, what started out looking like a dry spring has now become a challenge due to the excess moisture and cooler temperatures which has slowed spring planting progress.

The last date a crop can be planted and still receive full crop insurance coverage has already passed for the majority of crops. The exception is soybean, sunflower and flax which have a final planting date of June 10 in this area.  After the final planting date, there are three basic options; continue planting the initial crop and receive reduced insurance coverage (about 1% reduction per day out to about 25 days), claim prevented planting without planting an alternative crop (crop to be harvested) or claim prevented planting and seed an alternative or second crop with insurance coverage. Make sure to check with your crop insurance agent to discuss options.

With stronger crop prices and a good moisture profile, most producers will likely continue seeding past the final planting date but with the planting window ticking down, it is becoming apparent that there will be acres that are simply too wet to seed this spring.

The question then becomes what to do with prevented planting acres.

If these acres ever dry out enough to seed, the best option would be to plant a cover crop or annual forage crop on these acres. Having desirable plants growing in these areas will help dry the soil down by transpiring moisture through the plants. That’s preferable to relying on evaporation to dry the soil out. One of the big advantages to transpiring the moisture through plants is if there are any salts in the soil profile, they will stay where they are at in the profile as opposed to being brought to the surface through evaporation. As we saw during the wet years starting in 2011, the concentration of salts left on the surface as moisture evaporates can lead to expansion of saline areas or the development of new saline seeps.

In addition, having plants growing and living roots in the soil is beneficial to soil health.  Roots provide structure for the soil to hang on to when destructive forces of wind and water occur. Plus, living roots build soil. The soil microbiology plays a big role in this process by helping the plants acquire nutrients and water from the soil in exchange for carbon from the plant. Without living roots in the soil, the microbiology slows in existence. The increase in soil microbiology in the soil because of the living roots is directly responsible for healthy soil structure creation.

Better soil structure promotes water and air exchange into and out of the soil through the formation of soil aggregates and increased pore space in the soil. Better structure also gives the soil greater ability to support more weight from tractors or animals.

If you have any doubts, ask yourself this question. After a 2-inch rain, would you rather cross a grass pasture or a stubble field? The grass will typically support traffic better due to better soil structure.

When you think of soil health, think of the biological integrity of your soil. It’s important not only to have enough soil microbes, but also a diverse population. This is how soil biology supports plant growth. Living roots provide soil microbes with something they like to eat to keep their populations up. Once the microbes are well-fed they can go to work for you to improve the health of the soil.

One important change that has occurred with prevented planting acres since they were last common during the wet years starting in 2011 is that cover crops planted on prevented plant acres can now be grazed, hayed or cut anytime without a reduction in the prevented plant payment. As such, prevented planting may provide an opportunity for farmers to plant cover crops for livestock forage.

Following is a good article on planting cover crops for livestock forage that was just recently released by the NDSU Extension Service. A quick side note  – if you do think you may have some prevented planting acreage you would like to seed to cover crops or annual forages, you may want to start sourcing seed as it sounds like some annual forages and cover crops species are getting hard to find.

Consider Planting Cover Crops for Livestock Forage – Challenging weather conditions due to a combination of excess moisture and cool temperatures have inhibited spring planting, resulting in the potential for above normal acres of prevented planting.

In addition, many livestock producers in the region are short on forage due to severe drought in 2020 and 2021 and delayed pasture readiness this spring.

“The increase in preventive-plant acres provides an opportunity for the production of supplementary forage for livestock to offset the shortage of forage supplies,” says Miranda Meehan, North Dakota State University Extension livestock environmental stewardship specialist.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture Risk Management Agency provides full prevented planting payment on the first insured crop if a second crop is not planted. However, full payment can still be received if the second crop planted is a cover crop, and it is not harvested for grain or seed. The cover crop can be grazed, hayed or cut anytime without a reduction of payment. Contact your local Farm Service Agency (FSA) or Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) to verify whether the cover crop seeded is an approved mix.

“Cover crops for grazing can provide significant cost savings to producers by minimizing the need for baled forages or provide an alternative grazable forage to allow recovery to overgrazed pastures,” says Kevin Sedivec, NDSU Extension rangeland management specialist.

The seed mixture options for full and late-season grazing could include cool-season cereals (oats, barley, triticale), warm-season grasses (sorghum-sudan, sudangrass, pearl millet), brassicas (turnips, radishes, kale), broadleaf plants (sunflowers, buckwheat) and legumes (forage peas, clovers, vetch).

For guidance selecting the right option to fit your needs, refer to NDSU Extension publication “Annual Cover Crop Options for Grazing and Haying in the Northern Plains” by searching for it online or contacting your local NDSU Extension office.

“Ranchers should introduce livestock to these mixes slowly and allow them to adjust to the cover crop mixture that may be nutrient-rich in comparison with mid- and late-summer range,” says Meehan.

If using brassicas in a mix for grazing, the general recommendation is to limit livestock to less than 50% of the seed mixture to avoid digestive disorders in cattle. Provide livestock with dry hay or other forage prior to turnout and gradually introduce them to cover crops during a period of several days if possible.

Cover crops for late-season grazing should be seeded no later than Aug. 15 to be cost-effective in the northern Plains; however, planting earlier will increase overall tonnage and enhance deeper root growth to increase organic carbon and feed for the soil microbial population. Warm-season crops will have limited value if seeded after Aug. 1 due to the short growing season that remains.

If preventative plant acres are identified early, planting a full-season cover crop will provide an excellent option for summer and late-season grazing. Full-season cover crops can be seeded as early as mid-June.

If Haying is the Goal – Recommended species for haying include cool-season cereals (oats, barley, triticale), warm-season grasses (sorghum-sudan, foxtail millet, sudangrass) and legumes (forage peas, clovers and vetch). The cereal grains and warm-season grasses can be seeded in monocultures or mixtures with or without the legume if approved by FSA. However, mixtures are preferred to increase diversity to benefit the soil microbial population, pollinators and some wildlife species.

If Silage/Haylage is the Goal – This is a great option when harvesting before a freeze to achieve silage of the desired moisture conditions. Moisture needs to be 65% to 70% for a bunker and 60% to 68% for silo bags. A hard freeze will reduce the moisture content dramatically within 24 to 48 hours. Haylage can be put up at a lower moisture level (40% to 60%).

“While excess moisture has created planting challenges, it is important that adequate topsoil moisture is available to support the growth of cover crops,” Meehan says. “In addition to available soil moisture, recommended planting dates and seed availability will limit producers’ options.”

Farmers intending on planting cover crops on prevented-planting acres to suppress weeds and enhance soil health have an opportunity to market this forage to livestock producers. The NDSU Feedlist ( can connect crop producers with livestock producers in search of additional forage.

“Planting a cover crop can enhance your soil health while creating feed for full and late-season grazing or hay and silage production,” Sedivec says.

Living Roots as Often as Possible

There are five basic principles to building soil health: soil armor or keeping the soil covered, minimizing soil disturbance, plant diversity, keeping a living root in the soil for as much of the growing season as possible, and livestock integration, when possible.

As living roots were mentioned in the previous article, the following is a primer on the importance of living roots developed by Jay Fuhrer, retired soil health specialist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

There are many sources of food in the soil that feed the soil food web, but there is no better food than the sugars exuded by living roots. Our perennial grasslands consist of cool season grasses, warm season grasses, and flowering forbs. Consequently, adaptable plants are able to grow during the cool spring and fall weather, as well as the summer heat, allowing for a continual live plant feeding carbon exudates to the soil food web during the entire growing season. Our cropland systems typically grow cool or warm season annual cash crops, which have a dormant period before planting and/or after harvest.

Soil organisms feed on sugar from living plant roots first. Next, they feed on dead plant roots, followed by above ground crop residues, such as straw, chaff, husks, stalks, flowers, and leaves. Lastly, they feed on the humic organic matter in the soil. Healthy soil is dependent upon how well the soil food web is fed. Providing plenty of easily accessible food to soil microbes helps them cycle nutrients that plants need to grow.

When production agriculture began, we converted our grasslands from 50-100 perennial species per acre into a single annual crop. These diverse species of perennial plants had a lot of root exudates, which provided year-round food to the soil food web. With an annual monoculture cropping system came a long fallow period in the spring before planting, followed by another long period of fallow after harvest in the fall.

I used to think cover crops were important, but now I think they are essential because cover crops are able to fill in the dormant fallow period and provide the missing live root exudate, which is the primary food source for the soil food web. A properly fed soil food web will produce biotic glue compounds like glomalin that are key to building stable soil aggregates. A well-aggregated soil has more pore space and thus can both infiltrate and store significantly higher amounts of water.

Cover crops are game changers as they produce an extra influx of carbon which is also an influx of food for the soil biology. The goal is more root mass with soil aggregates and ultimately more carbon. Cover crops may be incorporated into a cropping system as annuals, biennials, or perennials. Starting on a small acre scale will allow farmers and ranchers to find the best fit for their operation. 

Healthy Soil, Healthy Food, Healthy People

Studies have found that over the last 70 years, the level of nutrients in many foods has fallen between 10 and 100 percent. Based on that, there are some estimates that an individual today would need to consume twice as much meat, three times as much fruit, and four to five times as many vegetables to obtain the same amount of minerals and trace elements available in those same foods in 1940. There are many who believe this overall decline in nutrient density is likely having an impact on human health and well-being.

Restoring the nutrient density of food is not as simple as just adding these minerals and trace elements to the soil.  Rarely are minerals and trace elements completely absent from the soil. Rather, most deficiencies are due to soil conditions not being conducive for nutrient uptake. The minerals are present in the soil but are not plant-available.

It is estimated that around 85 to 90 percent of plant nutrient acquisition is microbially-mediated. These microbes are plant-dependent, surviving on carbon compounds exuded by the plant roots in exchange for making soil nutrients available to the plants. As such, soil health practices which increase the microbial biomass and activity in the soil should result in better nutrient acquisition by the plant and ultimately, higher nutrient density in food derived from the plants.

There is recent research which is beginning to show that soil health is connected to human health and that ties soil health practices to improved human health and nutrition.

For example, new research by an interdisciplinary team at Penn State, recently demonstrated that soil disturbance can directly impact a key dietary factor associated with long-term human health. This study found that soil tillage may significantly reduce the availability of ergothioneine (ERGO) in crops. ERGO is an amino acid produced by certain types of soil-borne fungi and bacteria that is known as a “longevity vitamin” due to its potent antioxidant properties.

Research suggests that a lack of ergothioneine in the diet may result in increased incidences of chronic diseases of aging, such as Parkinson’s Disease and Alzheimer’s, and reduced life expectancy.

The researchers found that ERGO concentrations declined as tillage intensity increased, due to tillage disrupting the fungi populations in the soil and compromising the availability of this important amino acid.

The study was comprised of a randomized complete block design with three tillage treatments — moldboard plowing/disking/harrowing (MB), which represents the most intense tillage; chisel plowing/disking/harrowing (CD), which represents a medium amount of tillage; and no-till (NT) — each replicated four times. The crops grown in the study include maize, soybeans and oats.

Results of the study found that as tillage increased from NT to MB, ERGO content declined by 32% for maize, 33% for soybeans and 28% for oats. In addition to being associated with reduced ERGO concentrations, increased tillage also was associated with reduced crop yields.

The full news release on the study can be read at Soil tillage reduces availability of ‘longevity vitamin’ ergothioneine in crops | Penn State University ( .

Preliminary results from another study recently conducted by the University of Washington have found that farms that used regenerative agriculture practices such as no-till farming, cover crops and diverse crop rotations produced crops with higher levels of certain vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals than farms using conventional practices.

The researchers tested the influence of soil health and soil health scores on the nutrient density of crops by measuring eight pairs of farms using regenerative agriculture practices or conventional practices in the states of North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Iowa, Tennessee, Kansas, North Dakota and Montana. Each regenerative agriculture farm was paired with a nearby conventional farm that grew the same crop variety, such as peas, sorghum, corn or soybeans.

When compared to crops from conventional farms, crops from regenerative agriculture farms had 34% more vitamin K, 15% more vitamin E, 14% more vitamin B1 and 17% more vitamin B2. The regenerative agriculture crops also had 11% more calcium, 16% more phosphorus and 27% more copper.

The study also compared wheat crops. Regenerative wheat crops were planted in a crop rotation pattern that included cover crops between crops of spring barley and winter wheat. The regenerative wheat samples had 41% more boron, 29% more magnesium, 48% more calcium and 56% more zinc than conventional wheat samples.

The results from this study are considered preliminary due to the relatively small sample size but more studies are planned to better quantify how differences in soil health affect the quality of crops that come from that land.

The full results of this study published in the science journal PeerJ can be found at Soil health and nutrient density: preliminary comparison of regenerative and conventional farming [PeerJ] .

These research results suggest that applying soil health principles can be important, not only for the environment, but also for human health, as it appears that healthy soils produce healthier foods.