For the past 15 years, Tony Wagner has been on a journey to improve the soil health of his farmland, which runs the gamut from sandy to high clay. He’s located about 100 miles west of Fargo, so farther east than a lot of the North Dakota pulse growers, but he says they’ve worked well in his rotation. Tony shares how he got into pulses, why he’s stuck with them, how they fit into building soil health, and a really interesting project of planting peas with flax as a companion crop to try to keep them off the ground. Tony also talks about attempting two crops of peas in the same field. While the second crop succumbed to unexpected weather conditions, he was impressed with the benefit to the soil despite not having a harvestable second pea crop.
“The next year we put spring wheat on that ground and we pulled off on that type of soil, which is a very light soil, probably the best wheat that we've ever pulled off. And we did a soil test on it and the nitrogen was pretty high on that soil. So we decided to slowly start working into cover crops.” - Tony Wagner
Tony has continued to experiment with cover crops including with different varieties to see what provides the most benefit to his operation. Along with nitrogen benefits, he has observed much less wind and water erosion, improvement in areas of high salinity and better water infiltration. Tony admits that the benefits aren’t always easy to pencil and can take years to accumulate the advantages they offer. With decreased water requirements, decreased inputs and improved soil health, he is hooked and will continue his journey with cover crops and pulse crops.
“From where I started off at, I wish I would have taken a picture. It literally didn't feel like we were getting anywhere at all. That was the biggest eye-opener. And now, I've got that drive to just keep doing what we're doing because visually it's working.” - Tony Wagner
One of the more recent practices Tony has been using was incorporating flax as a companion crop in with his field peas. He chose flax since the pre-emergence chemicals used are the same as field peas and would allow him to not spray anything after emergence. Field peas were prioritized at seeding with depths and rates optimized for their production. The flax companion crop did work and helped the peas stand but unfortunately the flax grew too well and would not die at time of harvest while the peas did. Tony says he would like to attempt this trial again but will look at different varieties going forward to see if the maturity timing can be better coordinated.