Smart, Innovative Farmers in the Dakotas

No-till planting of corn into a cover crop of barley. Photo credit: USDA NRCS.

Even as farm commodity prices have been strong, the input costs for industrial farming methods have been increasing. Given a fall in commodity prices, these inputs might not be recovered and these days we’re talking real money to plant a crop. Then, there is that pesky problem of Roundup resistant weeds so that additional labor or chemical expense is required anyway, on top of the high input costs already paid up front.

Where is this headed? I don’t know, but it just might be the way these smart farmers in the Dakotas are approaching farming.

Last month, Brian Devore wrote about some innovative Burleigh County, North Dakota farmers, for the Twin Cities Daily Planet. It was one of the best write-ups featuring a local farming trend that I’ve read in quite a while and I encourage you to read it, too. Part 1 is here, and Part 2 is here, but in the paragraphs below I will summarize the lengthy writing.

There are some real smart farmers in the Dakotas.
Some Dakota farmers are combining holistic techniques in a way that they believe has the potential to revolutionize the way agriculture should be done in the future. By combining multi-species cover crops, mob grazing, and frequent rotations with conservation tillage, they are investing in their soil and the future, and are being rewarded with huge productivity, too.

It all began when a North Dakota farming region that receives only 16 inches of rainfall per year realized that the practices of overgrazing, extensive tillage, and a lack of crop diversity had caused compacted soil which didn’t soak up water — because it contained only a tiny amount of organic matter.

Whereas prairies can contain 10 to 15 percent organic matter, poor, intensively farmed soils contain only 1 percent or less. If a modern farmer can increase the organic matter in soil from just 1 to 3 percent, it will soak up twice as much water. Organic matter, though a low percentage of soil’s composition, controls most of the soil’s functions.

“Those bad weather years were the best thing that ever happened.”
One of the farmers who developed the system featured in this article did so out of economic necessity. He ran out of funds with which to purchase fertilizer after a few bad weather years resulted in crop wipe-outs. Now, he says that those bad years were the best thing that ever happened to him. Because they led him to plant nitrogen fixing legumes instead of buying nitrogen fertilizer. He then saw great improvement in his soil and water absorption.

Other farmers took note, and decided to take his actions a few steps further. They, over time, came up with a plan to combine a diversity of cover crops, livestock grazing, and no-till agriculture that would prove to drastically improve soil quality, and consequently, productivity through better water retention. North Dakotan NCRS representative, Jay Fuhrer, was instrumental in working with the farmers to develop the systems.

Biodiversity to the rescue.
As more bad weather luck would have it, another drought hit during a field experiment of cover crop combinations. The year 2006 was one of the driest years on record in Burleigh County, North Dakota, which tested the cover crop plots beyond conditions any of the farmers believed were survivable that year. They were amazed to find out that the test plot which mixed eight of the cover crop species together was the only one that survived, and survive it did, as the plants in that plot didn’t even look stressed. Even the combinations of three cover crops together had failed that year.

The experiment demonstrated how the diversity of planting the species together helped them all survive. They knew that it was what was going on below the ground that was creating the fertile environment, not unlike a real prairie ecosystem.

Now these same farmers are using as many as 20 species together as cover crops.

Their typical system today looks something like this
A planting season consists of using four crop types: warm season broadleafs such as alfalfa, buckwheat, chick pea, cowpea and sunflower; warm season grasses such as corn, millet, sorghum and Sudan; cool season grasses such as barley, oats and triticale; and cool season broadleafs such as canola, flax, vetch and sweet clover.

Winter wheat is harvested in June or July when the warm season crops are planted. They are grazed from late summer into fall and early winter. This enriches the soil through manure, urine, and trampling of the soil in preparation for a crop such as corn the next spring.

“Ron Hein Crop Response 2007″
Photo credit: pdf document “Building Soil Health”. NRCS.

They believe that mob grazing might be even better than rotational paddock grazing for the soil.

They emphasize that it is the combination of all of the methods they use which achieve their high production and great soil health.

The chemistry and biology of the soil is extremely complicated and often mysterious. And, not to be ignored, is the fact that this system is fixing large amounts of carbon into the soil. Globally, soil stockpiles 1,500 gigatonnes of carbon, more than the Earth’s atmosphere and all the plants on the planet.

Most importantly, the economics of this system work. Farmer Brown, featured in the article, says that the organic matter he’s built up in his soil is worth $3,775 per acre. His 2011 corn crop netted him $5.38 per bushel, after expenses. He grows corn, spring wheat, triticale and vetch on one-fourth of his land and the rest is pasture.

But, what about high-value cropland seeking yields?
These farmers believe it is a mind-set problem. Producers focus on buying more inputs to treat problems rather than treating the symptoms. They learned through personal experience that adversity drives change and they think everyone should reexamine their systems and the true potential of their soils.

Brown says that though there are farmers in many locations doing this, he just has the biggest mouth. Yet, since the longer he does this, the more questions he has, farmers with systems like this could all benefit by banding together to exchange information, as they question agriculture’s conventional wisdom.

They just think that the soil needs to be fed and eat, just like we do, and then good things will follow for the farmers. Much of this is counter-intuitive. One of the tough sells is that today’s modern industrial agricultural system is a system of immediate gratification. Chemical input in, big crop out. On the contrary, this Burleigh County Soil Health Team’s system requires the faith and knowledge that the practice is a valuable investment for a future that is sustainable, resilient, and profitable.

Not only that, the innovation of these farmers practicing like this is causing some young to want to farm in the region because of all of the positive energy being generated. The region’s soil microbiologist keeps pushing these farmers further to try to achieve yet higher organic matter in their soil — to try to approach that of the native prairies.

Finally, they realize that the general public’s awareness is also a key ingredient. Because, the public will benefit, too, in the way of a cleaner environment and a more resilient food system.

Being a follower of many ongoing and current discussions about global food security, one of the problems often mentioned is how do we teach the developing world ways to improve their farming output and methods. There is a consensus that government involvement is one important key. Might we have a similar problem in our very own nation? Our USDA is very large, and certainly the conservation divisions within it are doing a wonderful job, but more could be done to promote biodiversity and soil conservation farming practices that are capable of increasing yields while decreasing input costs and offering greater resilience to drought and climate change weather surprises.

After just returning from a wheat conference held here in Colorado, yesterday, the message was similar. We’ve got to get more crop per drop if we want to improve wheat yields, and the residue provided by no-till farming has proven to give higher yields to wheat farmers practicing no-till here in Eastern Colorado. But, might there be more lessons from Burleigh County North Dakota for Colorado and other wheat growing regions which all receive similar amounts of rainfall? And beyond these areas as well?

13 thoughts on “Smart, Innovative Farmers in the Dakotas

  1. Tina

    This story is exciting.

    But…. USDA is NOT your friend. Be very careful there. Look what they’re doing to the cheese people.

    That’s different, you say?

    It won’t be different if you cross Monsanto too.

  2. Jason

    Very nice story. I have heard about this from a few knowledgeable people when I describe what we are doing. Lots of similarities. Even the ratio of annual crops to pasture is similar to what we believe is right.

    1. K. McDonald Post author

      Thanks, I was hoping for your take on it, Jason. What bothers me is that even this system seems quite petroleum intensive. What percent of reduction is there in a system like this in FF inputs, do you think, Jason?

      1. Jason

        Great question. The first thing to look at is if they have gone from all fields in annual crops each year to 1/4. If they put a pasture in for 5 years that is 1/5th of the historic tractor work. Then they are mob stocking cattle on it and probably putting as much weight on as the cattle would have if fed the grains from those same acres. So perhaps in field work they are saving 75%.

        In terms of fertilizer use the story is much the same. About 35% of on-farm energy use is in fertilizers, primarily N inputs. With their legume cover crops and pasture rotation I’d expect the fertilizer inputs to be slashed dramatically. Probably 90% reduction on the annual crop fields and maybe the same on pasture fields.

        Then I suspect the crops require much less herbicides and pesticides too as they are in a rotation that breaks weed and pest cycles and they are on clean ground without the build-up of soil-borne diseases. The embedded energy in pesticides is another third of the energy use in conventional ag.

        Would not surprise me if they have cut fossil fuel inputs by 80%.

        These are just my ballpark estimates. Would be nice to have a university professor do a LCA on this system and compare to neighbors that haven’t adopted yet.

        1. Don

          Gabe Brown in Burleigh County is growing his commercial corn crop with NO commercial fertilizer and said at a meeting I was at a couple of weeks ago, will not use any herbicide this year. He is doing with notill, incredible Soil Health, livestock, and cover crop cocktail mixes. I have been to his farm and what he is doing is incredible. The amount of input to produce and market a bushel of corn in almost unbeliebable in how low it is.

          1. K. McDonald Post author

            Thanks for your valuable comment. Am so pleased to find this out. If you have any knowledge of Jason’s comment above about the FF input, please let me know. I question his optimistic estimate of an 80% reduction?

  3. MB

    I am a Canadian reader who is very concerned about climate change and am extremely pleased to see great success stories in modern agriculture like this.

    The vast prairies of Manitoba and Saskatchewan are just to the north of of the Dakotas. Southern Alberta receives only about 40 cm (17″) of annual precip on average, and much of the agricultural landscape is irrigated from rivers fed by Rocky Mountain glaciers, which have already lost 35% of their mass over the last half century. There will obviously be a need for change to No Till, legume cover crops and beneficial livestock pasture rotation methods in the next decade or two. You are absolutely right that a change in attitude to focus primarily on soil instead of crop yield is required.

    Agriculture isn’t the only area that will be impacted. Large cities like Calgary and Edmonton will have a water crisis on their hands by mid-century as the Bow and North Saskatchewan rivers drain down by about 50%. Obviously Denver and Salt Lake City will be in a similar predicament.

    There is a great need — and much promising potential — for planning for climate change adaptation in agriculture and urbanism on a North American scale.

    Thanks for a great Good News article!

  4. Steve Savage

    This is a nice example, but not something new or unique. No-till systems have been under development since 1960. Cover cropping is far older than that. The real reason that more land isn’t farmed this way is that most of it is rented on an annual cash basis. Long-term investment in soil quality makes perfect economic sense, but not if you might not be farming that field next year. Also, the USDA scientists have been super involved in research on these sorts of approaches as have the major ag companies (yes, including Monsanto). Whether it is crop varieties adapted to emergence in the colder, no-till soils, herbicides to enable no-till, or the specialized seed drills for planting crops and cover crops into debris, industry has been very involved.

    The grazing step does not add any fertilizer – it actually removes nutrients. It does help initiate the break down on the untilled crop residue but also causes some compaction.

    If we really want to see more farming like this we need to reform the land rental system and get the absentee owners (mostly past farming families who have long since moved to the city) to understand that their asset could become more valuable if farmed like this. Also, ag lenders need to take more than a one season view.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>