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?