Straight talk, from real farmers, in their own words.
Today, consumers have many questions about agriculture and there seems to be no shortage of so-called experts willing to talk to them about the subject. Often, in our crowded world of traditional and social media, it is only the most outrageous headlines that are noticed, but not necessarily the most accurate. So, we asked a group of farmers if they would be willing to speak to you about agriculture. Several producers took us up on our offer. Each month we will feature one of their stories in an on-going series called “Why We Care”. They will talk about everything from food safety to renewable energy. It’s straight talk, from real farmers and ranchers, in their own words. We encourage you to read and comment on these stories and to share them with others.
Building biological life in the soil pays premiums all around
Healthy soils provide a host of environmental and economic benefits. These include reduced erosion; increased water infiltration and water holding capacity; improved water quality; reduced input costs, higher yields, and the peace of mind we get from knowing that we’re doing the best job possible on our farm.
Those benefits have all become obvious to us as we’ve focused on improving soil health on the 2,000 acres we farm near Waverly, Kan. Our inspiration came from soil health advocates like Gabe Brown and Dave Brandt, and over the past five years we’ve been using all of the soil quality tools they recommend — practicing no-till; growing diverse crop rotations and cover crops; and integrating livestock onto cropland. The benefits are already rolling in, and we know they’ll only increase as we work at this for a longer period of time.
My wife Nancy and I are convinced that healthy soils are the key to fostering a more productive, profitable, and sustainable farming operation. I got a late start — I didn’t farm full time until I was 37 years old — so we’re being very aggressive about it, and there’s no doubt that soil health is helping us achieve our dreams of success.
The soil organic matter levels that show up on our soil tests are a measure of our progress. Organic matter serves as a reservoir of nutrients and water, aids in reducing compaction and surface crusting, and increases water infiltration rates.
It’s early, but we’ve already seen an increase of one-half point in these values on our soil. Experts tell us that each percent of organic matter in the soil releases 20 to 30 pounds of nitrogen, 4 to 6 pounds of P2O5, and 2 to 3 pounds of sulfur per year. It also greatly increases the capacity of the soil to hold water by as many as 27,000 gallons per acre.
Some of these benefits are beginning to impact our crop yields, production costs, and consequently our profitability. We’re reducing fertilizer rates slightly, and hope to go much further in the future. Besides what’s being mineralized from increased organic matter, our cover crops are recycling nutrients from below the root zone and bringing them back to where our crops can use them.
Higher Yields and Fewer Weeds
The additional water our soils are absorbing and storing have resulted in soybean yields at or above 50 bushels per acre the last three years — the highest we had ever reached. In contrast, our county average soybean yield is 28 bushels.
The biggest impact we’re seeing is cover crops reducing weed pressure. We grow a rye prior to planting soybeans, and this has allowed us to nearly eliminate the use of post-emerge herbicides. In contrast, some farmers have had to make two to three post-emerge applications to control stubborn weeds at a cost of $50 or more per acre. We also use no seed treatment, in order to help protect pollinators.
Reduced weed pressure also allows us to grow non-GMO corn and soybeans which can pay significant premiums. And, soil quality and reduced herbicide use are resulting in higher protein content in our soybeans that also adds to their value.
Our crop rotation is corn/wheat/rye cover crop/soybeans/corn, though we sometimes insert milo [grain sorghum] or barley. We also grow several hundred acres of cover crops annually for grazing and use a mix of triticale, turnips, common vetch, sorghum sudan, sunflowers, and tillage radish.
The cattle and sheep we rotationally graze on these cover crops add to the biological diversity in the soil, and their manure is another way to recycle nutrients. And, just as healthy soils are improving the quality of the soybeans we raise, we also think they’re improving the quality of meat we produce.
It’s very satisfying to see how a healthy soil solves many cropping challenges without the use of expensive inputs. It takes a greater level of management to farm this way so you have to be a good student and invest the time it takes to get educated. You also have to remain flexible and learn from your mistakes. If you spend four or five seasons trying to prove that it won’t work then you’re even further behind.
There’s a lot to learn and you can’t master it in one sitting, but it’s worth the effort. I know our farm can’t survive using expensive inputs to maintain production on degraded soils. I don’t think agriculture can feed the world that way, either.