The standard narrative when one quits the application of synthetic fertilizer is that you would be mining your soils. This may be true for soils that are degraded, probably tilled, and being managed in a undiversified rotation. But what about regenerative soils? Are we still mining them? The Jorgensen Land and Cattle operation went 100% no-till in 1991 and since then, they have diversified their rotations and cattle are not only being used for aftermath grazing, but they are also grazing the cover crops. In this episode, Bryan talks about how long they have cut application of dry P to the soil’s surface and what has happened to their soil test P levels as well as what they observe. The idea that plants can access pools of nutrient that cannot be detected by the soil test is not necessarily a new one, but to many with conventional agronomic training, this idea is a little scary, yet this case study is but one situation in South Dakota where farmers are thinking outside the box, helping their economics, and, oh by the way, improving their environmental performance. Good for the farmer, good for the land, that’s what we love at merit or Myth!
In our previous video of the Jorgensen Land and Cattle Economics Case Study, Nick Jorgensen discussed some of the economic savings they were able to realize in their long-term, no-till fields where typically Organic Matter measured over three percent. What the Jorgensen land and cattle operation was able to do in this analysis was save about $50 an acre on N and P2O5 fertilizer and exceed the 168 bushel yield goal by 8 bushels. All of this begins with no-till and other tools like diverse rotations, cover crops and in the case of the Jorgensens, the inclusion of grazing livestock into the system as they try as far as possible to imitate some of the processes on the Native Prairie.
Keep in mind we are not advocating that viewers go out and immediately cut back on fertilizer, but we do want to open the idea up that when we build our soils, we not only have the potential to save on tillage costs, fertilizer, chemical and other inputs. When we let soils function the way that natural systems do, we save on inputs and in the Jorgensen’s case, they were able to do this without decreasing production. Our next video in this series poses the question “how long can they keep this up?”, the answer would be “longer than you’d think!”
In this video Nick Jorgensen provides a simple calculation related to equipment costs and economics based on what Jorgensen land and cattle may have done 30 years ago in a wheat – fallow system compared to today. By not operating tillage equipment and running a sprayer the Jorgensens are saving between $25 and $45 in reduced equipment costs. Keep in mind that Nick wisely provides a range because even in the case of one operation things change (number of tillage passes, number of spray passes, unit costs for equipment etc.), but the principles don’t change. Your operation may also vary, but the bottom line is that just on equipment costs alone by going no till, your equipment input costs (capital, maintenance, fuel) will go down. While one may argue the amounts and the range, the direction of input costs is pretty certain – they go down.
Economics are a complex issue. At Merit or Myth, we have found that getting farmers to talk about money can be tricky, so we were particularly grateful to find that Bryan and Nick Jorgensen were willing to talk dollars and cents with us! This is the first in a 5 part series on the money side of soil health and, as all will understand, the particulars will apply to the Jorgensen Land and Cattle operation while the principles can be applied universally. A generation or two ago, the Jorgensen cropping system was conventional till wheat with summer fallow, clearly this has changed and they grow a diverse rotation that includes corn, soybeans, small grains and multiple species cover crops today. Jorgensen land and Cattle is also diversified and their wildlife/hunting component and livestock/grazing component are intimately connected to their cropping component (see the Jorgensen Land and Cattle Partnership logo at http://www.jorgensenfarms.com/ to see that their diverse land ethic is embedded in the logo!). When discussing economics, it is important to provide context and Bryan provides context to the discussion of the next four videos by allowing us to look into the way he and the folks at Jorgensen Land and cattle think. Bryan describes himself as a market maker and not a market taker, and in this video, Bryan alludes to an excellent teacher and indeed, collaborator in the operation, namely the Native Prairie.
Watch this video (just under 3 minutes) where Bryan sets the scene for some of the analyses his son Nick provides us in subsequent videos.
This past week, we were blessed with another opportunity to visit the Mount Rushmore State and pick the brains of several leading farmers in East River.
Unlike trips of the past, this go around we paid less attention to the isolated nuts and bolts of farming. These oft-discussed “nuts and bolts” include individual topics like infiltration, residue, soil temperatures, conventional till vs no-till, and the list goes on. Of course, these are all very relevant topics and we encourage everyone to soak in as much information as they can about them. Let us be clear, however: none of these practices exist in isolation. An agroecosystem (that includes soils) is complex and interconnected and it simply will not submit to being compartmentalized. In reality, to truly see the full benefits of soil health, one needs to view the agroecosystem as, well, a system. Some people may call this a “systems approach”, others may even refer to it as holistic thinking – nothing magic about that term, it’s just that we are looking and thinking about everything as part of the whole.
SOUTH DAKOTA SOILS
We were fortunate to meet with several farmers who are well-known for their systems approaches as well as holding reputations as “citizen scientists”. Their wisdom and insights shine a light on the reality that, when it comes to farming, healthy soils are the biggest contributor to healthy crops. This reality is increasingly familiar in the ag community, although the methods through which one gains “healthy soils” vary. Here’s what we do know:
All of the farms we were fortunate enough to visit this past week are part of the regenerative ag. movement. All boast rich, dark, healthy soils.
These soils are reminiscent of the Midwest soils of old, before America’s westward expansion and the decades of farming that would follow.
After driving around South Dakota for several days, it was clear that the dark soils of the farms we visited were in stark contrast to many of the barren and/or eroded soils that can be seen from the highways. These dark soils were teeming with life! And it’s no surprise after spending time with the farmers and their families that call these soils home.
SOUTH DAKOTA FAMILIES
We’ve deepened our understanding of healthy South Dakota soils and healthy crops. We’ve also grown in our understanding of an equally important field: that of family.
Maybe the only thing as deep and rich as the soils we witnessed were the farmers and their families that work them. Wives and husbands shouldering equal workloads, sons and fathers that each light up when the other enters the room, and even the bond between farmer and cattle that is less reminiscent of “owner” and “owned” and more akin to devoted fellow coworkers.
A big “thank you” to all of the families, district conservationists, and citizens of South Dakota that continue to make trips like this possible. Just like healthy soils that work together to produce healthy crops, we’re all stronger when we learn and grow in communion.
It is largely this communion that is leading us down the road to regenerative farming on a large scale. It is also this communion within households that makes each individual operation possible and that provides a foundation where the deepest insights into farm, family, and life are realized. The most important insight of which couldn’t be overlooked this past week. As Brian and Jamie Johnson of Frankfort, SD both said, “Take care of the land and the land will take care of you.”
Join the revolution,