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,
In the previous three videos we have looked at and discussed some soil temperature data from the 2016 growing season in Vermillion, SD. In this video we speak to some long-term no-till farmers from Crooks in the east to Box Elder in the west of South Dakota and gauge their opinions. While all recognize that residue may reduce soil temperatures in the spring, they also recognize that early growth in the spring is not a good yield predictor. As we have heard Al Miron and Ralph Holtzwarth say: “you don’t harvest your corn in June!”. Ultimately one of the main benefits of residue farmers value in the summer is its ability to keep the soil moister for longer. In a dry year, this property is critical. Bottom line is that for these farmers, cooler spring soil temperatures are a non-issue in terms of their yield.
Of course, with the emergence of data that favors these practices over their traditional counterparts, the argument has shifted to: “That may work for them over there, but that doesn’t work here!”
This argument is still used today, despite the fact that soil health practices have been successfully employed far and wide, in cold and warm climates, in wet and dry conditions. In fact, research suggests that in areas of extreme weather, farms that utilize soil health methods, which encourage more resilient agroecosystems, have more consistent crops than those that run traditional operations.
With this reality, we’ve begun to enter into an age where even the most modern argument against soil health is carrying less and less weight. Farmer Alan Mindemann of southwest Oklahoma is yet another example of this. He’s also an example of how an open mind can be a farmer’s best friend.
SOUTHWESTERN OKLAHOMA: A LAND OF EXTREMES
An avid reader and seeker of knowledge, at a young age Mindemann stumbled across an article that highlighted the benefits of no-till planters.
“I saw that and I thought, ‘You don’t have to plow,” Mindemann recalls. His father, a long-time advocate of tillage, of course, thought differently.
“Oh, it won’t work here,” were his father’s words.
One of the main reasons for this sentiment was that their farm was located in an area of unpredictable weather. As John Dobberstein notes in his article, “Finding a Niche Leads to No-Till Success,” southwestern Oklahoma has an, “Average yearly rainfall (of) about 32 inches, but can range anywhere from 16-50 inches in just a year or two.”
So Alan largely kept quiet. For the next 30 years, he tilled the land his father had raised him on, though he was never fully convinced that no-till, in fact, had no place in southwestern Oklahoma. He held onto this idea until it was time to take over the operation.
“… I got my chance to prove (that no-till) works, and it does work really well – even in our area county, where it’s not the best farming country in the world.”
Mindemann would come to find that not only did no-till have its place, but so did other soil health practices. Keeping his soil “armored” through cover crops (and their subsequent residue) was exactly what southwestern Oklahoma crops wanted.
With erratic weather patterns, harsh gusts and rain, “We need those plants shaded and out of the wind, or they’re just not going to make it… and we’ve got to preserve all the moisture that we get. When it rains, we need to catch it all because we never know when a rain might be our last one.”
With this thinking, so far he’s successfully grown corn, soybeans, okra, winter and soft red winter wheat, grain sorghum (milo), pearl and foxtail millet, winter canola, mung beans, and cowpeas.
“I got the reputation of being able to grow about anything,” he says.
SOIL HEALTH VS TRADITIONAL METHODS
By Mindemann’s admission, roughly 80-90% of surrounding farms still use conventional till and winter wheat monocultures. Mindemann sees the toll it’s taken on his neighbor’s fields, stripping the land of organic matter and healthy Ph levels.
“When I was growing up, the farmers who were considered good at the time now have land that is absolutely the worst,” Mindemann says. “The poor farmers who went out let their fields grow up in weeds and disc it 2 inches deep and plant their wheat – their fields are the best now, health-wise. Because back then, the good farmers were judged by how deep and how often they worked the ground.”
And that’s at the root of the issue: traditionally, a good farmer is judged by how deep and how often they work the ground. The same generation that believed this is now being told, in one form or another, that a good farmer is judged by how little and how infrequently they work the ground. Whether we accept either notion, the reality remains the same: practices that once grew successful crops are no longer working on those same fields.
“I’ve had a couple of those poorer fields (that underwent decades of conventional till) for 6, 8 years and they’re better than they were, but still aren’t very good,” he says. “I’ve got to get my money back somewhere down the line. But when I’m gone, you’ll have a good farm.”
As far as his family’s fields, the practices he’s employed are not only yielding great results, they’re also making the land healthier. Mindemann has seen an increase of about .10% soil organic matter each year with the higher end peaking at 2.5%.
SOIL HEALTH AND INNOVATION
Mindemann isn’t known as a farmer who blindly adopts the practices of which he reads. He gets out into his fields, into his dirt and pulls data he can use. This has led him into the role of a local innovator. Take corn, for instance.
Traditional thought in southwestern Oklahoma is that corn isn’t a viable crop. Leave it to Alan Mindemann to shrug off such “common sense” and find the means to do it any way. Through planting corn into killed bermudagrass, he’s come out with yields as high as 150 – 200 bushels an acre. Of course, with all his success, he doesn’t get overconfident.
“The trick to growing good corn in southwest Oklahoma on dryland is picking the right year to plant it,” he says. “We don’t rely on it for a crop every year.”
Corn isn’t the only crop that has sprung to life under Mindemann’s guidance. In 2016, he raised non-GMO double-cropped soybeans that averaged out at 40 bushels an acre (with some fields hitting 60-70 bushels). As for the surrounding fields in his area, the average per acre was a meager 8 bushels of soybeans and 42 bushels of corn.
Surely, he’s onto something.
Join the revolution,