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.
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The growing season of 2016 was a warm one even though it started out cool and wet, and by the end of the year, the number of heat units or growing degree days for 2016 was 216 above the norm. The take-home from this particular chart was that ambient (or air) temperatures have by a far greater influence on soil temperatures at planting than any other management factor, further rendering the till/no-till issue as it relates to soil temperature at planting a non-issue.
In this, the final video on weeds, we spent a little time with no-tillers Matt Bainbridge, Al Miron and Ralph Holzwarth and got them to tell their stories about how their no-till, diverse rotation systems were doing with weeds, and how this affected some of their costs to cope with weeds. The message we received from them is consistent with our previous videos namely that with low-disturbance (i.e., no-till) systems, especially when combined with diverse rotations, weed control can actually improve and costs for weed control can be lower than in conventional tillage systems.
In our previous video we saw that by the end of the season, there is no difference in the number of heat units and temperature as seen by a conventional versus a no-till soil. In fact any differences in cumulative heat units between the two systems disappears by the first week of July. In this video, SDSU’s Anthony Bly explains how that happens by examining the side-by-side temperature comparisons between a no-till, and conventional till system near Vermillion, South Dakota. In the latter part of the season (after July 1), we also see that in no-till soils maximum temperatures are consistently cooler and minimum temperatures are consistently warmer than conventional till soils. The NRCS’s Eric Barsness discusses this and tells us why it’s a good thing.
It’s been said that what comes easy doesn’t last, and what lasts doesn’t come easy. This adage is especially true when it comes to change.
Any change worth making isn’t going to be done overnight and it isn’t going to be realized without difficulty. One Iowa farm is showing the Midwest though that, when it comes to transitioning to soil health practices, the change doesn’t always have to be as difficult as we’ve been led to believe.
SOIL HEALTH: RECORD SETTING YIELDS
“I always heard at least five years yield drag on no-till,” Says Kevin Prevo, one of three primary operators of the Prevo family farm located on the outskirts of Bloomfield, Iowa. “But we never saw that. We actually had our best ever average yields in 2014, until we topped it in 2016 for both corn and soybeans.”
These results (and their timeframe) certainly run counter to what most of us hear about incorporating soil health practices. We get it. Stop turning over your land, drastically reduce input costs and watch your operation blossom in a short amount of time? Twenty years ago (and to many, still today!) this would have been unheard of! The Prevo family farm is one example of how this seemingly tall tale can be more down to earth than we expected.
This is not to say that the Prevos didn’t have their fair share of growing pains. The transition has required a drastic change, first in mindset, then in practice, and the implementation of a year-round management-intensive system. However, for those hesitant to transition to regenerative farming because of the dreaded five-year drag, the Prevos are proving that that notion isn’t a universal truth.
Of course, as we’ve continually discussed, it’s not an individual practice that accomplishes what the Prevos have done, but the adoption of a systems approach. Dr. Randy Anderson of the ARS discusses the idea of systems synergy where we stack practices on top of one another (e.g., no-till, on top of, say, diverse rotations on top of, say, cover crops). The result is that the benefit of the whole is far more than the sum of the individual benefits. Kevin Prevo highlights their transition to no-till above, but their success would not have been possible without the incorporation of cover crops. NRCS soil scientist Jason Steele knows this first-hand.
“It’s important to build up that soil biology with cover crops,” Jason says. “Organic matter will increase in the poorer soils first, providing immediate improvements in infiltration rates and water holding capacity.”
If one simply transitioned from till to no-till and left it at that, these benefits would not have been realized (and the increase in yield would certainly be a pipe dream).
When it comes to soil health in the future, the “five-year drag” may become a belief of the past. With the stacking of practices like diverse rotations, cover crops and no-till, as well as clarity on how to go about the transition most effectively, you tap into system synergy. The result: profitable farming and healthy soils can be realized quicker and more fully than previously thought.
As far as things go for the Prevos, the horizon is only getting brighter. The family farm is on their third straight year of record soybean yields with corn yields not lagging much further behind.
“We beat our corn yield average record this year by 20 bushels per acre over our 2014 highs,” says Kevin Prevo. “And we did it on traditionally poorer producing soils.”
Turn your “weakest link” (i.e. your poorest, most degraded soils) into a strength, increase infiltration rates, and increase yields. Throw on top of this terms like “environmentally friendly” and “sustainable” and you have a recipe for current and future success. Land that is primed to feed your family for generations to come. These are a handful of the reasons why soil health is the farming of the future.
Still, the idea of a change in practices looms large. We don’t dismiss this reality. This is where ancient wisdom still has a part to play in helping us move forward.
“The secret of change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old, but on building the new.” – Socrates
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SOURCE: Record Yields From The Bottom Up