In the beginning, the argument against soil health practices like no-till and cover crops was generally pretty straightforward: “They just don’t work!”
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.
For a more in-depth look at Alan Mindemann’s numbers, a breakdown of his specialty crops and the thinking behind them, check out John Dobberstein‘s original article here.
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