This spring (2017) SDSU Extension’s Anthony Bly and farmer, or shall we say “citizen scientist,” Al Miron got together to look at the influence of tillage, cover crops and manure on infiltration in a number of fields in Minnehaha County, SD. They compared soils in two long term (9 year) no-till fields, two conventionally tilled fields that had not been tilled for a year and one field that was deep tilled in the fall and then again tilled with a field cultivator in the spring. Al and Anthony did 4 repetitions at each site and came up with some interesting results as concerns the effect of cover crops and tillage. The “aha” moment experienced by the grower who loaned the team some tilled land to do the study on is important as his paradigm was “more tillage = less infiltration”. As this farmer saw the results, especially of the 5th (double-tilled) field, he was sold on the idea pretty quickly!
In this video, we recap the last 11 videos on our Merit or Myth Series that deal with residue and tillage. We sum up the information provided by our farmers and researchers, from West River to East River of South Dakota. As we consider the statement: “Farming without tillage and with surface residue is not only possible, it works!” we have to ask “Merit or Myth?”. It’s up to the viewer to decide.
This is the third part of a three part series in Dr. Anderson’s 10-minute talk on his spiral of regeneration.
Dr. Randy Anderson, Research Agronomist with the USDA-ARS in Brookings, SD, shares with us his spiral of soil regeneration. The concept of the spiral had its genesis in Dr. Anderson’s work in no-till where he observed a number of interactive biological effects at work. In this third video, Dr. Anderson provides a real-life example of two winter wheat scenarios based on tillage and crop rotation. It’s often that the farmer’s eye test is all that needs to be done to see where the advantage is, no degree in agronomy required! We hope this and the next two videos in the series give you a much better grasp of what happens when you begin to disturb your soils less!
Picture this: A proactive community of open-minded producers joining forces for the greater good. With all of them together, they work to increase yields and soil health, and gain a better understanding of their livelihoods.
If such a community existed, would you be interested? It may seem “pie in the sky”, but one state down, that’s exactly what’s going on.
COMMUNITY FARMING: SOIL HEALTH AROUND THE DINNER TABLE
For the last several years, an 8-member group of Nebraskan producers has gathered in the pursuit of shared knowledge. In that time, the positive effects of the union have been undeniable. Nobody knows this better than group member and Palmyra, Nebraska native Mike McDonald.
“One person in the group raised 6,000 bushels of cereal rye,” said McDonald. “Together, we cleaned it and, in a cost-efficient manner, were able to increase the drilling rates.”
As McDonald can attest, this is just the tip of the iceberg. What separates this group from your average producer get together is that they don’t stop at surface-level issues. Just like the roots of their crops, they always dig just a little deeper. One of the more popular topics of discussion? Cover crops. More specifically, livestock and how it relates to the practice.
PUTTING SOIL HEALTH TO THE TEST
It’s pretty obvious that high intensity paddock grazing can be a bit labor intensive, so to include such a practice in one’s operation, you’d have to thoroughly believe in its efficacy. Mike McDonald and members of his group have seen enough of the benefits of the practice to incorporate it despite the concerns. In fact, McDonald believes in it so thoroughly that he loaned 40 head of livestock from a fellow group member for a 20-acre site.
So what were these benefits?
According to McDonald and his group: increased soil fungi and other microbes (these are the “good guy” microbes that Dr. Elaine Inhgam talks about), decreased herbicide usage, and increased overall pool of organic nutrients (yes, nutrient pools can be organic as well as inorganic). Or look at it this way: increased efficiency and effectiveness leads to increased sustainability.
Of course, paddock grazing isn’t the only value-added practice that the 8-member group has tested and employed. McDonald also has up to 41 bee hives on his property that are responsible for increased production. After their discussions and research, the group also endorses cutting out virtually all fertilizer and herbicides as well as focusing on income diversity. Of course, with knowledge comes responsibility and the group acknowledges that. To incorporate livestock into an operation, one must be aware of cover crop maturity dates prior to planting, and proper grazing windows, but the results speak for themselves.
A UNITED FRONT
The idea of community learning shouldn’t be new to those who’ve followed along with us at Merit or Myth – uniting the South Dakota farming community has been a crucial discussion point for us. We’re excited to see such practices playing out in surrounding areas and confident that similar stories will start popping up across the Mt. Rushmore State soon.
In the meantime, keep your ear to the ground and listen for what your soil is telling you. There’s no telling what you’ll hear next!
Join the revolution,
Author and inspirational speaker John Maxwell once said, “The greatest enemy of learning is knowing.”
This couldn’t be more accurate than when it comes to sustainable farming practices. But truth be told, most of the problems we as humans face today (on and off the farm) aren’t due to our lack of knowledge, but to our certainty of it!
Two contractors don’t fight over dissimilar work philosophies unless both of them “know” the way to do the job.
A political party doesn’t oppose another unless it “knows” (and it always does…) the right direction for our nation.
And many of us fail to properly assess opposing farming techniques because, after all, we KNOW which ones work, and we KNOW which one’s don’t..
But at Merit or Myth, we’re here to ask… do we, really?
But what Monty (may believe) he lacks in conventional “knowing”, he more than makes up for with his desire to learn!
It’s this attitude that has lead to Monty’s biggest breakthroughs on his ranch in Pennington County, South Dakota. From converting to no-till 20 years ago to increasing planting depth, Monty is a farming trailblazer – never satisfied with conventional knowledge unless it’s first put to the test. But that doesn’t mean it’s all been smooth-planting. Monty knows first-hand the struggles that come with farming.
The potential avenues for learning today are astounding. After all, we each carry the entirety of all human knowledge within a roughly 6” x 3” device that we carry in our pockets (thank you, Internet)!
Monty Williams has done his fair share of browsing when it comes to farming practices. But his primary source of learning is much closer to home… and usually the “competition”.
I have to study everybody. When I drive down the road… well look at this crop, what’s he doing over here. Well that’s a good idea, maybe we ought to incorporate that. You have to not just stare at what you’re doing, but look around.”
The ability to learn from our peers is one that takes grace and humility. What’s more, with constant access to the internet, it’s often easy to forget that one of the greatest sources for learning is just a door down. But, as Monty puts it, it’s not just about the individual farmer learning to improve his yields – it’s about the collective:
We have to make these changes ourselves. And like I say, that mindset is a tough thing to get over, it’s a tough hurdle. Same thing with my grandpa,(he was) always summer fallow, winter wheat. Couldn’t change off of those things. We can’t do what they were doing, we’ve gotta be moving forward.”
The key word to us in this quote has nothing to do with farming practices, but is all in the two-letter noun “we”. As farmers, we’re always greater than the sum of our parts. And we, our families, and our futures would all benefit from working together, helping each other, and learning side-by-side.
After all, we’ve made great strides as a species directly through our ability to learn. But none of us have learned very much of anything if we still think we know it all.
Join the revolution,
We’ve all heard a lot of varying takes on soils…
Are they living or are they dead?
Do they require time to rest or more diversity?
Amongst all of these uncertainties, one thing can be agreed upon – they are the foundation on which all farmers are building. And laying a trusty foundation is something we are all striving to do… we just have different ways of getting there.
Farmer Al Miron certainly does.
THE MAN FROM MINNEHAHA COUNTY
You can’t help but feel a little extra sense of warmth when sharing a room with a man like Al Miron – from his welcoming of us onto his farm to inviting us for some fresh watermelon, Al is certainly as gracious and kind-hearted as they come.
But that doesn’t mean that he’s going to shy away from voicing his thoughts on soil health.
In fact, Al had one of the strongest opinions that we heard when it came to no-till practices.
Quite the statement, huh? But anyone who has spent time with Al knows that he’s a man of his word. What’s more important here isn’t Al’s quote, but that his is far from the only voice expressing the “merit” of this long-viewed “myth”.
TILLAGE? NO THANKS
When it comes specifically to management issues like no-till, we quickly found that farmers like Al don’t just have a passion for these practices, but a JOY!
That’s right, from all across The Mount Rushmore State, farmers that we met with were emphatic about the benefits of minimum disturbance not just on their crops, but on their lives! Time and time again, those we interviewed expressed probably THE most beneficial aspect of adopting this natural system – quality of life.
And isn’t that what all of this is about anyway? Quality of life for ourselves, and our families? Quality of life for our crops, our land (present and future) and nature as a whole?
We at Merit or Myth have seen substaintially positive evidence of no-till not only in the soils, but on the smiles of countless faces along the way. And we can’t wait to see who’s smiling next.
For those of you looking for more, you can check out a brief interview with Al and others in our Travelogue series. In the mean time, be on the lookout for more videos, and musings in the weeks to come.
JOIN THE REVOLUTION!
What is the most powerful lesson that South Dakota has to teach me?
This was the question that was on my mind as we anxiously drove out of the Hawkeye State and pulled into Sioux Falls. Would it be one of appreciating mother nature? Would it be one of community? Or would it simply be the undeniable impact that soil health is having on this great state?
I would quickly find the answer to be “yes” to all of the above… but not necessarily in the way that I had anticipated.
It was clear as soon as we crossed state lines that God had blessed South Dakota with inescapable beauty – the diverse peaks, valleys, and terrain are something more out of a desktop background than a real-life encounter. But regardless of if you see them in person or on a screen, they aren’t just external surroundings – they are something that changes the inside of a person as well. So it wasn’t tough to see that, just like the land, something else about this place was disarmingly unique…
On our trip, we had the pleasure of visiting with farmers, conservationists and scientists. The joy of conversing with customer service employees, administrative faculty and everywhere in between. It was through these fateful encounters that I was granted another powerful lesson – greeting a stranger with a firm handshake and a smile is no greeting at all – welcoming them with open arms and open hearts is the only true way to introduce yourself. And no matter where we stopped, Bear Butte to Vermillion, Huron to Rapid City, this wasn’t just an isolated incident, this was the way of life.
So it’s no wonder why this eclectic group of welcomers are passionate about one of their greatest resources: soil. It’s inspiring to see how they have turned that passion into knowledge, and that knowledge into a lifestyle – from the usage of cover crops, to adopting “no-till” practices, to enhancing diversity. Each of their stories are different, but they all come from the same heart. And we couldn’t be more excited to start sharing them with you!
IN THE END
It goes without saying that the memories and relationships built within this trip will endure – for that, we are profoundly grateful. And though our heads are still spinning after 10 days and over 4,500 miles traveled, one thing is perfectly clear: this isn’t just a campaign for soil health, it’s a campaign for people. And I’ve never met a group of people more worthy.
The growing amount of information on soil health is quite astonishing. Just hop on over to Google and search “Soil Health” and you’ll see for yourself. As of this writing, there were 18.1 million hits! But that’s just the tip of the iceburg; when it comes to the nuts and bolts, everyone seems to have a different opinion.
There are several organizations out there trying to get a handle on the effectiveness and prevalence of cover crops alone – one thing we know for sure is that they are increasing. Yet my experience is that most farmers are still hungry for information about soil health.
Many of the questions that farmers raise are management related, and often these questions are related to the transition to no-till like: “how do I plant through all that residue?”, “how will my soil temperatures at planting be affected?”, “how do I get my soils dry without tillage?”, “how do I manage for weeds without tillage?”, and “does this stuff make economic sense?”. Let’s face it, these are valid questions that need to be addressed.
There’s a quote attributed to Harrington Emerson that goes as follows:
As to methods, there may be a million and then some, but principles are few. The man who grasps principles can successfully select his own methods. The man who tries methods, ignoring principles, is sure to have trouble.
We want to get a little more specific to South Dakota where we plan to engage with farmers, conservationists and researchers to address some of the above questions, but to do that, we also want to look at some of the underlying assumptions and views that give rise to these questions, and look at alternative assumptions. As we do this, we want to ask questions of things we encounter: “does this have merit or is it myth?”, hence the name “Merit or Myth”.
Watch this space in the next few months for video, blogs travelogues and podcasts as we travel across the Mount Rushmore state asking the question: Merit or Myth?
– Buz Kloot