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.
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.”
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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.
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
Extinction is a perfectly normal part of nature. Scientists of all backgrounds, belief systems and areas of study can agree on this. What is often overlooked, however, is the potential cost of extinction – whether within a single ecosystem or multiple.
Still, no one plays a larger role when it comes to the loss or gain of a species within an environment than farmers. According to the USDA Census of Agriculture, as of 2012, a little over 40% of the United States was made up by farmland. This means that farming is power and farmers play a massive role in deciding what species thrive and what species don’t. So why should farmers choose the former? Well, a recent study from just one state over shows that in promoting the livelihood of multiple species, farmers can actually see an economic return.
Saving the environment while earning money? Sounds like a late-night infomercial. Nevertheless, it is backed by a unique research project published this year in Science Advances, and it offers one of the most convincing arguments yet for biodiversity.
THE TRUTH BEHIND BIODIVERSITY
The first thing to note when it comes to diversity (which is a principle that also happens to be one of the four principles of soil health), is that its effects go well beyond simply what we put in the ground.
“Biodiversity evokes exotic birds, tropical forests, the beauty of nature,” says the research project’s co-author and Texas Tech professor Natasja van Gestel.
Understanding that biodiversity benefits and works along with nature is the very foundation of regenerative farming. As alluded to above, however, the principles of regenerative farming can also be profitable farming… though it typically isn’t seen this way.
“Money isn’t usually what comes to mind,” Professor Natasja van Gestel continues. “But biodiversity has monetary value, and in this study, we figured out how much value for one critical ecosystem service: carbon storage.”
While science has an understanding of the value of photosynthesis (use of the sun’s energy by plants to convert carbon dioxide to carbohydrates for energy and growth) it’s rare that scientists explicitly relate photosynthesis to economic value. This research project, however, has managed to assign a dollar value on species diversity through monitoring its effects on carbon storage.
The first question that needed to be asked, therefore, was “does biodiversity even influence carbon storage?” The short answer they found: YES!
BIODIVERSITY: A STUDY OF ECONOMIC VALUE
The scientists involved in the research, brought together by The National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC), used a pair of long-term studies based just next door in the Minnesota grasslands. To find their answer, they first had to identify how much more carbon is present per added species. Their findings were fairly straight-forward: For every new plant species added, carbon storage increased. Further, the increase of carbon storage through plant diversity is most realized on land that is the least diverse (which, unfortunately, is mostly traditional farmlands).
This brings us back to a common theme we’ve discussed. Whether it’s in considering the change to no-till, adding in cover crops, or an all out shift towards regenerative farming as a whole, these decisions aren’t made lightly. Nevertheless, this study and many others like it are proving that it’s these very soils, the ones unaccustomed to such practices, that benefit most from these changes!
To put it in numbers, the increase from five to six species within a plot yielded 10 times more carbon than the increase from 15 to 16 species. In various observed plots of around 2.4 acres, increasing from one to two plant species over a period of 50 years would yield an additional 20,500 lbs of carbon per acre (with probable savings of over $335 per acre). Author Glenys Young in her own article on phys.org regarding species diversity shows this on a larger scale:
“Cost savings could hypothetically be significant. For example, adding just one species to the 12.3 million hectares of cultivated lands restored by grasslands by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Conservation Reserve Program could save more than $700 million. The biggest cost savings come from restoring the most degraded, species-poor lands.”
CARBON STORAGE IS JUST THE BEGINNING
In short, the four principles of soil health are beginning to be quantified in terms of economic value. The increase in at least one of them (diversity) also leads to an increase in diversity of all forms of life. We surely live in an exciting time for agriculture!
“This is one of the first studies to estimate the economic value of biodiversity,” states Brad Cardinale, who spearheaded this study by bringing economists and ecologists on board. “It provides what is almost certainly an underestimate of value, but I still expect the study to become a classic as others repeat and improve these estimates for other ecosystems.”
Seeing this study as an “underestimate of value” seems like over-selling. However, Cardinale can feel confident in such statements as these because the reality is that biodiversity carries a multitude of benefits well beyond carbon storage. The point? This study is just the tip of the iceberg. Efficient, low-input, sustainable farming will soon be an option for farmers around the world, even those who farm atypical crops and in extreme conditions.
The future is bright,
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!
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