BURLEY — After 25 years of experimenting with cover crop mixes and tillage practices, Gabe Brown has a simple message for those who would like to put their farms or ranches on a more sustainable path.
“You have the ability to change your soils and your operation,” he told a crowd of more than 300 Thursday at a soil health workshop in Burley. “You can do it.”
When Brown and his wife bought her parents farm in Burleigh County, N.D., in 1991, the soils had less than 2 percent organic matter. A double ring infiltration test showed the ground could only take a half inch of water per hour. The crop rotation had been wheat, oats and barley — all cool season grasses.
Today those same fields have 5 percent organic matter and the soil can take an inch of water in 9 seconds. The second inch took 16 seconds to infiltrate.
“Don’t tell me the soils you have are what you are stuck with,” Brown said. “We can all make changes.”
Not that the process is quick or simple. And Brown warns there is no cookie-cutter approach.
He travels across the U.S. speaking to other farmers about his 5,000-acre farm and also hosts tours of his farm. Everyday he receives more than 100 emails from farmers, most of them asking the same question: What cover crop mix should I plant?
“I didn’t choose your wife,” Brown told the audience. “Why would I choose your cover crop?”
Not matching the cover crop to the resource concern is the most common reason cover crops fail. Brown shared an example of a farmer in South Dakota who baled off his winter wheat straw and then seeded turnips and radishes into the residue. He then grazed off the cover crop and called Brown to complain that the field was still blowing away.
The problem wasn’t hard to diagnose. Brassicas accelerate residue decomposition, and the farmer had already reduced the residue by baling off the straw. There wasn’t enough carbon in the system to armor the soil.
“Cover crops work,” Brown said. “What didn’t work was the person making the planting decision.”
If a seed dealer does not ask a producer within the first couple of questions what resource concern the producer wants to address with a cover crop, Brown recommends hanging up the phone and calling another dealer. “They don’t have your best interest in mind.”
Brown began his own soil health journey in 1993 when he bought a no-till drill to minimize soil disturbance. By 1995 he had begun to diversify his cash crops and soon after he began including cover crops in the rotation. In 2006 he heard a talk about multi-species cover crop mixes that caused him to reevaluate his own mixes and to gradually eliminate synthetic fertilizers from the operation. About eight years ago he began to integrate livestock into the operation. Now he is focusing on producing nutrient dense food that he direct markets to largely young families with children.
He likens the changes he has made to his operation and the resulting improvement to soil health as a succession ladder.
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“You are only limited by your mind and your imagination,” Brown said.
Brian Kossman, whose operation focuses on sugar beets on the Kimama Bench north of Rupert, was primarily interested in practices to boost soil organic matter to increase soil water holding capacity and infiltration rates. As a groundwater pumper, he is looking for ways to raise crops on less water and also reduce pumping costs.
At less than 2 percent organic matter, Brown’s soil in North Dakota can hold 1 inch of water per foot of soil or 1.9 million gallons of water per acre. But at 5 percent organic matter, he can hold 4 inches of water per foot of soil or 7 million gallons per acre.
Brown calls that “effective rainfall” — the amount of water that the soil can hold. Having that water stored in the soil allowed him to grow crops last year when his region received only 5.8 inches of rain. “That’s how you build resilience in your soils,” he said.
Kossman is considering growing a full-season cover crop after sugar beets rather than rotating to another cash crop such as malt barley or dry beans. Being introduced to ideas he had never considered before in a normal crop rotation was one of the benefits from hearing Brown’s talk.
Brent Stoker, a dairy producer near Burley, called Brown’s talk revolutionary. “He took his farm, in my opinion, and turned it into a Garden of Eden,” Stoker said.
In this era of low commodity prices, seeing how Brown has used soil health practices to lower his cost of production was illuminating. Between 2008 and 2016, Brown’s costs averaged $1.41 per bushel of corn and $1.82 per bushel of wheat. Yields were around 20 bushels per acre higher than the county average.
Growing corn for less than $1.50 a bushel and less than 1 inch of water per 8 bushels of yield is an attractive idea for a dairyman faced with another year of low milk prices.
Stoker is already grazing cattle on dry corn stalks, but said Brown’s practice of direct-seeding corn first and then following with peas and vetch three days later so that the cattle can graze the cover crop after the corn is harvested is intriguing.
He has also grown cover crops as a biofumigant and has had success mixing green cover crops with compost from the dairy to boost the nutrient impact from the compost. But Stoker admits he doesn’t know how to mix cover crop species yet or what will work best for the operation. But he is inspired to take a closer look.
Low commodity price years are often an incentive for farmers to step out of their comfort zones and try something new, Stoker said.
“(Brown) is changing the paradigm of everything we think about in agriculture.”
“Don’t tell me the soils you have are what you are stuck with. We can all make changes.” Gabe Brown, a North Dakota proponent of soil health