Day 21

Screen Shot 2014-06-18 at 18.05.19This blog is a bit later than scheduled, as I ran into some Brits who were a bad influence; blogging at 2am was not really at the top of my agenda. I did get to see a crop duster today though, which was fun. Hardly the most accurate way to apply pesticides.

Yearling Red Angus

Yearling Red Angus heifers

Jim Faulstich was at school with Lewis Bainbridge, and kindly gave me an introduction. Jim farms 8000ac with his son-in-law, Adam. 1500ac of this is cropped land, and the rest is pasture for grazing cattle.

They have 350 cows for breeding, and on top of this a large part of their business is guiding hunters. Therefore it is very important to not just try and maximise beef production, but also provide a good habitat for the pheasants and white tail deer.

Their biggest problem is the invasion of non-native species into the traditional prairies, specifically smooth brome, and occasionally sweet clover. I say problem, but it is not as bad as it may be. Both these species are highly palatable to cattle when they are young plants.

Smooth brome : Sweet clover : Tall bluestem

Smooth brome : Sweet clover : Big bluestem

The smooth brome is a cool season grass, so it gets going early in the spring. This is a problem as it will swamp out the less competitive warm season native grasses, such as big bluestem or western wheatgrass. One solution that they use here is to get in some extra animals for a few months in the spring and summer, to really graze the brome hard as it starts growing. Ideally this will stop it from seeding, or at least reduce its competitiveness. This year there were an extra 360 Angus steers on the farm to do just that.

So the big question is, does it work? Jim says that he thought they were on top of it, until 2012. This was the drought year that comes up at least once with every farmer I visit. Here its effect was to really knock back the native grasses, and the following year all the brome had returned. The seed bank must be huge, and also very resilient. Even if a field is farmed with crops for 3 years, and the brome controlled 100%, it will still come back soon after pasture is re-established. I don’t know the answer, although I suspect much tighter grazing cells could have a beneficial effect, and encourage more seed heads to be eaten. Easy for me to say though, I don’t have to work out the logistics for them to do it.

After my quick visit to Jim, I headed off to Dakota Lakes Research Farm, following in the footsteps of about 1,000 Nuffield Scholars, and 99,000 other farmers. Dwayne Beck is one of the big names in the world of no-till and conservation agriculture systems. I don’t know if that is how he would describe himself, but it will have to do. This research farm was originally established to look into irrigation efficiency. The end result was developing a system that meant irrigated maize only averages 10% more yield than dry land crops; making it un-economical to irrigate any more. This must count as a very large success!

Good worm population, some soil plating though

Good worm population, some soil plating though

I was supposed to rendezvous with a group of mainly French farmers at 4pm, led by Frederic Thomas. Luckily for me they were a bit late, so I had some time to speak to Dr Beck by myself. After asking a few questions about rotations and openers, I was scolded for thinking “incrementally” and not “transformationally”.

Well, OK, I suppose that was accurate. Dr Beck’s view is that in order to increase efficiency (he aims to have the farm fossil fuel neutral by 2026) we need to emulate the natural ecosystem we find ourselves in, and get totally away from our current methods. The closest example I could establish of this technique being used now is pasture cropping in Australia; I will have to try and visit Colin Seis to see for myself.  Dwayne also railed against short term policy makers (a fair complaint), and suggested we think too short term when designing our farms. He suggested a time scale of 500 years. Both good points in theory, but can we realistically do anything about them? Unlikely in my opinion.

Dr Beck's ideal double disc opener. The discs are different diameters, which gives them a much greater ability to cut residue. It is also mounted on a walking beam for depth control superior to a parallel linkage

Dr Beck’s ideal double disc opener: The discs are different diameters, which gives them a much greater ability to cut residue. It is also mounted on a walking beam for depth control superior to a parallel linkage. the closing wheels at the rear are extra large so they have a gentler action

At this point the continentals turned up, and we set off on the farm tour. Rather than me recounting it all, it is easier to watch the numerous videos on Youtube (see below). Basically there is not much new from my previous blogs. Wide rotations, low disturbance, high carbon residues, cover crops etc etc. Sorry if that sounds flippant, but it is a great place to visit, although somewhat diluted with 50 other farms in attendance.

Now where is my paracetemol?

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