Day 37

Screen Shot 2014-07-04 at 07.42.57The last day, and another hastily arranged appointment. I’ve mentioned the Haney soil test in previous blogs, and today I visited Ward Laboratories to see how they do it.

The Haney test has some overlap with conventional soil tests, but it is designed to determine more precisely how much nitrogen and phosphorus will be made available to growing plants through biological activity, not just what is physically present. One of the ways this is accomplished is by using a weaker acid solution to extract the nutrients, which is supposed to be closer to the conditions roots grow in, compared to conventional tests, like Olsen P.

Total carbon, nitrogen and phosphate are measured, as well as their inorganic fractions. When you subtract inorganic from total, you end up with the organic fraction. Inorganic nitrogen is easily leachable, and so if there are high levels they would recommend grass based cover crops to try and capture some of it.

The ratio of organic carbon to organic nitrogen is important, as if it is above 20:1 then no nitrogen or phosphorus will be released through microbial activity. In this situation they would recommend cover crops with higher proportions of legumes to bring the ratio down to between 15:1 and 8:1.IMG_3302

Another novel part of this regimen is the Solvita CO2 burst test. This measures the amount of CO2 produced by 40g of soil in a 24hr period. The idea is that more CO2 = more microbial activity & biomass. They claim that this is highly correlated with overall soil fertility.

All of these tests are combined to come up with a “Soil Health Calculation” score. For completeness, here is the formula: (Try and remember it, there’ll be a test next week)

Solvita CO2 / organic C:N + (organic carbon/100) + (organic nitrogen/10)

The score goes from 0 upwards. A conventionally tilled soil with little or no crop rotation, cover crops, livestock etc may score as low as 2. At the other end of the scale, Gabe Brown’s soil is normally in the high 20s, and they have had a few results in the low 30s. The printout for each sample includes what the results would have been from a conventional test, which in the case of nitrogen is usually less as it has not accounted for the organic forms. This should supposedly allow the application of less nitrogen (if your soils are fertile), and therefore save money.

Interestingly, they claim that with cover crops, the scores are significantly increased as the mixes become more diverse. It does make sense, as presumably different root exudates will feed different microbes, and the total quantity will increase. They also warned that there is normally a 6-12 month lag in seeing improvements after cover cropping, as it takes this long for the biology to work its magic, and make the nutrients available. This would confirm our experience, as well as backing up Fredric Thomas, who sees a gradual decline in the amount of nitrogen he has to apply on his farm in France.

Does is work? Rick Haney, who invented it, is currently analysing yield data from farmers all over the US and trying to correlate it to actual crop performance. I think it is an interesting idea, and may be a useful management tool to at least show that one is moving in the right direction. The test costs $49.50, and I’m going to send in some samples in due course. If anyone else is interested, get in touch and we could maybe combine a shipment.

But that’s it for now, I’m due at the airport in a couple of hours.

Days 26 – 29

I’ve been at the World Congress on Conservation Agriculture for most of this week, hence no blog. It started off with a long and uneventful drive from Bismarck ND where road is so straight and empty that the main problem is resisting the temptation to surf the internet on my phone.Screen Shot 2014-06-27 at 09.06.02The congress was OK, but not great. The talks were pitched fairly low, so didn’t come up with anything particularly groundbreaking. It was good to meet a lot of interesting guys from around the world though, especially some guys doing no-till sugar beet in Switzerland, whom I plan to go and visit.IMG_3208

Soil microbiologist Jill Clapperton gave an interesting talk where she pointed out that intensively tilled soils tended to have a higher ratio of inorganic:organic nitrogen, and it seemed like this favours weed species. I wonder though if by changing this you will just change the weed spectrum, rather than the overall quantity? Another of her stats is that 52% of microbial biomass is associated with roots. If microbes are the real driver for organic matter increases then it underlines the importance of constant soil cover with growing plants.

Another talk from a Brazilian worm specialist (the only one in existence, according to her) showed that we don’t do worms properly – theirs are more like snakes. A few of the panellists that day thought worm numbers were a good indicator of soil health, as they feed on soil microbes, as well as show that there is the “right type” of organic matter present. Some brief Googling shows that perhaps the best way to count worms is to douse the soil with mustard infused water. This should appeal to the inner hippy in everyone.

New Holland branded Quadtrak

New Holland branded Quadtrak

After a fairly poorly attended “Gala Dinner” one evening, there was a panel discussion about cover cropping from 3 American farmers. One of them farmed in what he called the “Mud Belt” – they get 38″ of rain a year and have heavy clays soils. He suggested that it was important to not sow cover crops too thick, otherwise the soil could not dry out quickly enough come springtime. This seems a good idea to me for people in the UK who are worried about exactly this problem. It would probably be easiest to achieve by using wide rows, with the added bonus of less diesel use.

One thing I have learnt is that within this little section of people there are plenty of zealots who know that they are right and everyone else is wrong – just the same as people who know that no-till doesn’t work etc etc. Conditions are different around the world and not all principles are applicable in all locations. Must remember to keep an open mind!

Here are a few quotes that I liked, but probably misremembered a bit:

“Increasing SOM from 1 to 3% doubles water holding capacity” – Dwayne Beck

“If a farmer applies 150kg/ha of N, that uses 3 times more energy than the tillage, seeding and harvest operations combined” – Dwayne Beck

“If you’re operating on the cutting edge then sometimes you’re going to bleed” – Dan Forgey

“If tillage controlled weeds they would all be gone by now” – Dwayne Beck

“If common sense worked all the time, we wouldn’t need science” – a lady on the R4 Food Programme podcast

Day 25

Today I met with a couple of researchers from the Agriculture Research Service. One of them was Kris Nichols, a well known soil microbiologist who specialises in mycorrhizal fungi. The other was Mark Liebig, who is also a soil scientist, but more in the physical rather than biological sphere. I can’t be bothered to structure this as an article, so I will go through the areas that I thought were interesting, point by point.

Mark showed me around the research farm, which has been operating since 1916, and currently has a few trials going on rotations and cultivations. It is not located in a terribly suitable place, as the soils are incredibly resilient, fertile, 2m deep, silt loams. This means that both positive and negative changes to the soil structure and makeup take a long time to manifest. Some of the trials have not yet shown significant results, even after many years, or sometimes decades. Here are some of the things I learnt.

  • Tillage vs no-till trials showed that in most years there was no yield difference. However, in drought years, no-till performed better. I would take from this that there is no point in performing tillage in this location. Mark pointed out that another interpretation was that tillage was generally not harmful, and if it was needed, say in an organic system, then it would not be a big problem.
  • One trial compared continuous wheat with the straw being chopped against continuous wheat with straw removed. Over a period of time (I think 10 years), the field with the straw removed had higher SOM than when the residue was kept. This is obviously counterintuitive. Mark’s explanation was that when the straw was removed, weeds would germinate and grow, before being killed in the spring. This is effectively a free cover crop, and shows the potential benefits that covers can bring.
  • They use a tool called SMAF to measure soil quality. It is “not farmer friendly” and is really a research tool that measures physical characteristics. Often, but not always, the results correlate to SOM levels. The same can be said for humus testing when compared to traditional SOM tests.
  • The fields were last cultivated in 1983, with a chisel plough. Even now, after 31 years of no-till, there is still a compaction pan in some plots. The more diverse the rotation, the less obvious the pan. However, Mark does not think that this compaction is enough to significantly effect rooting, or yield.
  • In a set-stocking grazing system, lower animal density generally results in more native species being lost from the pastures.
  • As in the rest of the world, researchers in the US are uncomfortable giving direct recommendations to farmers!
This is a soil library, with over 5000 samples dating back almost 100 years

The ARS soil library, with over 5000 samples dating back almost 100 years

Now on to Kris Nichols.

  • SOM testing is a useful, but basic metric. It is probably just as good as testing for humus, but neither method actually measures the most useful forms of organic matter. The Haney test is probably the best currently available.
  • Mycorrhizae can link the roots from different species of plants together. For example, a legume and grass growing next to each other can share nitrogen fixed by the nodules on the roots of the legume. This has been scientifically proven using labelled nitrogen, and some 50-70% of the nitrogen present in these grass plants can originate from the legume. She does not know if this means that the grass has any more nitrogen in it that it would have done without the legume present. This lends support to the idea of growing leguminous cover crops in with a cash crop, and then reducing nitrogen applications. I am still skeptical.
  • Crops with higher levels of mycorrhizal associations are more tolerant of drought. This is because nutrients are available in the fungal hyphae, so the plant roots do not have to exude water to extract them from the soil.
  • Plants which are not under stress do not form as many mycorrhizal associations, as there is a cost to doing so, and little benefit. Also, microbes that unlock a particular nutrient are unlikely to thrive if that nutrient is freely available in high concentrations, such as when it is applied as fertiliser. This means that in order to build up the soil life, and therefore increase nutrient efficiency of the plants, it may be necessary to go through a period of plant stress that results in lower yields. This may be 2-3 years in duration. It could be possible to mitigate this either through the use of cover crops, or by weaning off fertiliser rather than going cold turkey.
  • There seems to be a benefit through using livestock to graze plants cover crops, rather than either mowing or drilling directly into them. Experiments have shown that this is not due to microbes coming from the saliva, urine or dung. Kris believes it is due to the grazing action of cattle (and perhaps sheep too?) which rips the leaves in a way what stimulates the plant to produce a burst of root exudates. These in turn kickstart microbial activity in the soil. As long as soil temperatures are above freezing then the effect can be seen. This theory could explain why mob grazing can provide such quick results in soil improvement.
  • Plants take 3 weeks to start forming mycorrhizal associations. Do not skimp on starter fertilisers if reducing total fertiliser applications, so that establishment is not compromised. She also thinks that for this reason it is always valuable to plant a cover crop; even if it does not create a lot of biomass then it will still be feeding the microbes.
  • It is possible that varieties are being bred which make less use of microbial assistance, as they are designed to achieve maximum yields in situations where nutrients are easily available. This may reduce their efficiency of nutrient use.
  • She is ambivalent about glyphosate. Although it becomes inactive in the soil as far as the plants are concerned, she thinks it feasible that there may be an effect on microbial life. The same is true of fungicides, which do not harm mycorrhizae directly, but may do so to the other organisms that are associated with them.

So, once again, no real concrete pieces of research that make anything definitive, but perhaps some more pieces to the puzzle?

One quick fact to end on: a field of oilseed rape in flower produces 100l/ha of nectar. That’s a lot of pollinator food.

Day 24

I’m still in Bsimarck, ND, tapping the rich vein of knowledge that lives in the area. On Friday morning I met up again with the French tourists, and went to visit Gabe Brown. To be honest, I was a little disappointed to have to share this visit, as Gabe is someone really operating on the bleeding edge, and I had hoped to have him to myself. Unfortunately for me, the timing didn’t work out for that.

In the late ’90s Gabe Brown went for 4 straight years with almost no crops to harvest, either through hail damage or drought. Unsurprisingly, this almost wiped him out financially. He found himself unable to afford any inputs at all (seed excluded), and so he had to find a way to farm without them.

Grazing triticale & hairy vetch

Grazing triticale & hairy vetch

Today he still does not use any inputs, aside from seed and occasionally a pre emergence herbicide. No insecticides, no fungicides, and no fertiliser. The county average for maize is 100bu/ac, his is 127. Two years ago his cost of production for a bushel of maize was $1.43, and it was sold for $6.90. At that cost of production he is always going to make money, something that cannot be said of probably any other farmer in the country. Naturally, he does not only grow maize, but they are scaling back on cropping whilst increasing the livestock business.

It should come as no surprise that livestock are involved. The main operation involves cattle, but they also keep pigs, sheep and chickens. The cattle are generally grazed with daily moves, or quicker, and are used as a tool for soil health, as well as for producing beef. On the day we visited, they were grazing a mixture of triticale and vetch. I say grazing, but it was very obvious that they did not relish this particular forage. Gabe’s son Paul says they do not eat a lot of it, just enough to maintain condition, but the main benefit is trampling the plant residue. This field will soon be seeded into another cover crop, and perhaps next year into a cash crop.

No monocultures are grown, and every field has a cover crop every year, with the exception of permanent grassland. The cover crop may be before, during (technically a companion crop) or after a cash crop, or alternatively it will be in all year long. This is where the fertility comes from, both in terms of nitrogen and carbon that are fixed, and other nutrients that are made available through increased biological activity.

This brings up a couple of interesting points for me. The first is, how many times is a field cropped in a given period, say 10 years? Obviously if it is cropped once in that time, the average maize yield of 127bu/ac looks less impressive. However, it is important to consider that this is a system of “stacked” enterprises, and arable farming is just one of them. Therefore we must look at the $ return per acre, not the crop yield. I have not seen Gabe’s bank balance or accounts, so will have to take his word for it when he claims to have made enough money by 2007 to have retired. Not bad in 7 years, starting nearly bankrupt. In a similar claim, he says it would easily be possible to earn a living for two families off 160ac; a conventional system in this area would need probably 20-30 times that amount.

Soil with an organic matter level over 10%

Soil with an organic matter level over 10% (not including the two worms)

The second point is one of sustainability. It is a fact that when you sell produce off the land, you will be selling nutrients with it. Most of the produce will probably be carbon and nitrogen, both of which can be naturally replaced. The others, be they phosphorus, potassium, magnesium etc etc, are not coming back. On a personal level this worries me, as I do not want the soils on our farm to be denuded in a century or two, which is how much phosphorus I am told we have. Gabe insists that he has enough for “thousands of years”, which may be true, but I do not think he has actually tested it on his farm.

The difference may come from using a different testing methodology. Our tests are done on the top soil only, but perhaps, by using deep rooted perennials, it is possible to access nutrients much deeper in the subsoil. If this happens, and new soil is formed with these nutrients, then we need to measure the total levels throughout a much larger profile. On a personal level, whilst I have a problem with mining something that will last for 100 years, I think 1000+ years is OK. I’d hope by then mankind will have found a solution to the problem, or more likely, another planet to exploit.

A cover crop mix (very similar to Pedders No. 1) where the sunflower will actually be taken through to harvest

A cover crop mix (very similar to Pedders No. 1) where the sunflower will actually be taken through to harvest

What did I learn from visiting Gabe (or visiting with Gabe as they say over here)? Not much specific, but seeing someone practicing what they preach, and making it work financially, shows what can happen if you think outside the box. The climate is so different here to the UK that it would be silly to try and copy the system; in the same way that Gabe says he loves the idea of Colin Seis’s pasture cropping, but it would not work with the very cold North Dakota winters.

He is also bemused as to why his neighbours don’t copy him, and why anyone would ever grow a monoculture. I think he fails to realise that not everyone wants to run a system like his, which will unquestionably take more management as it does not come out of a book. But perhaps there will come a point where anyone who wants to farm does not have the option of doing it any other way?

Day 23

Bismarck ND: a surprisingly  big town

The first port of call this morning was to the NRCS, where I met with Jay Fuhrer. His job title is “District Conservationist”, and he is well known for hosting curious farmers from around the world. For some reason Burleigh County, which encompasses some of Bismarck, has a concentration of farmers and researchers who are interested in soil health.

There is that term again, so I ask Jay how he defines it. The answer is the same as I read last night in the USDA papers, and not terribly satisfying. I can’t help but be a little skeptical when people are telling you to do something that they can neither define nor measure. Maybe I am too cynical?

I ask Jay whether he thinks SOM correlates with soil health, and the answer is no, the system is too complicated for that. Having thought about this subject a bit more today, it occurs to me that there is a bit of a problem with the literature. The common method for measuring SOM is to perform the “loss on ignition” test. This involves the following steps, or a variation thereof:

  1. Heat soil to 105C for 90 minutes
  2. Weigh soil
  3. Heat to 500C for 2 hours
  4. Weigh soil. The carbon will have burnt off, and so the difference in weight is considered to be approximately the weight of the organic matter that was present.

Now if we consider the following USDA quote, there is a bit of a problem.

“it takes at least 10 pounds of residue to decompose to 1 pound of organic material”

If you test a soil sample with 10 pounds of residue and 1 pound of organic material in it, the result will show 11 pounds of organic matter, or something close to that anyway. This begs the question, how do you measure true SOM (sometimes called humus), and what is the USDA actually referring to when it talks about the value of SOM? Further investigation needed.

A name I am hearing a lot at the moment is Rick Haney, a scientist for the USDA, based in Texas. He has apparently developed a test which measures several factors and combines them into an overall soil health score. I wonder how well the test results correlate with real world productivity, that is the real key in my opinion. It sounds like I should have planned a visit down there, but it is probably not doable now.


At this point I was whisked off by another USDA employee, Darrell Oswald. He moonlights as a farmer (sorry, rancher) too, and we drove up to his farm (sorry, ranch) near the town of Wing, population 2oo.

Darrell grew up on the ranch, being told by his dad that he should really get a proper job when he left school. It was hard work running their 200 cows, and making hay to feed in the winter. After he took over from his dad, he met Ken Miller, another rancher who also works for the USDA. Ken is in to holistic management, and intensive rotation grazing. Darrell described him to me as “one of the top 10 graziers in the world”.

The traditional ranching method around here, and probably the rest of the country too, is to leave a group of cattle in one field for the entire year, and then use the rest of the land to make hay. This worked fine on Darrell’s ranch, but they had to rent in extra land, and then feed hay for 6 months a year.

Just like being at home: a field of canola (oil seed rape)

Just like being at home: a field of canola (oil seed rape)

Following advice from Ken, the first thing Darrell did was split the 4 existing paddocks into about 25, and then combine the 4 main groups of cattle into 1 large herd. This meant that instead of being grazed all year round, each paddock only had around 10 days with cattle on it, and 345 resting (if you think these numbers don’t add up, remember the winter period has no grazing).

Within a few years, the grazing season had extended from 6 to 8 months, and they no longer needed to rent land for hay production. Before you ask, they do not buy in any forage either. This seems like an excellent result to me, as the main cost of keeping cattle is incurred over winter. It is also a pretty low intensity grazing system, with the cows moved on average only every 4-5 days. Darrell thinks that if he was a full time rancher, and could move cattle at least every day, then he may be able to double his herd in size without taking on more land. I hope he tries one day.

Compost layer

Bag it up and sell it

He does still make some hay, and one field I saw had been in production since the 1970s. By 2006 the fertility was so low that it was difficult to get anything meaningful from it. Since then it has had several years of all-year cover cropping with plants like oats, peas, millet, turnips and clover. In 2011 he considered the fertility to have been built to a point where maize could be grown. This crop was partly fertilised with nitrogen at three different rates, 90lb/ac, 30 and 0. There was no difference between the three treatments.

Unfortunately we did not have a spade to hand, but I dug around with my fingers. The top inch of the field was pure compost, like you can buy at the garden centre. I have literally never seen anything like it, hopefully the photo above illustrates the point. As a rough estimate, if we assume it is half as dense as normal soil, then that inch would weigh about 185t/ha. I think a normal compost application on farm land in the UK is 10-20t/ha? OK, so the field was out of production for several years, but the time has not been wasted.

IMG_3185We went to a couple of other farms that afternoon, and took a look at some fields that were in the process of transitioning from tillage systems to continuous no-till. The picture above is the best example of a tillage pan I have ever seen (not a huge data set). The pea roots had gone down about 4 inches, hit a sudden density change, and turned 90 degrees to grow sideways. I suppose the normal cure would be more tillage – time to get off the hamster wheel perhaps?


Day 22

“Healthy soils are high performing, productive soils” – USDA leaflet

This is an interesting and very relevant quote for me. The main reason being, how do you define a “healthy soil”?

“Soil health is a combination of physical, chemical, and biological properties that impact the function and productivity of the soil” – a different USDA leaflet

Is this a good definition? It is certainly a bit wooly, but then it is an extremely complex system, and one that we do not yet fully understand. I would love to be able to quantify “soil health”, in order to show whether or not it is something to be strived for on a commercially run farm.

Perhaps the best marker for soil health is organic matter levels. Indeed, SOM is linked with all three factors from the above definition,

  1. Physical – higher SOM levels can mitigate or eliminate the effects of compaction, as well as improving water infiltration and holding capacity.
  2. Chemical – SOM binds plant nutrients in the soil, stopping them from leaching away
  3. Biology – SOM is a food source for microbes, which in turn create plant-available nutrients


If soil health = SOM, my life is a lot easier. It is fairly easy to measure, and when you can measure something, you can manage it. But is this too simplistic? Perhaps. Any viws on this would be much appreciated.Screen Shot 2014-06-18 at 20.17.02

I started the day by visiting Jason Miller, an agronomist with the USDA (that’s the US Department of Agriculture by the way). As is probably obvious, I took home a wad of printouts. Here are a few quotes from them, with my thoughts added.

  • “Research at Michigan State University indicates that a 1% increase in SOM offers a 12% increase in crop production potential” This is a massive number, but does tally roughly with our farm, where adjacent fields with differences in SOM levels of ~2% can vary in yield by 20%.
  • “Using 1% SOM as a baseline level, the total long term value of a 1% increase could be estimated at $24/acre for the nutrient value and available water holding capacity” This is data from South Dakota, and so not necessarily applicable to other areas. But if you consider $24 is currently around 6bu of maize, then a 3% rise in SOM levels would be worth 18bu, equivalent to raising yields by perhaps 20%. How easily can we increase SOM?
  • “A typical acre of soil 6 inches in depth weighs about 1000 tons. One percent organic matter equates to 10 tons of organic material…it takes at least 10 pounds of residue to decompose to 1 pound of organic material” If we want to increase our SOM levels by 3%, then it will take 300 tons per acre of residue, or in real money, 670t/ha (Don’t forget, these are short tons they talk about, not metric tonnes). That is A LOT, and something doesn’t add up. David Brandt claims to have increased SOM levels from 0.5% to 5% on his farm. He started farming in 1971, so in 40 years he must have added 25t/ha of plant residue to the soils every year. In actual fact he says he can make that change in about 7 years, which is 140t/ha/yr. Neither of these seem plausible to me if you consider that a wheat crop may produce 14t/ha of above ground material, double that when you include roots too.
  • “Mycorrhizal fungi numbers reduce under wheat, canola [oilseed rape] and lupins. A low level of mycorrhizal colonisation in plants is also associated with high available phosphorus levels in the soil” We all know the importance if these fungi, but our conventional wisdom is that wheat does associate with it. I wonder who is correct?
  • “Reducing or eliminating tillage…can save fuels costs. A 50% reduction in fuel costs at $4/gallon would come to a $10,000 annual saving on an average 1,200ac farm” That is $8/acre, or 2bu of maize/ac. This is equivalent to a 1-2% yield increase. A useful amount, but it does rely on no-till providing the same or better yields than conventional tillage.
  • “[Dwayne Beck’s farming system means] more profitability and stability” This appears to be categorically true in the conditions of his farm. It is unclear if the same happens in Europe, where we have much stabler results anyway, and profits are often shown to be higher in tillage systems. There are many trials in the US that have been running for decades comparing tillage and farming systems, we seem to have no comparable ones in the UK.
  • “The biggest key to aeration, infiltration, drainage, and resilience  is the formation of excellent soil structure and macro-pores. These are cut or destroyed by even light tillage” This is an important point, as there will be times when some form of cultivation will result in a better and more profitable crop, in the short term at least. How quickly soil can bounce back from these events is important to know when making tactical decisions.
  • Cover crops create a canopy that in turn yields a microclimate ideal for microbes that break down stubble. As a result, organic matter increases, and soils are warmer and drier at the surface” This can be a catch-22. We want residues, and we want cover crops. The solution is perhaps to make sure cover crops are high in carbon, so that they do not break down too fast. We struggle in a British climate to grow lignified covers, which are the only types that will leave significant surface residue.
  • “Microbes with active living roots are what builds organic matter”  I think this is correct. SOM is built primarily by roots, whereas the main benefit of surface residue is to protect living plants from moisture loss and weed competition in the shorter term.

After leaving Pierre (that’s a town, not a person), and heading north, I took a little detour to see another farmer, Robert Salverson. He is another maize, soybean and wheat farmer, but outside of the day job he started up a service company for the oil fields in the north west of South Dakota; obviously an enterprising sort of guy.

A simple (it's a plank) solution to keep standing maize stalks from snapping pieces off the metering system. This machine also has floating trash clearers, which work much better than the fixed ones that are standard equipment

A simple (it’s a plank) solution to keep standing maize stalks from snapping pieces off the metering system. This machine also has floating trash clearers, which work much better than the fixed ones that come as standard

It is interesting to talk to these guys about my plans for trying some grain maize in the UK. They all think it is crazy to plant winter wheat immediately afterwards, because of the fusarium risk. I am hoping that our usual, robust, fungicide program will take care of that. The alternative is to grow a second spring break crop, which could be a good option in fields where black grass is a problem.

Soybeans growing in what was recently virgin prairie

Soybeans growing in what was recently virgin prairie

Robert showed me a field that was until last year virgin, never farmed, prairie. It is now planted with a crop of soybeans. Since the advent of roundup ready crops, this process is much simpler than it used to be, and the transformation to clean cropping land only takes a couple of years.

I asked him whether he felt bad about destroying prairie land; “Hell no! [or words to that effect]” was the response. I can’t help but feel it is a shame to lose this type of land to monoculture cropping, if for no other reason than the steady decline in biodiversity. However, people in glass houses should not throw stones, and the only reason that we do not do the same at home is that it has already been done in generations past!

The only real option if we are to continue producing economically viable crops is to attempt to be as benign to the environment as possible within our system. A good way to do this might be through the use of no-till, cover crops, and livestock integration. Someone should do a Nuffield Scholarship on it…

Day 20

Screen Shot 2014-06-16 at 20.22.48I first met Lewis Bainbridge just over a year ago, when I was travelling around the US looking at Wagyu cattle. I had a few spare days, and Dwayne Beck suggested that I should visit these guys (Lewis farms with his wife and two sons) in Ethan, SD. Back then they were  drilling soybeans about a month behind schedule, and praying for a long overdue rain.

Drilling soybeans in May 2013

Drilling soybeans into dust, May 2013

This year I found them a bit happier. 2013 had turned out OK (rain came soon after I left), and the yields had been good. They also have about 400 cows, and the beef industry seems to be in fairly good shape.

They farm a total of 5000 acres, in a fairly conventional maize and soybean rotation, with some wheat on the less productive land. They are trying hard to improve their wheat agronomy to make it profitable enough to fit into the main rotation. As I head further north on this trip, I see people starting to use more fungicides, maybe soon they will use 4 like we do?

Excellent residue levels from previous maize crop

Excellent residue levels from previous maize crop

Lewis is a big fan of wheat as it allows them to plant a cover crop afterwards, (oats, brassicas, lentils) that can be grazed by the cattle over winter. He considers this to be “free” grazing, on top of the main benefits the cover crop brings in terms of soil health and structure improvements.

He also finds that when the rotation includes wheat, it is much easier to keep residue on the surface, even two years afterwards. In the picture below, both crops have been planted after soybeans (maize on the left, soybeans on the right, both no-till). The difference is that two years ago, the left hand crop had been maize, and the right hand wheat. I find this a surprising result, as there is normally so much more bulk left from a maize crop that I thought it would have lasted longer.

Two crops following soybeans

Two crops following soybeans

Although they were not super desperate for rain today, they were hoping for some. They showed me their live weather radar apps, which are much more sophisticated than anything we can get in the UK (that I know of anyway). I use Google Earth at home for this, but the resolution is poor, and it is not updated very often. I wonder if there is a niche there for someone to exploit?

This very accurate data also means that there are companies that will insure the crops in a specific field, and then use rainfall and temperature records to decide what the conditions should have allowed in terms of yield. However, this is not part of the government subsidised crop insurance scheme, so is very expensive in comparison.

I’m obviously good luck, as over lunch it rained an inch. Maybe next time they can pay for my air ticket if there is another drought.

24m precision drill with custom made solid fertiliser application

Brad Karlen’s 24m precision drill with custom made solid fertiliser application

Next up was a massive operation, run by Brad Karlen. He farms 14000 acres of cropped land, with another 9000 of grassland that is rented out for grazing. He used to have a 2500 cow & calf unit, and a feedlot that would accommodate 7500 head. The last of the animals went this spring, and I think he is now enjoying not having to worry about them. I know this feeling, but in reverse. His cattle operation had been scaling down for a while; in 1992 they had 14000 head on the farm, including calves.

Looks like there are some worms living here

Looks like there are some worms living here, under maize residue

Brad specialises in growing seed, specifically for wheat, peas and lentils. The wheat he grows is from C1 seed, and is often a Clearfield variety. This was news to me – I didn’t know Clearfield wheat existed. It is all planted with a starter fertiliser of MAP, at a rate of roughly 100kg/ha. Good establishment is critical up here, as it gets cold enough to make winter-kill a real problem. He does sometimes beak the magic 100bu/ac mark (about 6.5t/ha), but can use three fungicides to get there.

Brad is into peas in a big way; this year he has planted 3850 acres, all destined for seed. He reckons to be the largest single producer of pea seed in the US, which I can believe. It also gives the best entry into wheat, as unlike soybeans it does not use water that is deep in the soil profile, and they are also harvested much earlier.

So this is what lentils look like. They mainly go for human consumption

So this is what lentils look like. They mainly go for human consumption

Both of his precisions drills (there is a 12m one as well as the 24m, see below) have automatic row shutoff, so that there is no overlap on the headlands. What is really clever though is that both systems are linked to the internet, where they sync up with each other. This means that if they are working in the same field, one machine will not plant where the other has already been. Very nifty!

The tried to park the tractor under cover to protect it from a possible hail storm, but it wouldn't fit through the doors

They tried to park the tractor under cover to protect it from a possible hail storm, but it wouldn’t fit through the doors. Luckily the hail never came

Just before I left, Brad told me about one of his toys, a .50BMG rifle. This is a round originally designed in WW1 to shoot down aircraft. It is too powerful to shoot on most ranges in the UK.

“I didn’t really need it, but thought I should get it while we are still allowed to”

A real American!

Day 18

Screen Shot 2014-06-14 at 22.38.13My last day in Kansas was a Saturday, so I’m grateful people gave up some of their weekend to show me around. First up was Josh Lloyd, who lives in a very exposed house looking out over the plains. I would have liked to get a photo of the setting as it seemed pretty unique to me, but I couldn’t find a good angle.

I anted to climb up the elevator to see the view, but it was blowing a gale and I was too chichen

I wanted to climb up the elevator to see the view, but it was blowing a gale and I was too chicken

It goes without saying, but Josh is a no-till farmer, and he grows mainly wheat and soybeans, with a bit of corn and some sorghum. Wheat has traditionally been the main crop here, and they have taken big strides in increasingly yields recently. In the 16 years Josh has been on the farm they have gone from 2.7t/ha to 4.7t/ha. He puts this down to attention to detail; it used to be a plant and forget crop, now they carefully control seed rates, fertiliser, and even apply the odd fungicide.

This 40' drill can place seed and two types of solid fertiliser

This 40′ drill can place seed and two types of solid fertiliser

Wheat is normally the first crop, harvested at the end of June, and all fields are then double cropped, normally with soybeans. These are harvested in the autumn and the process starts again. Josh has been looking hard at cover crops, but he has calculated that if he used them instead of a second cash crop, then over a 6 year period he would be $1.25M worse off. You would need a serious amount of benefit from the cover crops to pay for that.

Don't try this at home

Don’t try this at home

However, this big number assumes that there is no cash income from the cover crop. In the next line of his spreadsheet there is a calculation for using the biomass for grazing cattle on. Amazingly, for me anyway, the figures compare favourably with growing a soybean crop. If you combine this with the soil benefits you can accrue from the cover, it seems like a no brainer – assuming you do not mind looking after animals. I suggested maybe he should try a 3 year perennial ley in the rotation if there was so much money in beef; Josh was way ahead of me and has already put down about 50 acres to a very similar legume rich ley to the one we have at home.IMG_3087There are 35 cows on the farm now, and the plan is to get up to 100 in the next few years. At the moment they are calving on some semi-native grassland, which is being strip grazed. I would hesitate to define it as mob grazing as they are not stocked very tightly and the rest period is not very long for a brittle climate. But what would I know, I’m making it up as I go along! Another feed source for cattle is the old maize fields, some of which had been sown with an inter row companion crop at planting time. This cover tends to die before harvest, but the cows love to eat the residue.

Following some advice, Josh tried to plant maize with a legume companion crop last year, in the hope it would reduce or eliminate the need to apply artificial N. “It’s BS”, he told me – all the plants showed a nitrogen deficiency so he treated some with 30kg/ha and some with 60kg. The latter yielded double the former.

He has an approach that I like, whereby he will apply nutrients to a small area by hand to see what the response is before applying on the whole field. This has uncovered some misdiagnoses from the ‘experts’ before it was too late.

Organic matter levels on left, P tests results on right

Organic matter levels on left, P tests results on right

In the field in front of the farm, a section of it spent many decades as an area for holding cattle in the winter. You can see it clearly in the picture above, in the top left of the field. Not entirely surprisingly, this area out-yields the rest of the field, and not by a small amount. In a wheat yield map I saw, it had a clear advantage of around 30%. This field has been zone tested for just about everything you can imagine, pH, P, K, Zn, Mg etc etc. There are only two tests that show a correlation with the old paddock (and hence the yield map); organic matter and available P. The really interesting thing is that the OM levels are higher, but the P levels are much lower – to a point they should be considered deficient. This would suggest to me that the organic matter is making the nutrients available to the plant much more easily, even though there is physically less around. It also makes it very clear that soil test results need to be treated with great caution.

Soil erosion spotted in northern Kansas, the fist time I have seen a field here that looks like it has been ploughed and power harrowed

Soil erosion spotted in northern Kansas, the fist time I have seen a field here that looks like it has been ploughed and power harrowed. I don’t actually know what the crop, maybe maize, or possibly Sudan grass

The afternoon visit was hastily arranged, and so I was even more grateful that Robin & Kelly Griffeth could see me. They may be right in the middle of Tornado Alley (by this time the wind was really picking up, and they told me a storm was coming that night), but they are, in Robin’s words, “15 miles north of the wheat belt, and 15 miles south of the corn belt”. I don’t know what goes between two belts, but they make their money with soybeans, which yield up to 6t/ha.

The problem with this is that it is a terrible crop for planting wheat into in the autumn as it leaves the soil so dry. They also are finding that it does not produce enough high carbon residue, and the soils are degrading because of that. One option is to grow sunflowers after wheat, instead of the beans (they are double cropping here too), and they will often grow a companion crop of peas in with the sunflower. They believe the peas fix a bit of N, but they also attract beneficial insects, meaning insecticides are no longer required.

A pea & oat cover crop before sunflowers. Next year they will grow a similar mix but take it to harvest.

A pea & oat cover crop, before sunflowers. Next year they will grow a similar mix but take it to harvest. Although the winters are very harsh here, there is some evidence that planting them with other crops will allow the peas to surive the cold. Alternatively this field would make great forage for cattle, something they may try in the future

The traditional farming method here would be to grow continuous wheat, and leave the fields fallow over summer & autumn. Kelly was asked by one farmer how much money he made growing sunflowers in this gap – the answer was $1.70/acre. The other farmer thought this was ridiculous – why go to all the bother for that much money? But the fallow fields are not entirely left to their own devices, they are sprayed off 3 times to control the weeds, at a cost of around $50/acre. So the actual net benefit of the sunflowers is $1.70 + $50, plus benefits to soil health (if you believe in such things). As a further bonus, they feel the following wheat crops are better as well.

I didn’t think there was much to write about today, but that’s over 1200 words; amazing what happens on a Sunday morning in the middle of Nebraska with nothing better to do.

PS No tornados last night, but there was an epic thunder storm. I think this motel wants to keep its grass green; they kept the lawn sprinklers on in the middle of a torrential downpour. Belt & braces.

Day 17

I would imagine most people would have to look at a map to see exactly where this section fits into the US. Amusingly, Kansas City itself is not actually in Kansas, it’s in Missouri.Screen Shot 2014-06-13 at 20.03.18

Gail Fuller is an interesting guy. He joked with me that his hippy friends call him a redneck, but these friends must be way, way off the scale. Gail has to be the most hippy redneck in the continental United States!

He farms 1500 acres spread over a distance of 25 miles. Having started off wanting to “farm the whole world”, he has cut back now, and does not use GMOs or glyphosate (ask him about Don Huber). He has been no-tilling for a couple of decades, and in the late ’90s he started with cover crops. After a few years he gave up on that idea, but very quickly saw soil erosion increase massively.

Very sticky clay soils - this field has been in permanent cover cropping for 10 years. On second thoughts, that's not really a cover crop then is it?

Very sticky clay soils – this field has been in permanent cover cropping for 10 years. On second thoughts, that’s not really a cover crop then is it?

After a harrowing experience with crop insurance a few years back (Google it if you want), he’s trying to wean himself off state aid, and hence grows a very wide rotation including the usual maize & soybeans, but also wheat, barley (winter and spring), triticale and sorghum. In addition to this, most fields will have a cover crop every year, some of which Gail describes as “extreme’. These blends contain up to 50 (fifty) species. The system has increased organic matter levels from ~2% to ~5% in 15 years.

Maize into chemically topped white clover

Maize into chemically topped white clover

When I was looking around, I thought we were either in a field of sweetcorn, or one that had been re-drilled. Every other maize plant I had seen in Kansas was about 2-3 feet tall, yet these were ankle height. But it was no mistake, Gail starts maize planting on June 1st, at least a month after his neighbours (and neighbouring states from what I have seen). He is convinced his yields are better, both in volume and $s. He would not rise to the bait and tell me that the rest of the country’s farmers were doing it wrong; very disappointing.IMG_3061Artificial nitrogen use is very low, with some crops not being given any at all, or a token amount such as 30kg/ha. Insecticide is a dirty word, whether for crops or animals.

Speaking of which, the farm has cattle, sheep, pigs and chickens – both for eggs and meat. The cattle are a mix of Angus & Simmental genetics primarily, but he is now a fan of British White, and the herd will be converted to that in time. All of the animals are marketed direct to the public, as well as going into Gail’s freezer; “we don’t buy very much food”.

Residue left after grazing

Residue left after grazing

The cattle are mob grazed, normally with daily moves. One of the reasons Gail is moving away from Angus genetics is that in the fiercely hot Kansas summers black animals can have real (and lethal) problems staying cool. This can also be a bit of a problem for the meat chickens, who are moved onto a new patch of grass every day in a Chicken Tractor.

The chicken tractors

The chicken tractors. Each one hold 50 birds for 8 weeks

The laying hens roam freely with the mob grazed cattle, and eat maggots from the dung, helping to keep fly numbers down. It turns out chickens are like bees, where the rule of thumb when moving hives is “move it 2 meters or 2 miles”. Gail recently moved the chicken house about 150m, but all the hens went back to try and roost in the old location, half of whom were promptly eaten by a coyote that night. Oops. Are chickens stupider than sheep?

After a lunch spent discussing selling Holstein bulls as certified Angus (perfectly possible 20 years ago), fraudulent crop insurance claims (not his), and why he is called Gail (you’ll have to ask him yourself), I drove a short way to see another farmer, Keith Thompson.

He farms around 3000 acres, 400 of which is un-cropped, but can mostly be used for grazing or making forage. Keith’s son started with 4 cows 10 years ago, and now has 110 breeding animals, mostly Brahman crosses of some description. Here too they are mob grazing, and have just put a couple of fields into a rotation of 3 years grazing followed by 3 years cropping, having seen similar on a trip to Argentina.

Laying hens in with the cattle

Gail’s laying hens in with the cattle

Not too many years ago the farm was growing a wide variety of crops, normally about 6 per year, but now because of crop insurance peculiarities (a common theme is emerging), they mainly grow only maize and soybeans. This is a very low productivity area, and the county average for maize is less than 5t/ha, although Keith’s is 10% higher. I didn’t realise there were areas of the US like this – we can grow bigger crops of grain maize in the UK even with our too-cool climate. The problem here is extreme heat, particularly when it does not go below 30C at night.

One thing that came up again was the use of pre-emergence herbicides before drilling the crop; standard practice here. I think this really could be a boon for us, especially when planting OSR at harvest, when it can be tricky to get the timing right. The pre-em could be sprayed when convenient, even in the dry, and then the crop drilled when conditions are suitable. It does of course require a very low disturbance drill, and probably needs the UK addiction to rolling to be broken as well.

In the last three days I have visited three farms with three different policies when it comes to cover crops and spring planting:

  • Dave Brandt does not want living covers in the spring, so that the soil will dry out
  • Paul Jasa does not want living covers in the spring, so that the soil will not dry out
  • Keith Thompson does want living covers in the spring, so that the soil will dry out

Just goes to show that local conditions are paramount, both with soil and climate. For what it’s worth, I think the UK  fits into the first category.


Day 16

I didn’t actually fly to Lincoln, I flew to Omaha and then drove from there, but Google wants to show it like this. The man at Hertz offered me an upgrade to a Mercedes E63, and although I did like the idea of spending the next three weeks driving around a 500hp car, it wasn’t really worth spending a third of my scholarship on. More reasonably, I extended my normal car hire an extra day for $43, somewhat better than the £700 I was quoted in the UK earlier this week.

Screen Shot 2014-06-12 at 22.38.55After a leisurely lunch in Omaha (probably my last interesting meal for the next few weeks) I drove out to Lincoln to visit a University of Nebraska research farm, where I was hosted by one of their Extension Engineers, Paul Jasa, and also the farm manager Stuart Hoff.

The Rogers’ Memorial farm was gifted to the university in 1947 with a string of conditions, some more bizarre than others. It was originally used for grazing, and then to test out new ways of reducing water erosion through the use of novel terracing techniques. Water management is a big deal here, and rain tends to be all-or-nothing. The record in Lincoln is 11″ in one hour. On the other hand, moisture conservation is critical for crop yields.

I thought this picture shows nicely how a lot of America is divided into square miles, which were then divided into four and given to the homesteaders

I thought this picture shows nicely how a lot of America is divided into square miles, which were then divided into four and given to homesteaders

The farm covers 320 acres, and is half clay loam soil, and half silty clay loam (some of which is over 8′ deep). The heavier soil is farmed with a soybean->wheat->soybean->sorghum rotation, with cover crops after the wheat. The better, silty, land is farmed as maize->soybean->maize, although sometimes it will stay as soybeans for up to three years. Paul tells me that when the soybeans are farmed continuously like this, the yield actually goes up each year.

This is the first farm I have seen so far that does not use Roundup Ready maize. They find it causes problems when resistant maize appears in the soybeans (which are RR), and it means that they can use seven different herbicide modes of action, reducing the chances of resistant weeds developing.

As well as the commercially farmed sections, there are several long standing trial plots. I visited the Millennium trial in New Zealand, which had run tillage comparisons for 13 years, but here they have similar replicated trials that are now in their 34th year. In brief, they compare ploughing, discing and no-till, both with and without cover crops. Over this time period, no-till has come out ahead on yield by a small, but significant margin.

Sorghum. Boring

Sorghum. Boring

This result is largely put down to moisture retention, both through increased organic matter (around 0.5-0.75%), and extra surface residue [I feel like I’m banging the same drum all the time now, I think I may stop talking about this in future]. They also report reduced herbicide usage, and reduced soil erosion, and massively increased water infiltration – to the point where terracing is no longer necessary. Sounds like a win all round.

A different set of trial plots are working on cover crops. One experiment looks at high carbon vs high nitrogen species. When preceding maize, there is no real difference in yield between the two. With soybeans however, there is a yield benefit to using high C cover crops, but no penalty with high N. If you look at the photo below you can see that the high C covers visibly stunt the initial bean growth, but in the end they yield more. Paul believes that they are putting energy into rooting rather than leaf production, which pays off later in the season; “I like short plants” was something he often said.

Beans planted into a high N cover crop on the left, and high C on the right

Beans planted into a high N cover crop residue on the left, and high C on the right

In contrast to David Brandt, Paul likes cover crops that die in the winter, as he finds they use too much moisture up in the spring in his hot and dry climate. Anything that is not killed by frost will be terminated in early spring. They will also spray pre-emergent herbicides onto the cover crops in early spring up to a month before drilling beans, which allow time for the chemical to be washed into the soil and activated, as well as controlling weeds in the period between the cover crop and the cash crop. This is a new one on me.

Cover crops seem to have no real beneficial effect in the maize->soybean->maize rotation, as there is very little time between harvest and planting when the soil is warm enough to support significant biological activity. This is not the case when wheat is in the rotation, and large yield benefits occur with the use of cocktail blends sown in July. This positive effect is measurable throughout the four year rotation, not just in the cash crop immediately following the cover.

One story Paul told me was about the severe drought in 2012. I can’t remember the exact details, but it was dry. They had a field of maize which ended up yielding 10t/ha. Just a short distance away their neighbour’s crop (conventionally tilled, of course) failed entirely and died before making any grain. Before I could ask the obvious question, I was given the answer. The neighbour had been happy with the outcome, as his crop insurance (a government subsidy scheme) had paid him for the crop failure, and he had been able to put his feet up at harvest time. So it isn’t just the EU which makes farmers behave strangely.

In Ontario, Michigan & Ohio there didn’t seem to be many no-till farmers at all. Here in Nebraska 50% are using it sometimes, and 25% do nothing but. That’s probably down to the warmer and drier climate; did I mention no-till is good for moisture retention?