Here’s my final Nuffield report. Just need to do the presentation in November and I’m free.
It’s over, and I’m ready to go home. 4 weeks is really too long for me to be away, so I am happy to be sitting in Minneapolis waiting for my flight.It’s been a fun trip, but what have I learnt? I think the answer is “a lot, but also not very much”, which probably makes me sound like a bit of a prat. Of course, I have seen loads of people who are thinking about soil health, and trying to improve their farms. Some in a small way, and some going crazy [“so far out of the box they can’t see it any more”]. Compared to NZ, there seems to be more people here who are trying to break out of the mould.
I think the reason for this is that in the US the trend has been towards slimming down farm operations to growing only maize and soybeans. Most people seem to be happy doing this, it’s certainly where the $$$ is found. But there are some who value rotations, and try to take the long term view, even if it may be less profitable to begin with. This does not appear to be such a problem in NZ, as they are able to grow a more diverse rotation whilst making good money, and they utilise livestock much more frequently as well.What it comes down to is local conditions. It is a fine line between realising this, and falling into the “that’s great, but it won’t work on my farm” trap. The climate over here is so incredibly different, at least in the centre where I have been, that it is really very difficult to take any specific and directly relevant ideas home with me. They get VERY cold in winter and VERY hot in summer, which has pluses and minuses, but it is undeniably different. This is why I said I haven’t learnt a lot.On this note I have been a bit disappointed with the attitude of some people who consider their way to be gospel, and everyone else has to do it like that as well. I’ve heard Americans telling Europeans they are wrong, Australians telling Americans they are wrong, and Europeans telling Indians they are wrong. All without any concessions that things may be a bit different over there; it’s a bit sad really in my opinion.
But that’s enough of the negative. I really valued getting into some of the theory about how and why increased soil biology can help to improve crops, and ultimately profits. Admittedly, hard data is hard to come by, but there is good anecdotal evidence. And besides, any scientific data would be fairly irrelevant to us; in the same way the decades of research showing no-till to be better is totally inapplicable to our climate. It would be good if we had the same long term experiments in the UK, but it’s too late. Do we really want to wait 10 years to find out something we can do ourselves much quicker?
Something that has been reinforced in my mind is that diverse cover crops are a real benefit, and it was interesting to hear that soil improvement can be boosted by grazing them. I do believe that we can generate significant amount of plant available nitrogen like this, but it will not be a quick fix.
The big unanswered question is how do we increase soil organic matter, when we need 185t/ha to gain a solitary 1%? Even 0.1% per year seems like a hell of a lot, and there are guys claiming to get a lot more that than. Is it because of soil stratification, and sampling technique ? Seeing Gabe Brown’s and David Brandt’s soils, I don’t think so. They don’t look layered to the eye, but that could of course be deceptive. Does it really matter? If it’s there who cares where it came from?! Something to ponder over the Atlantic.
Here are the trip stats:
- Distance driven – 4,588 miles
- States/provinces visited – 10 (that’s a bit disappointing, I was very close to some more, does that count?)
- Farms visited – 31
- Number of sheep seen – 0
- Number of cows seen – ~12,000, almost all in a 48hr period
- Proportion of meals that involved frying – >75%
- Proportion of meals including vegetables not in a burger – <10%
- Level of addiction to mobile data now I’ve discovered local sim cards – 100%
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.
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.
This leg of the trip has had precisely zero relevance to my study topic, but it’s been very interesting nonetheless. I had left these days unbooked to see what came up, and in the end it was…dairies. A friend called a friend who called a friend etc, and eventually I was emailed by the head of Genus/ABS for North America [well done Nuffield network], and he sorted out a few visits on the way down through South Dakota.
The smallest operation I saw was run by an English family, and had 900 cows. The largest was around 3,000. I knew nothing about dairies a few days ago – and not much has changed. Most of the visits were spent with me saying thing like “Wow”, “that’s amazing” or “very interesting”. All of these were true, but I did not have many penetrating questions to ask…
One common theme was expansion. All of them were looking to build numbers, sometimes only a couple of hundred, often more. They all had plans, and permission, to double in size. Obviously the dairy industry here is very strong at the moment. At one point one lady was showing me the new barn extension they were putting up, and telling me about the 120 cows that were going to fill it. I remarked that she must have a friendly bank manager; “No, last year was good, we don’t need the bank for this”.
In NZ the guys were going on about rotary parlours all the time, I had assumed the same would be true here. But it seems they were stung with bad reliability a couple of decades ago, and now hardly anyone wants to use them.
After the ABS/Genus tour, I headed down further south into Nebraska to stay the night with a guy called Bart Ruth. He’s an Eisenhower Fellow, and hosts a lot of Nuffield visitors. One of his neighbours is a man called Todd Tuls, who owns three dairies, milking around 15,000 cows in total; it’s quite a big business. Here are a few photos from his 6,000 cow Butler Creek dairy, which is something quite beyond my previous, limited, agricultural experience.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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:
- Heat soil to 105C for 90 minutes
- Weigh soil
- Heat to 500C for 2 hours
- 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.
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.
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.
We 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?
“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,
- Physical – higher SOM levels can mitigate or eliminate the effects of compaction, as well as improving water infiltration and holding capacity.
- Chemical – SOM binds plant nutrients in the soil, stopping them from leaching away
- 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.
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.
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.
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…
This 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.
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.
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!
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.
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?
I 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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!