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?

Day 15

My 36 hours in Canada are done, time to move back to the US for a while.Screen Shot 2014-06-11 at 19.22.40

David Brandt is one of the big names in no-till and cover cropping. He is a friend of Blake’s, who said I had to go and visit, and I have also seen him on a few youtube videos. He farms 1250 acres, spread out over a 12 mile radius.IMG_3040He is a real long term no-tiller, having started in 1971. The first four years went well, and then yields started to drop off. David attributes this to growing too many high carbon ratio crops, and so he thought perhaps cover cropping could be the solution. They planted the first covers in 1977 and have been doing it ever since. Now he is one of the go-to guys in his field, and runs a cover crop seed business on the side. At the moment the US government is incentivising farmers to try out cover crops, and paying them $35-60/acre for up to 3 years. This is free money as the cost of planting them is only $15-20/acre, but according to David most of them stop when the time is up.

Soybeans germinating through rye stems

Soybeans germinating through rye stems

The rotation here is maize -> soybean -> wheat. Straight cereal rye cover crops are grown after maize, with more elaborate mixes after wheat. The soil is a very sticky yellow clay. In 1971 the organic matter levels were 0.5%; they are now 5%. This may sound fanciful, but last year David bought 80 acres immediately adjacent to his home farm. This land had been in a full cultivation system, so it provides an excellent comparison. We went and dug up some soil on each side of the boundary, and this was the result:IMG_3038

For anyone who says it is not possible to change soil in a human timeframe, this photo should blow your mind. Colour, texture, density, everything is totally different from one field to the next. David claims to be able to make this change in about 5 years, I’d love to come back in 2020 and see if he has done it.

The yield difference between these two fields is expected to be around 20%. He also claims that the maize grain grown in the long term no-till/CC fields will have almost double the protein content, which attracts a 20% price premium when sold directly to hog [pig] farmers.

Maize planted into high nitrogen ratio cover crop residue

Maize planted into high nitrogen ratio cover crop residue

To quickly improve the soil condition of a field, David uses large cover crop mixes with peas, vetch, clover, hemp, rye, barley, millet, radish, cabbage, flax, phacelia & sunflower. Once he is happy with the soil condition, he will switch to using a simpler mix of peas and radish. This has two benefits, firstly it fixes over 200kg/ha of nitrogen (July – April), and also it will die off in the winter, meaning no herbicides needed, and also the soil will dry quicker in the spring. In his words, “a cover crop will always keep your soil wetter in the spring”, which is a drawback on heavy soils when you need them to dry out to be able to drill spring crops in the right conditions.IMG_3042

Cover crops planted after wheat are drilled, but this machine is used to blow cereal rye seed into the standing maize crop so that it can get established before harvest in October. It’s a home converted machine, and they obviously like playing with toys:

IMG_3044This contraption is a home made triple-disc pumpkin direct drill. One man drives the tractor, the other sits on the seat you can see, under the umbrella. Every 7 feet (or 3.5 for smaller varieties) the man on the back drops a couple of seeds down the shoot, followed quickly by a handful of NPK fertiliser. It’s certainly simple!

To finish with I’ll relate part of a conversation I had at Monroe’s Original Hotdog stand not too long ago.

Nice Man: You should try a root beer, we make it ourselves.

Me: OK, sounds good.


Me: So how do you make a root beer?

Nice Man: Sugar. Lots of Sugar.

Me: OK…

Nice Man: And the syrup. We mix it up. I think it’s made of root.

That’s what I call home cooking.


PS You will be happy to hear I got my suitcase back.


Day 13

This trip didn’t get off to a good start, and I hadn’t realised until just now it was the 13th day of my travelling. The following annoyances occurred the evening before my flight,

  • US sim card failed to turn up in the post (ordered three weeks previously)
  • New phone case was delivered – but was for the wrong phone (my fault)
  • Departure terminal changed – my bus ticket was now for the wrong place
  • I realised that I booked a rental car to be returned on July 3rd not July 4th when my flight returns. As July 4th is the biggest holiday in the US, Hertz want another £700 to extend for one more day. Interesting, and currently unresolved.

Screen Shot 2014-06-11 at 17.18.00

Anyway, the flight was fine, and customs was painless. One small hitch came when I picked up my rental car and the cigarette lighter didn’t work, so my sat-nav was non-functional. There was another car at hand though, and I swapped into that one.

Welcome to America

Welcome to America

My stay in the US was short lived, as I immediately crossed the border into Canada and drove two hours east to see a fellow Nuffield Scholar, Blake Vince. This again was a painless journey. Unfortunately my bad luck had not quite run out. After getting out of the car and saying hello to Blake, I went to get my bags out, only to find an empty boot. What kind of an idiot swaps rental cars and takes only one of their bags with them? (Me). I decided against a 4 hour round trip to get the suitcase back, and went to buy some clothes to tide me over until I pass Detroit again in a few days. Hopefully that is enough cretinous behaviour, for this trip at least.

Even flatter than home, and many more wind turbines

Even flatter than home, and many more wind turbines

Blake is a 5th generation farmer, who is working with his dad and uncle on 1200ac of pretty heavy, wet clay. Their typical rotation is maize, soybeans twice, and then winter wheat. They have been almost exclusively no-till for the last thirty years, and recently started experimenting with cover crops. The climate is very continental – extremely cold in the winter and extremely hot in the summer. This shows itself fairly clearly in the yields they get; 11.5t/ha of maize and 6.5t/ha of wheat (and 4t/ha of soybeans). Rainfall is the limiting factor, made especially acute with such hot periods during summer.

Hairy vetch

Hairy vetch

Wheat is harvested in July, and maize is only planted in late April or May. This 9 month window is a perfect spot for cover crops, but on most farms the fields are left bare. Blake is experimenting with several different mixes, but on most of the farm he has used an 11 way blend consisting of

  1. Hairy vetch
  2. Cereal rye
  3. Crimson clover
  4. Austrian winter pea
  5. Soybeans
  6. Faba beans
  7. Sun hemp
  8. Sunflower
  9. Daikon radish
  10. Maize
  11. Wheat (volunteers)

Because of the hot temperatures when this is drilled, the warm season plants grow very fast to begin with, but then die over winter. In the spring all that is left is the rye, clover and vetch. We are often told that vetch will die at -8C, but it never seems to happen on our farm; this vetch survived -20C for several weeks, which explains a lot.

These three surviving species come into spring at about ankle height, but as soon as it warms up, the rye will grow 2-3 feet in six weeks, whilst the legumes bulk out again. Incidentally, Blake reckons on them fixing over 50kg/ha of nitrogen in the 9 months they are in the ground.IMG_2992Next the cover is sprayed off with glyphosate, atrazine, and another one I can’t remember. Don’t forget, all of these guys are using roundup-ready maize & soybeans, so they need to stack herbicides just to clear the field. The maize is then planted straight into the green cover with a standard double disc opener. Slot closure perhaps left something to be desired, but they don’t seem to worry so much about that over here.

Crimper roller

Crimper roller

Finally, the field is rolled with a crimper roller to lay the cover into a protective mat over the soil, and also help to kill any plants that were missed by the spray. The roller is a great idea, but it really only works on plants that have started stem extension, which we cannot always count on. This system is really crying out of the rollers to be mounted on the front of the drill tractor so it can be done in one pass.

CC vs no CC

CC vs no CC

Blake has tried out a few different mixes for his cover crops side by side. In one trial, which contained radish and peas, the seed ran out before all the ground was drilled, there is a picture of this above. In the un-drilled section there is significantly more volunteer wheat, which is presumably due to the lack of shading from the radish leaves. To me this is a possible reason for using placed started fertiliser on OSR at home – even if it does not result in higher yield, the leaf cover may help to significantly suppress weeds.

By this point it’s 2am in the UK, and time for my bed.