Regenerative farming practices takes farmer from near ruin to success

Gloria Hafemeister
Gabe Brown, right, a North Dakota farmer who has adapted holistic agricultural practices visits with Tony Pierick, a Watertown farmer who is co-chair of the Dodge County Healthy Soil–Healthy Water group that hosted the Soil Health Expo in Juneau last week.

JUNEAU – Gabe Brown, a North Dakota farmer who adapted holistic and regenerative agricultural practices 30 years ago shared what he has learned with 180 farmers and crop consultants who attended the recent Soil Health Expo in Juneau. Many of those in attendance are already enjoying the benefits of using cover crops and no-till practices on their farms while more skeptical farmers came to learn what all the excitement is about.

Those who are leery of some of the practices are worried about the additional cost of cover crop seed and the time it takes to establish these crops. Brown, and a panel of Dodge County farmers who have had success with cover crops offered reasons why the practice does not cost – it pays.

From hardship to success

Brown came to regenerative agriculture through hardship. In 1991 his in-laws retired and he took over their 1,760-acre farm outside Bismarck, N.D.. He used the same practices they had used since the 1950s: tillage, fertilizers, pesticides and fungicides as well as conventional grazing practices.

But about five years later came four years of freak storms with resulting crop failures. He almost lost the farm at that point but chose instead to try to regenerate his failing enterprise using holistic management practices. 

The idea, in some ways, was to go back to farming the way it used to be done a generation earlier, restoring and working with the natural ecological balance of the land. Improving soil health by not tilling and allowing the biomass left from the previous harvest to lie on the ground was the first step. The surprising result was that when Brown tested his soil a few years later, leaving it alone had allowed the soil’s fertility to improve.

Step by step, Brown included more practices that now include no-tilling, multi-species cover and companion crops, and managed grazing techniques. By 2010 he had eliminated the use of synthetic fertilizers, and now he no longer uses fungicides and pesticides and very little herbicide. Each choice he made resulted in lower input costs, improved soil health, and eventually paid off in higher yields as well.

He told the gathering, “Every situation is different. You need to determine what your challenges are.”

All about soil health

Regarding tillage, he said, “When you see dust behind a tillage tool that means the soil is leaving the field. Soil the thickness of one sheet of paper is equal to a ton of soil per acre. Dust that flies around the disc hurts soil health and yields.”

Brown reminded attendees it was 'tillage that caused the great dust bowl.'

While some farmers are worried about cover crops taking moisture away from the other crops he counters, “We don’t have a moisture problem – we have an infiltration problem. Healthy soil holds water. Uncovered soil has a crust on the surface and water runs off.  Drought is not an issue if there is organic matter.”

Brown says that one percent organic matter holds 1.4 inches of water on silk clay loam, while five percent organic matter holds 4 inches of rain. 

"Tillage destroys the soil aggregates and organic matter,” Brown said. “It doesn’t matter what soil type you have – this principle works for any.”

Brown further points out that the more sunlight that hits the soil, the less profitable a farm will be.

“You need to capture that energy,” he says. “It all begins with photosynthesis – pumping energy into the soil.”

Most farmers start their cover crop practices with rye, either spraying it or rolling it in spring when corn or soybeans are planted into it. He says that is a start but suggests that diversity is better. "Nature thrives on it.”

The value of carbon

“Different species have the ability to cycle carbon in different amounts," Brown said. "For advanced soil health add diversity. The roots are what build organic matter and cycle nutrients.”

Brown backed his statements with results from the monitoring he has done over the years, which includes in-depth testing of his soil’s carbon-retention rates. Brown says his soils have 96 tons of carbon per acre in the top 48 inches. Ten to 30 tons of stored carbon is what is typical on conventionally farmed soils in the same region.

Regarding carbon, he cautions farmers to be careful about how they sell carbon credits.

“Most carbon companies charge 30% commission. We say farmers should get 90%. Be careful not to sign a 99-year contract," he said. "They measure it every year and if your ancestors don’t meet the requirements it can get expensive.”

Brown pointed out that in the U.S. farmers are only getting $20 per CO2 unit while Europe is paying $120 per unit.

Fox Lake farmer Jon Gibbs, center, shares his personal achievements in soil health as part of a panel of Dodge County farmers at the Soil Health Expo in Juneau last week. Joining him, from left, are Bill Parsons, Waterloo, and Ken Gault, Neosho.

Dodge County experiences

Several Dodge County farmers shared their experiences experimenting with cover crops, including Jon Gibbs who runs 1200 acres near Fox Lake. Gibbs raises corn, sweet corn, soybeans, peas, lima beans and began utilizing cover crops as a way to suppress weeds after wheat or peas. The Fox Lake farmer then progressed into planting a bushel of cereal rye per acre after beans in fall.

“After 2020 wheat, I put in a cocktail mix of spring barley, red clover and purple top turnips,” he said.

Ken Gault is a third generation dairy farmer who milks 290 cows on his Neosho farm.  He currently farms in partnership with his wife, and brother. His dad is around to assist with tasks on the farm as well.

Their farm includes 350 acres of corn and 190 acres of hay.  They also raise 30 acres of wheat and 80 acres soybeans. 

While Brown suggests leaving all residue on the field and not hauling away corn stalks or wheat straw, Gault said they do remove the straw which is needed to bed their livestock.

The Gaults' began their no-till practices in 2006 and established their first cover crop in 2011. In 2016 they reached 100 percent no-till on their farm and also tried rolling the rye in spring instead of spraying it.

“2018 was the first time we planted into green and by 2020 we had 100 % covers on our land,” Gault said.

The Neosho farmer says he used to enjoy tilling the land but now admits it is nice that there is no dust. "No soil is ever leaving our fields.”

Bill Parsons runs a 170 acre cash grain farm at Waterloo. The farm was previously a dairy farm but he sold his herd and now also has a job off the farm.

Parsons raises 17-19 acres of wheat each year and a fifty-fifty split between corn and soybeans on the rest of his farm.  He has been growing cover crops for 9 years.

“I do a mix of radishes, crimson clover, and sunflowers after wheat. I really like the covers and the comments I get from people when they drive past the farm.”

Challenges and advantages

Asked about challenges the farmers faced when adapting the no-till, cover crop practices, Gibbs said labor is his biggest issue. Parsons added that dealing with unpredictable weather since he must get his field work done on the days he is off of work.

“Getting the right cover for the right crop is a challenge," Gault said, adding that rye is cheaper than other covers.”

While Brown promoted grazing as a part of the mix in protecting the soil, Gault said, “With dairy cows and robotic milking, grazing is not an option.”

The panelists also pointed to other advantages.

Gault said, “High fertilizer prices are my motivation to do covers because I can control weeds and grow fertilizer. Our nitrogen purchase has been cut the last four years and tests show we still have excessive nitrogen available.”

He also notes that corn may start out a little slower but it more than catches up later in the season.

Parsons says he sees a benefit to the covers by holding the soil in place, while Gibbs has noticed that more water remains in the soil for the dry months so there is less stress on the crops late in the season when it gets hot and dry.

Gibbs pointed to one other benefit.

“I haven’t noticed as much white mold on soybeans since we are doing a cover.  When soybeans followed lima beans we always had a problem but since we are not disturbing the soil I found we can handle it.”