I recently asked what readers wanted to know about farming. One of the most common questions was why are we a tillage v. no till and cropping decisions. I decided to lump them together so we can talk about soil health. So let’s talk about soil health and farmers. Soil is the catalyst for our livelihood, our businesses, and our legacy. Soil is also a finite resource, protecting the soil, improving its health, and protecting it for the next generation. So what does it take to protect the soil? Improve soil health? Protect it for the next generation? The answer is complicated, depends on the geographic area or region, cropping systems, and the ability a farmer has to make capital investment. Soil health is often generalized and there are many, many best practices for different geographic areas. For us we focus on several key topics for soil health in both our short and long term plans: tillage, crop diversity, plant residue, soil microbial activity, and livestock.
No-Till in Montana
Montana is 2nd in the nation for adoption of no-till practices, in the 2012 Census farmers reported just shy of 7 million acres were managed utilizing no-till practices. This represents roughly 40% of all tillable acres in Montana. Nationwide farmers reported 96.7 million acres, 35% of tillable acres, were managed by no-till. This is an increase of almost 10 million acres from 2010 when the last data was collected. One can expect another significant increase when the 2017 Census is published later this year. Conservationists have put a lot of emphasis on the benefits of no-till and transitioning land into no-till or conservation tillage practices.
In Montana our soil type and climates make us an ideal location for no-till. Much of the state is prone to windy conditions as well as limited precipitation. The Great Falls Tribune analyzed our wind data several years ago and determined some of the windiest areas in the state. Their research highlighted our windy climate and pointed out that Billings (30 miles south of our farm) has 141 days where the peak wind gust exceeds 30 MPH. Another 23 days over 45 MPH and 3 over 55 MPH. Further north in Great Falls at the heart of the “golden triangle” they see peak wind gusts over 30 MPH 169 days a year. Furthermore they see over 45 MPH 33 days, over 55 MPH 6 days, over 60 MPH 3 days, and over 65 MPH 1 day. That is a lot of wind and a lot of potential for extreme wind erosion.
Precipitation is also often short throughout the state of Montana, particularly across the plains of central and eastern Montana. Statewide the average is just over 15″ however that is bolstered by higher precipitation averages in our western mountain ranges. Locally we average around 12.6″ annually with the bulk of our precipitation falling in May and June. The lack of precipitation highlights our need to hold on to as much soil moisture as we can, which is one of the key benefits to no-till. We have been an exclusively no till operation for the better part of two decades now and the reduction in wind erosion has been impressive in the last two decades.
What exactly does no-till mean to us? Well it has evolved over the years. For many years we utilized a “hoe” drill, with one seed opening (boot, seed opener or hoe – depending on your vernacular) every 10-12″ depending on the drill. Hoe drills have limited disturbance, however they disturb far more than our current drill. We now have moved to utilizing a disk drill and planter. The disk drill utilizes narrow disks instead of “boots” for the seed opener, we use a drill that has a disk unit every 15″ and our planter is 30″ spacing. Our 15″ spacing is very wide for cereal grain production, however research has shown us that 15″ spacing does not have any yield disadvantages to narrower spaced drills. This also allows us to leave more residue in the field because our drills can cut through it as well as disturbing less ground. Seeding is the only time a year that we disturb the soil surface.
The benefits to no-till are extensive including: labor reduction, fuel savings, machinery wear, soil health, water quality improvements, and benefits to wildlife. As you can see, no-till not only holds benefits for soil health but it also spills over into labor, fuel, and machinery. For most of the first two decades of my dad’s farming career fuel was our top expense every year and our tractors did some hard work in the fields every year. Fuel barely cracks the top 10 for top expenses now and our tractors have done less and less work every year.
** I do want to note that no-till works for us, no-till is in fact critical to us, but that is not universal. There are areas across the U.S. (and the globe) that struggle with no-till, there are areas where no-till is not the best option and other soil health strategies have to be employed. We are heavily invested in no-till, we firmly believe it is the best choice for our farm, but that is not necessarily the case for every farm. Every farm has to make the best decision for their operation they can, they have to evaluate their own environment, and have to balance the capital investments when determining their soil health strategies. No-till is certainly a preferred method but it is not always possible and improved soil health can be achieved utilizing tillage in some forms depending on your location.
I have previously discusses the various reasons why farmers add crops to their rotations (or in some cases why we do not) but I did not discuss the benefits of rotations for soil health. Our rotation has expanded considerably over the past decade to now include: wheat, mart barley, corn, sunflowers, safflower, alfalfa, and forage grains. Crop diversity has been shown to increase overall yields, as well as improving soil biomass, nutrient uptake ability. In a perfect world we would be able to utilize a long term (7+) year rotation on all of our land utilizing these crops. They are the perfect mix of warm season grass, cool season grass, warm season broadleaf and cool season broadleaf. Sunflowers and safflower have deep roots that break up soil compaction and allow deep nutrients to move toward the surface. Alfalfa is a legume that fixes nitrogen in the soil lessening our reliance on synthetic nitrogen.
Unfortunately weather often dictates our ability to fully utilize this long term rotation. We do the best we can but we are prone to hot and dry weather in late June through late August that severely limits the success of our corn, safflower, and when we have it in the rotation, spring wheat. Despite that limitation we have focused heavily on investing in our long term rotation abilities and have tried to follow quite a bit of the research by Montana State University on cropping systems.
Crop residue is a crucial part of the no-till cropping system. It is also enhanced by our extensive cropping rotation. Crop residue allows us to trap our winter snowfall. Crop residue also breakdowns over time improving soil health. With no-till cropping systems combined with increased crop residue allow for increased earthworm populations as well as providing a mechanism for increased water infiltration. As we have increased our cropping rotations we have noticed several benefits and downfalls to increased crop residue: water infiltration, snow holding capabilities, and maintaining moisture are certainly benefits. The downside has been increased populations of certain pests (namely army cut worm) and an increased presence of certain fungi (tan spot, fusarium blight, and powdery mildew for example).
We have taken our crop residue program to another level since 2011 when we invested in a Shelbourne Stripper header for our cereal grain harvests. I have done a Facebook live video during harvest on the benefits of a Shelbourne header. It can be found here. Outside of the harvest efficiency benefits that are covered in my live video the stripper header has considerable soil health benefits. The picture at the beginning of this post is corn, six weeks from harvest, that has been growing in winter wheat stripper stubble. This stubble also holds on to large amounts of snow over the winter. I have plans to do another live video on our stripper stubble snow in the next few days to showcase our the benefits for snow holding. Our wheat stubble from last fall is currently full of snow at a depth of 24-36″, whereas the alfalfa fields are 15″ deep. This equates to 2-3″ of water equivalent compared to roughly 1″.
Soil Microbial Activity
Soil microbial activity is aided by living roots, meaning the longer we can leave living roots in the ground the better. For us, soil microbial activity is probably the component of soil health we are least successful with. We have added alfalfa into our rotation that does leave “growing crops” in the ground year round as well as winter wheat which is alive over the winter. We are however hindered by our long winters, our first freeze is around the end of September and our last freeze is in the middle of May. This as well as our low precipitation hinders our ability to utilize cover crops and maintain living roots year round.
We attempt to remedy this situation by utilizing our long term rotation, using crops such as corn and sunflowers that grow late into the year and maintaining alfalfa in our rotation. We do not have the ability to double crop nor the time to raise a cover crop between cereal grain harvests and the onset of winter.
Livestock is another part of soil health that we are slow to adopt. We have a small cow/calf herd and are actively looking to add livestock into our cropping systems. We are hampered by the lack of fences and water on key parts of our farm and both of those require significant infrastructure investments.
Livestock would allow us utilize green manure within our rotation and take advantage of excess crop residue by allowing our cattle to fall graze crops such as corn and sunflowers. Cattle and sheep are both viable options for improving soil health. Management is an issue with cattle and sheep as if is important to move the animals through a grazing rotation before they damage the standing residue or cause too much compaction, particularly around their water source.
Soil is a finite resource and farmers do their best to maintain and improve the health of their soil health. Soil health improvements are a multi-faceted development program that has to be tailored to each individual geographic region and operation. Soil health improvements are also a decades long improvement program as it can take years for improvements to soil organic matter and other nutrient levels to be seen on soil tests. For us we have not seen many benefits on our soil tests and while it is frustrating to not have tangible results, we do know all of our efforts are paying off and are beneficial to our operation.
The bottom line for farmers is that we certainly care about soil health, many of the improvements we are looking to make will not show their tangible benefits until my children are farming. Every year we discuss different options to improve soil health, improve our own viability, and to ultimately increase our profitability. Every farm will have a different approach, every region and crop will have their own best practices, but we certainly all keep soil health at the forefront of our minds.