Soil Health at No-till on the Plains
High Input Costs Might Be Turning More Farmers to Regenerative Practices
WICHITA, Kan. (DTN) -- While fertilizer prices are coming down, Ohio farmer and no-till legend David Brandt said high input costs are at least one factor driving some farmers to look more at no-till systems and cover crops as a way to reduce nutrient and chemical needs.
"We have seen more interest in the last 100 days than we have in a long time," Brandt told DTN on the sidelines of the No-till on the Plains conference this week.
Brandt noted a lot of farmers who pre-bought fertilizer and chemicals before last year are now facing input costs 25% to 30% higher than last year.
"I think there are a lot more guys looking to try to find the answer," he said.
Brandt was an honored guest at the No-till on the Plains annual meeting this year. He was awarded the group's first Legacy Award, which was also named after him. He also spoke on his decades-long journey of soil health. During his talk, he especially highlighted how he and others have gone from trying to find basic equipment for no-till planting and cover crops to the array of machinery now available.
"Today, we have all of this good equipment out there," Brandt said. "There is no reason not to no-till today."
As is his view after more than 50 years of farming, Brandt said more conventional farmers would save money if they put a greater emphasis on protecting their fields from soil erosion and reducing fertilizer losses from their fields in the process.
"If they could reduce their erosion on their ground by 50%, they can save 30% on their input costs," Brandt said.
Greg Scott, a soil scientist with the Oklahoma Conservation Commission, said the higher fertilizer prices have caused some cattle producers on the Southern Plains to diversify their pastures with legumes to reduce expenses and look to diversify their fields beyond Bermuda grass.
"It's always a crisis that drives changes," Scott said. "This year, we saw it with cattle producers who fertilize their pastures."
Michael Thompson, chairman of the board for No-till on the Plains, said the event saw more newcomers this year for various reasons. At least some producers are looking for more ways to be efficient with their nutrients and have fewer chemical applications.
"Some of it may be economic efficiencies, or some people may be looking for ways to bring the next generation or new options back to the farm," Thompson said. "We're seeing no-till and cover crops become a little more accepted as practices too."
KEEPING FOCUS ON SOIL HEALTH
While the farmers at NTP are among the most focused producers on soil health practices, the meeting didn't have any companies selling carbon credits, and there was little discussion about USDA climate-smart programs or payments. The focus remains on what can be done above ground to improve the biology and health of the soil below ground.
Asked about the $19.5 billion USDA will have coming out of its conservation programs to focus on carbon sequestration and emission reductions, Brandt said he has been pushing Terry Cosby, chief of the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), to ensure farmers are educated about why they should apply certain conservation practices.
"Nothing irritates me more than someone trying to grow cover crops who doesn't understand why they are doing it," Brandt said. "When they give producers money, and I don't care what it's for, it should also come with some training and education."
As part of the climate funding for USDA in the Inflation Reduction Act, USDA also received $1 billion to increase conservation technical assistance. That staff will also need to get up to speed.
"We're going to have to train the technical assistance people," Brandt said. "There aren't enough of them out there."
CONNECTING TO CONSUMERS
Blake Vince, a farmer from Ontario, Canada, who described Brandt as one of his American mentors, said agriculture needs an army of people to accelerate the pace of regenerative agriculture. He called on farmers to use their voice to educate others and "be a disruptor" to conventional thinking.
"The average Joe Consumer doesn't understand carbon," Vince said. "But they do understand water. We touch it, we smell it, and we use it every day to consumer. And if we would more emphasis on cleaning up our water streams, whether it's fresh lakes or the hypoxia in the Gulf, think about what we could do then for the soil-health movement because we know they are directly correlated."
"PREACHING TO THE CHOIR"
One more aspect about No-till on the Plains is that there's often an element of preaching to the choir about soil health, its benefits and its outside detractors.
Brandt, Vince and others who spoke also highlighted how other farmers in their home areas will criticize their practices to landlords and neighbors, especially as a mix of cover crops may look like weeds to the untrained eye. Vince noted, "I'm in the business of agriculture. How many of you have ever gotten paid a dime for aesthetics?"
Brandt and Vince each have integrated livestock by getting paid by cattle producers and allowing their cover crops to be grazed, and in Brandt's case, a sheep producer this year as well.
In western Nebraska, Logan Pribbeno from Wine Glass Ranch is paying crop farmers to put a cover crop mix on their acres as well. His cattle graze corn stalks or cover crops on acreage that in the past would have been fallow before wheat planting. Some farmers are seeing cover crops and livestock as more effective weed control than chemical herbicides.
"Oats and peas are an outstanding herbicide," Pribbeno said. On cover crops and feeding cattle, he said, "I think it's a gateway drug to regenerative farming."
TESTING WHAT WORKS
Vince also told farmers to not be afraid to fail with a crop. Tom Robinson, a farmer from Australia, also made that point. Robinson added that one benefit of having livestock in an operation is that cattle can make up for a failure.
"If you have an accident or mistake with a crop, the cattle will take care of it," Robinson said.
When it comes to seed varieties for cash crops, Brandt said, regenerative farmers also need to conduct their own research on the seed varieties that work for them. Brandt, for instance, grows non-GMO corn without any seed treatments because he sees that harming beneficial insects. He has noted some seed varieties don't perform well in his system, but others do.
"You have to do your own research," he said. "There is no company I know that is doing research on cover crops."
Highlighting soil tests and nutrient management, Ray Ward, founder of Ward Laboratories in Nebraska, pointed to the need to adjust nitrogen management. Research has shown 35% to 40% of a corn plant's uptake of nitrogen comes after tasseling. He suggests smaller applications of fertilizer at different times rather than one application in the fall or spring.
"If you feed corn once a year, it's probably not going to grow very well," he said. Ward added, "In the good old days, we thought the more N (nitrogen) you put on, the higher the yield is going to be. It doesn't always work out that way."
Brandt also pointed to his corn production averaging about a 9.1% protein level with his cover crops and no added fertilizer. Meanwhile, other farmers in his area may be producing higher yields but nearly half of the protein levels.
"Will we feed the world with high yields, or will we feed the world with protein and nutrient-dense foods?" Brandt asked.
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Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com
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