Saturday, 13 July 2013
Day 26 - Eye Opener in North Dakota
Well what a day Friday turned out to be! Two great hosts showing very detailed knowledge and appreciation for the farming systems they are using and how it interacts with the environment. Farming holistically with nature and mimicking the natural methods used by mother nature to produce density rich quality food. We started of at Brown's Ranch where we met Gabe Brown. Gabe farms about 5,000 acres with his son Paul, and some hired help. The system is split into two main areas, cropping on out lying fields where there is no water and high intensity short periods of grazing on permanent but improved grasslands. The groups of cows are moved twice a day into tall pasture, they graze the nutrient and carbohydrate rich seed heads and trample the rest back into the soil. This is not wasted but consumed by the billions of mycorrrhizae and soil bacteria that feed on this carbon. It is a great system that complements the cow and calf system. Not fertiliser is used on these fields. The grass gets grazed once a season, mimicking the grazing patterns of the migrating Bison. A herd of about 400 cows range these pastures and all of the beef is finished from grass into a premium market.
We also looked and dug around in very different soils. Some from neighbouring farms with very standard practice. We looked a soils that just grew spring wheat one year and flax (linseed) the next, and that was very poor. A little better was a corn, spring barley, sunflower rotation all with zero tillage. Then we moved on to Gabe's soils which integrated zero tillage, diverse rotation, cover crops and livestock and the soil was incredible. Gabe has not used inorganic fertiliser, insecticides or fungicides for a number of years. He rarely uses a herbicide, but will do in certain situations, hence he is not organic he's better than that!
The soil fractured so well, was alive with roots, and smelt almost sweet. It really was a terrific visit, standing in a winter triticale field with grasshoppers leaping every where. There is very little cost to this farming system which Gabe developed after 4 years of drought in the 1990's with no crops to sell and therefore little money to invest. It was truly inspirational.
We met up with Jay Fuhrer over lunch and afterwards to his office. Jay in the County NRCS advisor, funded through the USDA. Jay also looks after the Menoken Demonstartion Farm. At the office we performed an inflitration and slake test on two soils. On the left was Gabe Brown soil and on the right was soil from another farm. The soil in dried out and then crumbled a little before being put into the large centre plastic jars. The water is then poured into the top yogurt poy with holes and drains through the soil profile and out of the bottom into the silver tray. Gabes soils passed this water in a minute or so showing fantastiv infiltration. Just what you need during periods of high intensity rain fall. The soil on the right took almost 10 minutes to start to drip. Had this been on a slope the soil erosion would have been incredible, taking soil, attached pesticides and fertilisers into the nearest road or ditch. Why is it so better? It's all due to soil structure and the airspaces within the soil. The spaces between the soil particles allow water to pass safely through. Yes the water did run through the soil but due to the way the nitrogen is stored in the soil only a small percentage was leached. In fact the poor soil leached twice as much nitrate. The slake test also clearly demonstrated the ability of Gabe's soil to stick together. This is due to the root exudates, simple sugars given off by roots, binding the soil together making it more stable and able to withstand traffic and heavy rain fall.
In order to keep the soil healthy it needs to be fed carbon and protein. THis is added into Jay's system at the research farm by using cover crops. The one shown below contains; peas, oats, phacelia, wheat, radish, canola, turnips and clover. The insect life it was supporting was incredible, honey bees everywhere. This cool season cover crop is just grown through the early part of the summer but it would be great to try this at home after harvest and before a spring crop. All of these roots are releasing sugars, moving nutrients around and making locked up nutrients available to the plants. N fertiliser has been applied since 2009 on this plot.
Another interesting idea was a type of companion cropping. IN the picture below, the crop is sunflowers, planted at 30" spacings and inter-seeded between them, so at 15" was a cover crop. This broadleaved cover crop had buckwheat, flax, soybeans, cow peas, peas, radish and turnip. The idea was that the cover crop would grow along side the main 'cash crop' and they would provide make available nutrients the nutrients required. For instance the buckwheat would release Phosphate from the soil and the legumes would provide a proportion the nitrogen required. THis is an experimental farm so no extra inorganic fertiliser is applied but in a commercial scenario it is thought that fertilser's could be reduced by 50%. Are we mining these soil by getting the bugs to harvest the locked up nutrients? An interesting thought so an inclusion of compost, manure or sewage cake might be a good inclusion.
The whole day was a real eye opener to look at what can be achieved. Should be be aiming slightly lower, taking the cost out of the system and making us more resilient to future changes in or climate? I don't know but this has mad me look at things a different way. In conclusion, the best most sustainable farming system would be, zero tillage, diverse cropping, cover crops, manure applications and livestock. So not much research there then! North Dakota was definitely worth including on the tour and a huge thanks must go out to Gabe Brown and Jay Fuhrer.