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Producers describe their road to soil health during the producer panel, Jan. 23 at Soil Health U in Salina, Kansas. (Journal photo by Kylene Scott.)

During the second year of the Soil Health U Jan. 23 to 24, at the Tony’s Pizza Events Center, Salina, Kansas, speakers provided many nuggets of information to share with attendees.

Our coverage team shares comments made by prominent speakers to offer insight into the two-day Soil Health U event, sponsored by High Plains Journal.


Gabe Brown: Journey to improve

Gabe Brown has spent more than 25 years on a journey of changing his thinking from “Dirt to Soil.” The keynote speaker told farmers that he needed to unlearn every bit of conventional wisdom about farming that his family had gathered over generations in the North Dakota plains in order to relearn about what he could do to improve his soil’s health.

In 25 years he’s learned several lessons that he’s put down in his book, “From Dirt to Soil.” These lessons include:

1. Do the least amount of mechanical disturbance on your soil as possible.

2. Armor the soil by using cover crops to cover the soil and provide interaction with mycorrhizal fungi.

3. Diversify plants on the soil, because nature doesn’t work in monocultures.

4. Keep a living root in the soil as long as possible throughout the year. 

5. Integrate livestock into your system, to increase the availability of nutrients to crops.

6. And, remember the soil health system you choose must be profitable to you.

Brown reminded growers that soil is a living, breathing, sub-aquatic ecosystem and that plants take energy from the sun and pass off a portion of it back into the soil via exudates. Soil microbes consume these plant exudates and some are converted to carbonic acid that helps break down organic matter to make it readily available for plants. 

While Brown hails from North Dakota, he said he understands how some farmers in drier climates might be skeptical about using cover crops to improve their soil health. “Rainfall is irrelevant,” Brown told growers. “What is relevant is the amount of effective rainfall you can collect with soil that has the right infiltration and structure that can store that rainfall.”

For many just starting out on the soil health journey, it is a big leap of faith to consider the health of the soil over the higher yields that they may be used to with conventional practices of chemical applications and tillage, Brown acknowledged. But if the most successful producer is one that is the low cost producer, consider the cost of production when you remove chemical applications and switch to a more biodiverse cropping system, he advised.

“We grow cash crops on 70 to 80 percent of our cropland acres every year,” he explained. “On those acres we also grow a cover crop before, along with, or after the cash crop. The other 20 to 30 percent of our ground is double-cropped to a cover crop and then grazed by cattle.”

By using a mix of warm and cool season grass and broadleaf cover crops with his cash crops, Brown has been able to reduce the cost of his production and bring in a profit. 

“I will take a profit over yield any day,” he said.

Brown said before he started his journey he used to wake up each morning on the farm trying to figure out what weed, pest, or fungus he was going to try to kill that day to protect his cash crops.

“Now, I wake up every morning trying to decide how I can get more life on my ranch,” Brown said.

—Jennifer M. Latzke


Jaymelynn Farney: Grazing opportunities

Jaymelynn Farney, Kansas State University beef cattle specialist, addressed “How to Use Cover Crops (Annual Forages) for the Cattle Operation.”

For the New Mexico native, it has taken some getting used to when it comes to grazing cattle on cropland. She’s found some positive interactions though, in her six years as a Kansas resident, to help cattle gain and perform well on cover crops, when pastures are lacking or dormant.

“One thing it reduces your risk of a single product,” Farney said.

For example, when corn is $8 a bushel for a cattle operation, net returns go down. Conversely when corn is cheaper, returns go up.

“Unfortunately our cropping and livestock enterprises kind of have an inverse relationship in regards to net profit,” she said. “If you have a foot in both worlds, you’re more likely to maintain economic stability for the long term.”

Much to her surprise, having cattle in the cropping system actually increases water infiltration.

“Now that one kind of threw me for a loop for a bit,” Farney said.

The cattle tracks in the fields allow water pooling and consequent absorption into the soil. Many producers worry about compaction, and on average hoof traffic only compacts the soil 2.54 centimeters or about an inch.

“Here in Kansas, when I’ve talked to soil scientists, they said that’s no biggie,” she said. “Because we have such a diverse weather environment, what happens to our soils? They expand, they contract, they break up. One-inch soil compaction, no biggie.”

Farney said she recently came across a five-year study out of Georgia, one of the most comprehensive long-term crop and cattle system projects she was able to find. In their system cow-calf pairs grazed on a couple different types of forages and a grain crop was harvested as well.

“Calf gains were extraordinary,” Farney said. “Now the interesting thing I thought, this is a lactating pair. Cow daily gain was positive.”

It’s difficult to get a lactating cow to put on flesh, but those who were grazing on the cover crops managed to.

—Kylene Scott


Del Ficke: Recovering agaholic tells his story

Del Ficke introduces himself as a “recovering agaholic.” The Pleasant Dale, Nebraska, producer is working to restore his farming operation to one he calls a “more holistic, sensible and profitable approach that is both modern and historically-based in concept and philosophy.”

Ficke has developed a composite breed of cattle he calls the GrazeMaster while returning much of his farming operation into a native pasture state using rotational grazing.

Throughout his talk Ficke offered more statements of philosophy, such as:

“We are so afraid of what our neighbors may think, that we can’t change our operations. We are so concerned about perception that we can’t do what’s right for ourselves and for our families. Maybe if the neighbor sees what you’re doing, you may find him doing it himself in five years. ”

“My only two goals are to have the most accountable cow herd on earth and the best soil on earth.”

“The most amazing thing I’m doing is letting a cow be a cow.”

“I never let my education get in the way of my learning.”

Ficke entered into a more practical tone when he said the average cow drops between 75 to 100 pounds of urine and manure daily, while one acre of healthy soil contains about 1 million earthworms, depositing 700 pounds of nutrients.

Yet still, Ficke returned to philosophizing on the soil.

“We treat our soil like crap. If we treated our families the way we treated the soil, we’d be arrested as horrible people,” Ficke said. “When you touch soil, you find it has medicinal qualities, it has healing components. What will make us a great nation again? What will make us healthy again? It’s soil. It will make us understand what community truly is.”

—Larry Dreiling


Ray Ward: Scientist keeps eye on pastures

Over-grazed pastures bother Ray Ward.

The co-owner and president of Ward Laboratories, Kearney, Nebraska, said he’s involved to “help production agriculture use resources as efficiently as possible.”

His talk was “Improve Grassland by Improving Soil Health.”

Poor pasture management “leads to weed invasion,” Ward said. “It’s not how you take care of the cows, but the grass.”

Simply put, the process involves “capturing the sun’s energy and converting it to feed,” he said.

Depending on where you prefer to gather your meals, Ward said it’s ultimately about making food for humans.

“Some prefer a vegan diet. Some prefer a once-removed vegan diet,” he said in jest. “We eat calories and plants convert sunlight to calories. We eat to maintain body temperature.” 

More leaves snare more sunlight, Ward said, and plants “prefer to produce new leaves by producing carbohydrates with old leaves, rather than moving carbs from the roots.”

Native grasses can delve deep to find moisture, but when too much grass is munched or swathed from above ground, root development can stall, and the plant is unable to utilize all of the water in the soil.

Less removable of the grass through grazing or otherwise allows the plants to recover. Ward used a graphic on a big screen to make his point, showing the effects of short, long and continuous grazing.

If you harvest 40 percent of the grass, there is zero root growth stoppage three days after forage removal, Ward said, but at 50 percent, there is 36 to 80 percent root growth stoppage.

“You have to build 30 percent of the root system to maintain,” he said. “Continual removal damages the system and promotes weed growth.”

Plants continue to be “strong and healthy,” Ward said, “when the grazing is short and the recovery is long.”

Plant vigor plummets “when the grazing periods are continuous and rest and recovery are nonexistent,” he said. “We need to understand how the grass grows.”

The stage of maturity influences forage quality, Ward added.

“Plants are making sugars all day, and they are highest in sugar at dusk,” he said.

They also breathe around the clock, and respirating overnight eats up sugar.

“It’s best to turn the cows in at 3 p.m., and cut hay in the evening,” Ward said. “You have to evaluate the pastures on your land, and understand the life cycle.”

Native prairies are no different.

“Even though the sod’s never been tilled, you hammer it too hard, and it’s gonna lose stuff,” he said. “Armor the ground. Keep it covered. Don’t (over-graze) it. You want a living root in the soil all the time.”

—Tim Unruh

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