Are You Trying to Grow a Crop in a Biological Desert?

NOTE: John Meyer, his wife Linda and their two youngest children, Charlie and Maggie, farm about 500 acres in southwestern Olmsted County, Minn. John planted his first oat cover crop in early spring of 2016 on half his land — on frozen ground and through snow — and planted corn directly into that “green,” allowing the oats to reach mid-thigh height before termination. That fall immediately after harvest and every year since, all of his ground has been seeded down with winter rye, along with a variety of other covers as the season will allow, and he has continued to plant his crops into that “green” during the spring. He has had some successes and some failures, but all of his soil health experiences have taught him something, and, as he often says, “An education is never free.” Meyer is currently working toward adding a several-season long livestock grazing component to his crop rotation, starting this spring.

I was busily "laying down my pre” herbicide application across my ground, using 2,4-D to take out the broadleaf “weeds” that have emerged, while leaving my rye cover still growing—pathetically sporadic again this year because it was planted too late AGAIN; my neighbor’s cover crop on sweet corn ground planted in September looks great now, but it was incredibly slow too this year. But at least my fields ARE turning GREEN. I’m just worrying about the potential of all those giant ragweeds that I was seeing coming, right now growing in patches and at just the two-leaf stage.

I LOVE seeing all those earthworm middens piled up on the soil surface. I am a little concerned that I don’t have as much residue remaining on my soybean stubble as I’d like to see. Hmmm… I will have to work harder on that. Where I didn’t spray out my rye at all last year, there IS more residue on the surface, and the field IS significantly greener there, but that’s mostly due to a higher density of dandelions, not added rye growing, as I had hoped for. That ground is just VERY, very wet, and, of course, that means “cold” too, and so it just isn’t very conducive to getting things growing early. However, it’s very obvious that it’s the abundance of LIFE that’s coming that has me both excited and encouraged, and at the same time, in reference to the giant ragweed, concerned.


Why am I making this point?

Well, after I finished spraying across all of my “normal” ground (what’s become managed as “conventional to me” at least, using no-till and cover crops), and after getting stuck twice to do that (I was spraying some Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) ground that was right alongside one of my rented fields; the waterway had silted in from dirt coming down from the “full tillage neighbor uphill,” and now the water has “left the channel” and is rerouting out of the waterway out into the CRP/buffer area), I went directly over to some “new ground” that I rented for the first time this year.

I “custom farmed” this land last year for a neighbor, because he didn’t get any fall tillage done after harvest the year before, and he didn’t have any no-till equipment. So he asked me if I would plant it all for him. I ended up combining it for him too. I remember being surprised when I got there with the planting equipment at how “hard” the soil seemed to be—you could literally feel the difference all the way up in the tractor cab. He had it sprayed/fertilized by the elevator as he normally did. And when we got all done last fall, he asked me if I would want to rent it this year, since he was considering retiring. He didn’t officially decide to do that until late April though, so obviously, I didn’t put down any covers on it last fall.

In one aspect, this farm is one step ahead: it’s been no-tilled for one year. But when I got over there yesterday, I had to ask myself why I was spraying there at all. Unless you got out of the cab and scrounged around doing some intensive hunting for very tiny plants, there was just absolutely NOTHING growing there! I was shocked at the difference! Oh, I can find some very limited spots where there’s a few plants growing, but they’re very rare, mostly in the cornstalk fields, and mostly where there’s woods all around, and MOSTLY then I’m finding small maple trees sprouting, etc., where I can find anything at all.

Occasionally I will find a ragweed or some other plant, but it’s just STRIKINGLY BARE! It reminds me of a desert, with only an extremely rare scrub bush or sage sticking out. There’s no earthworm middens on the surface, there’s no crumbling of the soil surface. It just “lays there,” and looks lifeless—DEAD!

I’m left wondering how, if even WEEDS can’t figure a way to grow in this stuff (it’s certainly NOT a biologically active soil), HOW DO WE EXPECT A REALLY GOOD ROW CROP TO THRIVE IN IT?

I’ve become accustomed to planting into a green, undisturbed field, and it seems strange to me now to think of planting any other way. I guess it’s safe to say that my thinking about the soil has officially changed. I WANT that field to be green and biologically primed and full of life before I put my row crop in there. I WANT to plant into a biologically thriving community. It’s scary to me now to think that the very first thing that is going to be growing on the soil this year is going to be MY CROP! YIKES! Think of all the energy that little plant is going to have to exude to get the biology pumping.

I think my plan will be to plant some oats in with my soybeans—both on the rented ground, and here on the rest of my ground, to amp up the somewhat thin “cover crop” benefits and mycorrhizal fungi associations, and to act as a nurse crop to help to crowd out early “weeds.” And we’ll see where it goes from there. I’m thinking on the fly—it’s called “adaptive farming.”

John Meyer is a member of the Land Stewardship Project’s Soil Builders’ Network. For more on LSP’s soil health work, including information on upcoming field days and workshops, click here.