Soil Health: Short-Term Gains, Long-Term Dividends

How One Farm’s Focus on Soil Health Helped Make Row-Cropping Viable...& Fun

The economic benefits of building soil health are a balancing act between immediate payoff and delayed gratification. In an ideal situation, the source of those quick profits will set the foundation for a longer-term investment that pays dividends.

For example, Dawn and Grant Breitkreutz recently showed a chart full of financial information during a Land Stewardship Project Soil Builders’ Network workshop in the southeastern Minnesota community of Preston. The top of the chart showed the immediate return they got by adding wheat to their corn-soybean rotation. The wheat itself was pretty much a breakeven proposition for their farm, which is in southwestern Minnesota’s Redwood County. But by having a crop in the rotation that is harvested in August, the Breitkreutzes were able to get a multi-species cover crop mix planted early enough that it was well established by fall. That provided excellent grazing for their beef cow herd in November and December. Once the cost of seeding the cover crop was subtracted and the feed value of the grazing was added in (plus money made from selling wheat straw), the farmers estimated their net gain was $87 per acre. Not a bad short term-gain on investment.

“But this is the part about paying it forward that’s hard to consider if you’re just starting into this—that’s the gains that follow,” said Grant.

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Dawn and Grant Breitkreutz, shown here during a small group discussion at a recent LSP Soil Builders’ Network workshop, have integrated crops, livestock, and pastures on their operation. “It makes farming fun again,” says Dawn.

The lower part of the chart tallied “delayed gains/savings” for the following crop year. When they went to plant corn on that same land the following spring, the Breitkreutzes were able to reduce the amount of fertilizer and herbicide they used as a result of the increased soil health benefits grazing cover crops produced a few months before. In addition, they were able to plant hybrids that lacked the expensive “stacked” traits normally needed to fend off pests and disease. Grant and Dawn feel their soil biology is so high that their pest cycles have been broken. The result: the “delayed” savings was $103 per acre.

“So, after wheat, we can show a $190 an acre net gain, after costs,” said Grant. “That’s really hard to explain to a banker, because they just look at January 1 to January 1. It’s not about bushels, it’s about net dollars per acre. That’s key, that really changed our thought process.”

It’s also hard to quantify economically benefits such as the Breitkreutzes’ ability to get in the field under wet conditions when their neighbors’ field equipment is stuck up to the hubs. Or being able to produce a profitable crop and good forage even in a drought year. That’s because they have been able to, in some cases, quadruple organic matter levels over the years, which has greatly increased their soil’s ability to soak up and store water.

Part of the reason farmers like the Breitkreutzes have a hard time explaining their way of making money via a typical profit and loss statement is because the resource that is at the core of their enterprise has a lot of complex, hard-to-understand components.

“The number one resource concern you should be looking at is fixing the soil biology,” said Grant as he flashed another slide showing a neighbor’s crop field swamped with water and full of wheel ruts, despite the fact it had been tiled. “You can fix these things, biologically.”

Doubling Down

The Breitkreutzes admit that soil was not their number one resource concern when they started looking at ways to significantly change the way they farmed back in the early 2000s. Their main goal was to provide enough forage—both grazed and harvested as hay—for their beef cattle. It seemed like their pastures were constantly overgrazed and prone to drought, making them more reliant on stored forages, which can be expensive to produce or buy. They were working harder than ever, and their financial situation and quality of life were suffering. Dawn said they even considered quitting farming. “I didn’t want to go work in town,” she said.

In around 2003, the Breitkreutzes began utilizing managed rotational grazing in a serious way, rotating their cattle to allow the grazing paddocks to recover while spreading manure and urine evenly across the soil. They started with one 47-acre pasture that they broke up into nine paddocks utilizing cost share funds from the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service. In the past, this was a pasture that never seemed to be able to grow grass taller than six inches. Through rotational grazing, they were able to double the number of grazing days they got off that pasture, and then double it again, all the while controlling weeds like bull thistles.

The couple modified the system and now utilize mob grazing, which crowds more cattle into paddocks for shorter periods of time before they are moved — often at least once a day. Such a system can leave behind as much as half the forage present in the paddock, which allows it to recover while building soil health.

Dawn showed a slide of a pasture that at one time could only handle 16 to 18 cow-calf pairs during a grazing season.

“Through managed grazing and putting water in strategic places, we now run 55 cows for 180 days on this pasture, and we eliminated fertilizer and herbicide,” she said.

Another crop field on their farm long gave them headaches: it had light soils, which made it prone to drought, and it was full of rocks, creating tillage problems.

“We would collect insurance on it three out of five years,” said Dawn. “We couldn’t get anything to grow on it.”

The soybeans they grew there had cyst nematode problems, so they planted it to alfalfa for hay production to break up the pest cycle. Four years into the alfalfa planting, grasses started coming up, so they decided to stop haying it and grazed it. Dawn showed a slide of the 21-acre field: a variety of grasses and forbs were thriving. “It’s one of our most productive fields on our farm now,” she said.

As the soil has revived, so has the diversity of their grazing areas—one pasture went from three species of grasses to over two dozen-plus. The farmers did not seed those extra species—they say it comes from creating the right environment for a variety of plants to thrive by carefully balancing periods of disturbance and rest. And that diversity pays off in the form of pastures that are more resilient and productive for a longer period throughout the year.

Lessons Applied to Row Crops

Dawn makes it clear that she is no fan of row-cropping. It’s hard on people, equipment, and the land; she’d like to see the whole farm planted to grass. Grant concedes that row-cropping is still a major part of their farm’s enterprise mix because of peer pressure, even though he’s not a fan of the toll it takes on the land either.

“Our current model of farming—it took me awhile to get brave enough to say this, but I say it all the time now—it tells us to kill everything,” he said.

But both farmers feel they have been able to make row-cropping a better fit for their farm economically, agronomically, and environmentally by borrowing ideas from their rotational grazing enterprise—namely, relying on diversity above and below ground 365-days-a-year. That’s why they’ve integrated multi-species cover crop mixes into their no-till corn and soybean system. They utilize mixes of legumes, small grains, and brassicas that include as many as nine different species in a planting; they’ve also experimented with a 12-way mix. Grant said rather than competing with each other, getting the right mix of cover crops seems to create a mutually beneficial soil environment. For one thing, the Breitkreutzes like the variety of root depths they get with various cover crop species. Different depths provide different services for the soil.

“Some can harvest nutrients, some can take care of compaction, some are for erosion control,” said Grant as he showed a photo of a pit that had been dug on their farm. It displayed how several years of cover cropping had enriched a spot where road work had left a gravelly substrate a dozen years before. The farmers encouraged workshop participants to follow the principles of soil health: armor the soil, minimize soil disturbance, utilize a diversity of plants, keep living plants and roots on the land all year-round, and, when possible, integrate livestock.

“We graze every acre we farm, every single year,” said Grant. “There’s something in that cow’s gut as far as biology that helps kick that soil biology in gear.”

As the financial charts they shared during the workshop indicated, using soil health as a pivot point for integrating crops, livestock, and grass is paying off economically. And it’s also given the couple more control over a way of making a living that’s often buffeted by the vagaries of weather, markets, and input prices. That pays dividends in another important way.

“It makes farming fun again,” said Dawn.

Land Stewardship Letter editor Brian DeVore is the author of Wildly Successful Farming: Sustainability and the New Agricultural Land Ethic.