A Farm Makes Changes to Benefit Soil, Profit & Quality of Life

Dry Creek Farms has been farming certified organic crops since 2001 and presently consists of me and my wife Terri, along with our son Jared, who recently returned to the farm after attending college. We have registered Red Angus cattle and recently Jared has added Polled Herefords as well. The cattle are raised on an all-forage diet, and they are central to a system where we’re working to build both soil and profitability. We manage about 630 acres, of which 430 acres has fencing and water available for our grazing system. Profit per acre is our goal, not production per acre. Economics is not our only criteria—how our farming affects our family and lifestyle, as well as the environment we live in, is equally important.

Up until the past few years, we had mostly a four-year rotation on the non-grazeable acres, which consisted of a small grains/alfalfa seeding, followed with one year of hay. That was fall deep-tilled and followed up with spring tillage and corn. A cover crop of winter rye would sometimes go in during the fall and be followed up with a late May planting of soybeans. Our cover crop rarely was out of the ground before fall freeze-up, and there would usually only be 6 to 8 inches of growth in the spring before we disced it under for soybean planting near the end of May.

This is a common rotation for many Midwestern organic farmers. However, I have grown to not like it. First, I believe it draws much fertility away from the land. This fertility is then exported when hay is sold, or fed on other land, without the manure returning to the land from whence it came. Secondly, under this system the land is tilled every year. In an organic system tillage is quite common, but I feel we need to try to reduce tillage frequency and depth as much as possible. I think it is becoming widely understood that tillage destroys soil biology and oxidizes organic matter. Third, like many organic and even conventional farmers, for us giant ragweed has become a major problem and an impediment to sustained crop production. In organic production, it has become almost devastating to the system that we and many others have been using, which relies on planting all crops early in the season. It is important to shake things up and never get in a rut, or the weed population continues to adapt to your management.

The final reason I don’t like this rotation is there were only one or two years where the ground had a living plant—the hay crop, and sometimes the fall planted rye—present on the land throughout the winter. The biology of the soil greatly suffers without the root exudates of a living plant, and I now see my cover crops not only as soil holders but as a cheaper way of improving soil fertility than importing fertilizer into the system.

We are still in a process of change and I don’t know where it will end, but that’s what keeps life exciting. We have changed our crop mix and rotation, as well as attempted to improve our lifestyle. As most organic farmers can attest to, June is a crazy month, and we have not been able to do as good of a job as I would like given the work involved with the crop and hay production, as well as cattle duties. We used to produce quite a bit of quality dairy hay that we sold to local organic dairy farmers. With the wet weather that we have been experiencing the past few years, I came to believe it was just not worth the time and expense to produce hay when it was greatly affecting my row crop production and quality of life. I had become accustomed to working long hours, but it had become borderline insane. If I wanted to have the next generation enjoy a life on the farm, some things needed to change. And change they have.

There’s no doubt what we are doing now is quite possibly different than what we will be doing in five years. But for now, the changes outlined below have been positive in the way we measure all three criteria for success on our farm—profitability, lifestyle and environmental health:

We now plan to sell no hay. We’ll only produce what we cannot graze directly with our cattle. We no longer worry about the quality of our hay. Beef cattle don’t require high quality feed and now we make hay when we have the time. We will even shred it with a mower and feed the soil when we are too busy to harvest it. If I raise annual cover crops to improve soil health, then what is wrong with using my perennials like alfalfa and grasses as soil improvers too? Hay production is a resource-consuming practice and few realize how costly it is in terms of fertility, money and time.

We purchased used 12-row planting equipment, replacing our six-row equipment. This has been a big time saver. On paper, we don’t have enough acres to financially justify the need for this bigger equipment, but timeliness is essential, and it greatly helped us get the cultivation and harrowing done in a timely manner.

We changed our cover crop rotation. We have raised year-long cover crops like Italian ryegrass, along with red clover or forage chicory as part of our rotation. We now prefer to use a cover of mostly BMR sorghum/Sudan as it provides much more tonnage to graze in the dormant season. This mix is also less susceptible to being covered by snow and rotting in a wet fall. We let the cows eat the best half and return more carbon to cover the soil. Forfeiting a cash crop is a hard decision to make when I could be raising a high-dollar organic crop. But leaving the soil undisturbed for the season and grazing multi-species cover crops that allow us to extend our grazing season deep into winter has benefits for the whole system. The full-season cover crops substitute for hay feeding and allow for the manure and urine to be returned to the spot where the feed was grown—adding fertility at a cheap cost. This moves labor from high-cost hay production and hauling to low-cost grazing management.

We raise short-season crops. For us, that has meant raising organic dry edible beans, sweet corn or peas. It allows us to raise more cover crops that get closer to full biomass production before termination. It also has made giant ragweed less of an issue, as this weed germinates early and is usually finished by the summer solstice. Giant ragweed that grows along with spring oat cover makes a wonderful cover crop to feed the soil when we rotavate (shallow tillage of just a couple inches) it under by mid-June.

We purchased a rotavator and stalk chopper. This allows us to terminate a cover crop or hay crop in one or two passes, and to harrow our crops without plugging up. That means we can avoid fall-tilling the soil while allowing the cover crop or former hay crop to accumulate more growth in the spring.

We’ve moved the cowherd from March/April calving to May/June calving. Summer calving requires less labor and matches the nutritional needs of the cow with the highest quality and quantity of grazing forage. It allows us to winter the cows on cover crops longer and reduces our labor and expenses considerably. Additionally, we attempt to raise cattle that are bred to be fertile as opposed to being fed to be fertile. We sell bulls and females to other producers who are looking for cattle that mimic nature and do not rely on significant supplements (protein or grain), substitutions (hay) or other props to maintain fertility or production. We monitor which cattle do well in a grazing situation that has them out on the land all year-round, and let nature decide which ones to keep for breeding.

Fitting a System to Our Goals

I have used cover crops off and on for years but never experienced significant benefits until we developed a system that works for us. Previously, our cropping plan was full-season crops, which left little time to see a cover crop grow before termination. Too much tillage negated the benefits. With short-season food crops and full-season cover crops, we are getting improved results. None of the practices we do are new. We just pick and choose those practices which fit our goals and situation best. Many of our practices may not fit the needs and situations of everyone, but hopefully there are some things we do that can be useful for others.

Jon Luhman farms near Goodhue in southeastern Minnesota. His son Jared is a member of the Land Stewardship Project’s Southeastern Minnesota Farmer Soil Health Team. For more information, on LSP’s soil health work in southeastern Minnesota, contact Doug Nopar (dnopar@landstewardshipproject.org) or Shona Snater (ssnater@landstewardshipproject.org) at 507-523-3366. To read other soil health blogs in this series, click here.