Putting Farm Tools in their Proper Place

One recent August day, I stood in a field in North Dakota watching soil being spaded up and listening to farmers talk about the optimal cover crop seeding mixes, how long to mob graze a paddock and which no-till equipment does the best job of cutting through last year's plant residue. It was 90 degrees plus and no shade to be had between the Missouri River and the Minnesota border, so my heat-muddled mind started to wander.

This field tour was reminding me of something someone had written long ago. Then it popped into place: "But lo! Men have become the tools of their tools." Henry David Thoreau penned those words some 160 years ago while sitting in a cabin on the shores of a pond in Massachusetts. But as Midwestern farmers, conservationists and scientists grapple with how to create a more resilient agriculture, it serves us well to keep in mind Thoreau's timeless warning.

That's why it's so important to take a big picture approach to what's going on in south-central North Dakota's Burleigh County, and not just cherry pick a few successful practices. In late August I accompanied some 40 farmers, scientists and soil conservationists to Burleigh County, where we saw what folks are doing to slowly, but gradually, build their soil's biological health. This trip, which was sponsored by the Minnesota Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and the USDA’s Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program, is part of an effort to counter all the massive erosion we've seen in the state in recent years—conventional methods like terracing aren't cutting it anymore as more acres fall under the plow and extreme weather events become the norm.

As we've mentioned in previous installments of this blog series (part 1 is here, part 2 here), during the past several years the Burleigh County Soil Health Team has used a combination of cover crops, rotational grazing and no-till farming to increase soil’s natural ability to build its own fertility, resist erosion and make better use of moisture.

The Team, which consists of local farmers, NRCS experts, Soil Conservation District personnel and scientists from the Northern Great Plains Research Laboratory, has attracted attention from around the world.

And that's where we have to be careful.

It would be easy to travel to Burleigh County and grab on to whatever practice suits your fancy. If you are in favor of no-till cropping systems, there's plenty of evidence to reinforce your belief that avoiding the plow is not only a good idea, it's economically and agronomically viable. If making livestock part of a farming system through the use of managed rotational grazing is your thing, then you will really enjoy your visit here. And if growing soil-friendly cover crops before and after the cash-cropping season seemed like a good idea to you before, then what the Burleigh County farmers are doing with everything from small grains to turnips will really get your juices flowing.

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Anytime a new innovation catches fire in agriculture, there is the threat of it becoming the silver bullet, the single best management practice that will solve all our problems. In reality, implementing such an innovation in isolation of a bigger ecological, economic or even social system can leave us no better off than we were before. In some cases, it can make things profoundly worse. We must be on guard against the tail wagging the dog, or, as Thoreau would put it, allowing one tool to drive how we operate an entire farm.

We've certainly seen this with no-till agriculture, which, while doing a laudable job of keeping soil from eroding, is also highly dependent on heavy uses of herbicides like Roundup, which, in turn, results in superweeds, among other problems. It turns out those superweeds may be forcing farmers to return to the plow and some pretty nasty old school pesticides, putting us in a worse place than we were before.

Even rotational grazing and cover cropping can back a farmer into a corner if they are practiced in isolation of the bigger picture. A producer needs livestock, or at least access to livestock, to make pasture and hay pay their way, and in many parts of Minnesota, animals on farms are not a reality. And cover crops work best if they can be integrated into a system that takes the long view of how greater diversity builds soil health. (In recent weeks, there have been reports of Minnesota farmers plowing up cover crops established on prevented planting acres this summer—a sure sign that they aren't getting the concept of how these rotations can build and protect soil.)

Joshua Dukart, a technician for the Burleigh County Soil Conservation District and a field representative for the North Dakota Grazing Lands Coalition, says the key to avoid falling into such a trap is to differentiate between "goals" and "tools." Tools should help one attain goals, not the other way around.

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"I don't see cover crops as a goal—I see them as a tool," Dukart told the Minnesota contingent as the bus rolled past pastures and fields planted to corn, sunflowers, hay, wheat and yes, cover crops.

Mike and Becky Small are a good example of how a farming operation can make sure tools serve a farming operation's greater whole. A few years ago the Smalls were struggling financially and the pastures on their beef cattle operation were not producing well. Their system of, for example, chopping corn and hauling it to cattle led to bare soils and erosion problems.

It would have been tempting to attack these problems separately, but Dukart, who is also a certified Holistic Management instructor, helped them put things in perspective and take a big picture view of things. In fact, a lot of the impetus for Burleigh County's team approach comes from the popularity of Holistic Management in the region. Developed by Allan Savory over three decades ago, this is a decision-making framework that has helped farmers, ranchers, entrepreneurs and natural resource managers from around the world achieve a “triple bottom line” of sustainable economic, environmental and social benefits. This framework is built upon the idea that all human goals are fundamentally dependent upon the proper functioning of the ecosystem processes that support life on this planet—water cycling, energy flow (conversion of solar energy) and community dynamics (biological diversity). Holistic Management’s emphasis on “community dynamics” plays a big part in how the Burleigh Soil Health Team operates.

Dukart compares conventional farm management that relies on utilizing isolated practices and tools to studying the chemical composition of water—H2O—with microscopic blinders on.

"You can study everything you can about hydrogen and oxygen and what will it tell you about water? It won't even tell you that water runs down hill," says Dukart. "You need to learn about the synergy."

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The Smalls wrote up a whole page on their family's goals (they have four small children) and then started changing their operation in ways that would help them meet those goals. Building more fence to allow frequent rotations, integrating cover crops with grazing and building working relationships with neighbors became means to an important end: "To be caretakers of the land and animals, and enjoy farm life." Setting goals first, and then picking the tools that will help meet those goals is important, says Dukart, even if those tools are considered highly "sustainable."

"Because you can do all these things for the soil and the land, but how good is it if it doesn't fit your goals?" Dukart asks.

Today the Smalls are integrating managed rotational grazing, 100 percent no-till and cover crops to develop an enterprise that is making money and is resilient, even in a region that receives on average only 16 inches of precipitation a year. On this particular day in August the couple showed off a pasture that was thriving in comparison to neighboring rangelands that were burnt to a crisp.

"The rotational grazing has benefited us beyond belief," said Mike, adding that they are blending enterprises on their farm by allowing cattle to browse cover cropped fields during the fall and winter. This extends the grazing season with minimal inputs, which allows the cattle to take greater responsibility for their own production.

That kind of synergy, Dukart says, is a sign tools have been put in their proper place.

"The more you can get the system to do your work for you, the better."

Brian DeVore is the editor of the Land Stewardship Letter.