In Lewiston last week, Ray Archuleta conducted a “slake test” to show off the quality of no-till soil (far right beaker).
by CHRIS ROGERS
Over 150 people packed the Lewiston Community Center last week for the latest event in the Land Stewardship Project’s (LSP) Soil Builders series: a talk by national soil health guru Ray Archuleta and a panel of local farmers who have taken the plunge into limited tillage, cover cropping, and rotational grazing.
Farmer Gerald Peter came up from Mabel, Minn., to hear Archuleta and the panel, and he had a one-word answer to explain why he gradually transitioned to conservation tillage and cover cropping: “Erosion. That was the number-one thing.”
Something of a cross between Bill Nye the Science Guy and a born-again evangelist for soil health, Archuleta touched on everything from the collapse of ancient civilizations to farmer suicide rates and the decline of small towns. “Money is flowing out of rural America because we have destroyed our soil,” he said. “We want farmers to be free — free from the chemical companies, free from the government. The more you emulate nature, the more freedom you will have,” he told attendees. Archuleta described the soil health epiphany he experienced as an agronomist working in Idaho. “I could not understand why farmers were going broke in my county,” he said. “I realized that after eight years of school, I didn’t know what to do and I was giving bad advice … I realized that I’m a product of reductionist science,” Archuleta added.
Archuleta punctuated his talk with videos and live demonstrations of how differently soils can function when it comes to erosion, runoff, and water infiltration and absorption. Young agriculture students dropped soil samples from a no-till field in Missouri and tilled fields in Missouri, Minnesota, and Texas into cylinders of water. Within a couple minutes they had all dissolved into mud except for the no-till sample. A video of a rainfall simulation in Virginia showed a block of bare, tilled soil yielding a jug full of muddy runoff and erosion, while remaining bone dry underneath the surface. A block of no-till soil with crop residue let out a trickle of clear runoff, and under the surface, it was damp with soaked up water.
The crux of Archuleta’s message was that by working with nature rather than against it, farmers can both be more successful and improve their land. “Farm like nature,” he said. For Archuleta, this means minimizing tillage and pesticide spraying, growing a diverse mix of cover crops year-round, and integrating intensive, rotational grazing of animals on crop fields.
There are varying studies and perspectives on how those methods affect yields and profitability. Many land grant universities and government agriculture agencies are now proponents of limited tillage and cover cropping. The University of Minnesota Extension and North Dakota State University’s Upper Midwest Tillage Guide reports that there are, on average, small differences in yields between conventional tillage and limited or no-till methods and that farmers stand to save money on diesel and labor by reducing tillage. However, plenty of farms are not on the bandwagon. Outside Lewiston last week, many fields were black with tilled soil. During a question-and-answer session, audience members asked Archuleta and the panel about the challenges and potential pitfalls of no-till farming and cover cropping. Did they have trouble planting into cover crops? Did they experience more pest and disease pressure? Don’t you need to use tillage to incorporate manure? Their answers were all versions of, “Not if you do it right.”
Rural Lewiston farmer Everett Rolfing was one of the panelists. Nine years ago, he stopped milking dairy cows and started raising steers. Much of his hilly farm had been in alfalfa. “At that point, I knew I had to do something different. I couldn’t just keep plowing the whole farm … I found out real fast, roots on top do you no good.” So, he switched to vertical tillage and started using cover crops. Now he plants using vertical tillage in the fall to cover up winter rye seeds, sprays the rye with glyphosate — also known as RoundUp — in the spring, and plants corn directly into the rye. “I’ve seen no disadvantages to this at all,” Rolfing stated.
“I was sick of picking rock and seeing the ditches in the field,” panelist and Ridgeway crop farmer Willie Erdmann said of his decision to start no-till farming five years ago. He uses cover crops, and is a particular fan of tillage radishes and clover. “It’s like walking on a sponge — it’s so crunchy from all the [earth]worm castings,” he said of his fields after growing clover as a cover crop. “We’re getting close to 200 bushels per acre on my place,” Erdmann added. The average yield in Winona County last year was 195.5 bushels per acre of corn, according to the USDA.
Spring Grove, Minn., crop farmer Myron Sylling started no-till farming almost 20 years ago. He said he spent a lot of time at events like the Soil Builders series learning first, and he stressed the importance of learning enough to do it right before making the switch. “I was grateful for the education I got. You can make mistakes and possibly hurt yourself [financially] and go backwards, and nobody wants to do that,” he advised. Sylling said that no-till farming did not solve all his erosion problems, but in 2012, he took advantage of the USDA’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and received funding to plant cover crops, The cover crops made a big difference in erosion, he said. Sylling started with 300 acres in EQIP and then started planting cover crops on his whole farm at his own expense.
“There’s so many different methods and ways of doing it, but when it comes down to it, it’s so site-specific,” Altura farmer Eric Kreidermacher said in an interview. “That’s where I’ve really focused on what makes sense for our farm.” Kreidermacher grew up farming conventionally; he currently plants cover crops and grazes organic cattle and pigs. “I hope more and more farmers are realizing that we need to be focusing on soil with our unique topography,” he stated. “I’ve seen more erosion the last couple of years than I have my whole life.”
“Everyone is scared to go that way,” Terry Torkelson said of conservation tillage and cover cropping. Torkelson is an agribusinessman who attended LSP’s event, and his comment echoed a broader concern — that there may be a delayed return on soil-health investments. “Most [farmers] have a lot of expense, so they’re scared of reduced income,” Torkelson stated.
LSP’s Soil Builders program has a host of free information on soil health and a list of upcoming workshops and on-farm visits. More information is available at landstewardshipproject.org/lspsoilbuilders. Hours of videos by Ray Archuleta are available at www.soilhealthconsulting.com.