Saturday, October 24, 2009

Mixing Grazing and No Tillage

  • Gabe Brown, Browns Ranch, Bismarck North Dakota

    Now its fair to say that Gabe Brown likes a challenge. As a first generation farmer maybe he doesn't have the baggage or the weight of expectation that sometimes impacts on generational farmers.

    Indeed as he said to me "Every year you've got to plan to fail at something. If you don't fail at something then your not pushing the limits. You won't know what you can and can't achieve"

    He farmed conventionally until the early 1990's - the typical rotation of the area on these plains would have been wheat and then a year's fallow. Farmers would typically disc a few times over the years fallow to keep the land free of weeds. Needless to say - the prarie winds took away a lot of the soil...

    He moved to no tillage in about 1993. He had some tough years with this between 95-96 he got hailed out twice and lost all his crop. That meant for three years in a row he had no income. In his desperation he knew he had to change his system somehow - the risks had become too extreme; his system and income too lopsided.

    Gabe now runs a mixed cropping and ranching enterprise. He has expanded to 4500 acres in the past ten years, from 640 acres.

    For No Till he insists that there is only one machine on the market that currently works well enough. The John Deere 750 or one of its offspring. Everything else either cannot deal with the levels of residue cover, or is not well built enough. "It has to be a disc not a shank" he says "I need to aim to do invisible seeding. If I move soil, I burn up organic matter, destroy soil habitats and it promotes weeds."

    He says he ultimately focuses on soil health . Every decision he makes he asks will it improve the soil health? If not, he finds another way to do it. He says by focusing on soil health it means that the natural fertility of the farm remains good. He has not used any commerical fertilisers for a number of years - his microbes when fed will provide him with the fertility he needs. He didn't get here overnight though - he has built this fertility over a number of years. Nitrogen is provided by soil activity, phosphates from deep root systems and mychorrizae.

    So how does Gabe manage this?

    Some of Gabe's farm is permanent ranchland and the rest is mixed cropping and annual forages.

    After every cash crop such as maize, soybeans or wheat he will immediatly seed a cover crop. Originally he started with single species covers, then mixes of legumes but now he tells me he will put in as many species as he can - up to 8 or 12. "Mother nature cannot get enough of diversity" he says "all the time she if fighting for the need to provide diversity. There is logic behind this. All plants coexist and feed off each other. As do the microbes." Gabe quite happily uses GM products though is pragamatic on their usage - "its just another tool" he says "not something to base your farming on entirely."

    "I don't have a crop rotation" he says "I don't know what I'm gonna put in each year, it keeps me flexible and you can be sure that if you have a fixed rotation mother nature will figure out and you will get weeds and disease." This means some years its peas, or alfalfa, or corn..

    His soil structure is now so good that all rainwater (12" in 24 hours in once) is all absorbed by the soil and humus. We dug a hole and it was full of soil building worms. "Thats my plough" he said.

    Because Gabe has used this cover cropping rotation so much and so intensely that he no longer needs to use fertilisers. He doesn't fully know whats happening nor do the microbiologists working with him but essentially he has such a mass of soil fauna and flora working and respiring they are providing plant fertility. Also because of this microbial activity his growing season is longer - the plants benefit from the symbiosis and don't shut down in the cold so quickly. The only agro chemicals used on the farm are herbicides. He doesn't require fungicide or insecticides all fungicides will kill soil microbes, these microbes such as mychorrizae are crucial to maintaining his soil fertility, besides he says his healthy soil promotes less disease.

    Gabe mixes his cattle with his no till fields. He is not worried about compaction because although intensively paddock grazed they are never on the fields long enough. Possibly 500 head of cattle in a paddock - they almost look like they're touching each other but they're quite happy. Herd instinct means they prefer the company of each other at such densities.

    Some of the land Gabe has taken on recently has been ex-CRP land. This is land that the government had paid farmers to take out of production and left to a nature as wildlife habitat. In truth the habitats that have developed are pretty poor for wildlife. They reach a peak after about two years and then become dominated by a group of prarie grasses which don't provide enough variety. The strategy is to add animals and therefore create a more balanced soil biota and above ground biodiversity. If you don't have the animal muck you don't get the insects.

    What Gabe is doing left me thinking Jeez this is it! This is what we should be looking for - mixing high levels of production with a judicious use of pesticides (he generally says he is using less and less each year and growing many grain crops without them and still not getting weeds) and promoting wildlife health. But you just know that Gabe is not going to stop here - to him there is no zenith - he will keep evolving his system and will continue to delight in challenging conventions.

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