It didn't happen overnight, but Bismarck, ND, farmer Gabe Brown raises 140-bu. corn with fewer than 15 lbs. of commercial fertilizer. He has successfully reduced his costs to $1.19/bu. to produce and market a bushel of corn, but hopes to push under $1 in the near future.
Brown, who also raises Gelbvieh and Angus cattle, began no-till farming cold-turkey in 1993. Between 1995 and 1998, he lost his crops to hail and drought.
“During that period I learned the importance of focusing on soil health,” he says. “I learned to use cover crops to build my soil and reduce input costs.”
Brown prepares his corn field in the summer by burning down his alfalfa field with glyphosate. He then plants a combination of winter triticale, hairy vetch, sweet clover, radishes and turnips. The following June, he chops this combination for forage.
“At that point, I plant a cover crop of cowpeas, soybeans, radishes, hybrid pearl millet, sunflowers, sudangrass, turnips, lentils, sweet clover and hairy vetch,” Brown says. “I graze this during early winter and leave at least 50% of the above-ground biomass as cover and food for the macro- and microorganisms. The following spring I plant corn directly into the residue.”
AFTER 15 YEARS of practicing no-till, Brown has developed an extensive crop rotation designed to increase organic matter and moisture-retaining characteristics of his soil.
“I use between seven and 11 different crops for cover,” he says. “But this isn't just about reducing input costs. I can do that because I'm improving my soil every year with zero-till.”
Jay Fuhrer, Bismarck NRCS district conservationist, has worked with Brown most of the past 15 years. Fuhrer has seen other North Dakota farmers adopt similar farming methods and hopes that with time more of them will achieve the yield levels and reduced inputs Brown is enjoying.
“He has a live root in the ground all the time,” Fuhrer says. “When one is harvested, another is planted. That gives the soil a balanced diet, if you will. The bacteria, protozoa and nematodes have what they need to feed and thrive. That's his key to success. What he's achieved is quite remarkable.”
Fuhrer notes that farmers who want to practice no-till with fewer crops could develop a less complex rotation following corn with a cool-season broadleaf or Brassica such as turnips and radishes. Soybeans could be followed with a cool-season grass such as oats, barley or winter triticale.
“Your results probably wouldn't be as good as if you used a larger number of crops in the rotation,” Fuhrer says. “There are a million reasons not to adopt the process, but there are benefits if you do.”
Laura Overstreet, North Dakota State University soil scientist, says more farmers across the U.S. are implementing no-till or strip-till practices. In 2000, researchers reported that 16% of U.S. farmers were using some type of reduced tillage practice and 55% of U.S. soybean acres were grown using reduced- or no-till practices. She believes farmers like Brown should be commended for being smart about the way they are managing their crop residues.
“Gabe is making crop residues work for him in his cropping system,” Overstreet says. “Gabe and Jay have innovated tillage and cover-crop practices in their part of the state. They're developing cover-crop mixtures that are effective in a variety of cropping situations, combining root crops with legumes and small grains to help build soil structure, reduce erosion and increase nitrogen content.”
OVERSTREET BELIEVES more farmers need to think about no-till as an option because advantages include reduced fuel consumption and improved soil structure, as well as enhanced soil conservation.
“It doesn't mean you can never go back to conventional tillage practices,” she says. “Try renting a no-till drill or planter or strip-tiller. To start, just use it on a small part of your farm and see what the results are.”
One aspect of Brown's work that Overstreet appreciates is the opportunity for farmers to visit Brown's farm to see how he's generating income from his practices. Research plots simulating Brown's work would be helpful, but not as convincing as seeing his working farm.
“Research plots are set up on a much smaller scale and conditions aren't always realistic,” Overstreet says. “What's so great about his work is that he gives other farmers an opportunity to see firsthand what he's doing.”
Strip-till practices are one of the reduced-till options Overstreet is investigating for North Dakota's Red River Valley farmers, where surplus moisture is often a concern. Wet conditions in September and October 2008 kept many from implementing the new practice this fall.
“They were lucky to get their crops harvested, but much of our fall tillage and strip-tillage could not be done,” Overstreet says. “However, to be successful with no-till or strip-till, you have to be persistent. Don't let one disappointing year make up your mind or conquer you. The best farmers are those who know when a practice deserves a few more years to prove itself vs. when it's time to give an idea up and move on.”
In areas where lack of soil moisture and/or soil erosion are concerns, Overstreet says no-till and strip-till are practices well worth considering.
“It's an exciting time for farmers who are willing to rethink some of their practices,” she says. “They're becoming better managers of the land, and we see North Dakota farmers taking practices used in other areas and tailoring them to their own area. Gabe and Jay have been a few steps ahead of researchers and we're still working to catch up.”
Brown has traveled across the U.S. to offer presentations at conferences and a variety of agricultural meetings. He readily shares with others what he's learned and provides details about how he's reached this level of success with no-till practices. He believes as input costs continue to rise, other farmers will consider similar farming methods.
“Focus on soil health, increase organic matter to restore macro- and microorganisms and work with the crop rotation system that best suits your soil,” Brown advises. “Thomas Jefferson did this over 200 years ago. You can read about it in his journals. We're not reinventing the wheel here.”