Evaluating an Agro-Ecosystem approach in NW Kansas

Our traditional notill systems have provided tremendous advantages to us as compared to our older tillage based systems. These advantages have led to increased soil organic matter (approx. 1.5% to 2.5% in about 15 years), increased profitability, reduced soil/system degradation, and increased productivity over time. Partial notill was quickly adopted (1991) because immediate benefits were realized through converting enhanced water savings into profit (primarily through the addition of fall crops to the rotation). Moving to 100% notill was slower (2003) as the gains to wheat were not as easily defined, and in fact there were more challenges for growing notill wheat.

As such, even with the overall benefits (with many of the challenges mitigated) in place now for 20+ years (KSU Tribune), there are still many local acres that see tillage, and there are still a lot of summer fallow acres (across both tillers and notillers) as folks have struggled to identify rotations more profitable (with equivalent risk) on average than the notill eco-fallow rotation: Wheat –corn or milo –Fallow (WCF) or (WMF) where the “C” represents corn and the “M” represents milo, respectively. In this document “milo” is used interchangeably with “grain sorghum”.

Existing notill rotations have not been immune to both old, and new problems (e.g., stand establishment for wheat, resistance to herbicides, etc.). When we moved from tillage to notill based systems, we largely simply took the tillage out and still followed most of the same philosophies and management practices. To move beyond economic plateaus associated with our current practices, we have constantly sought technological solutions (machine control, stripper heads, precision agriculture, variable rate application of nutrients and seed, improved genetics, herbicides, nutrient management programs, etc.). Most recently we have added yellow peas to the rotation (not fully adopted yet) as the economics look good and adding a legume to our grass dominated rotation should prove to be a benefit to our soil (based on existing research). Adopted technologies have improved economic returns at various levels of significance. Some of these technologies have been “fast” adopting (no economic advantage over the long run) while others have been “slow” (small, but consistent economic advantage over the long run).

Kastens Farm has always had the following the core philosophy around technology adoption:

  1. Adopt fast moving stuff quickly, because you have to just to survive as your neighbors will be adopting this quickly as well. Gains are quickly bid back into land (increased land value or increased rental rates).
  2. Focus, and invest in slow adopting technologies as these technologies (if realized) enhance long term profitability as the gains won’t be quickly bid back into land (.i.e., most of your neighbors won’t be doing it).

There has been more and more emphasis both from some in academia as well as some producers that our natural agro-ecosystems (flora and fauna) are capable of providing much more benefit to the production of crops than what was previously thought. If developed (and managed correctly), this enhanced system could lead to increased profitability by reducing costs, and/or increasing overall productivity. Due to the unknowns, and uncertainty with this approach, we believe this could be a worthwhile slow adopting technology that offers significant economic advantage over the long run. Consequently, this evaluation seeks to explore this new approach and compare it to our traditional system in order to determine whether this technology (or components thereof) might create gains not quickly put back into land (.i.e., increase long term profitability).

Although this approach is often promoted as more “natural”, more “sustainable”, or more palatable to a consumer base that is becoming more knowledgeable and conscience about how natural resources are managed as part of the food chain, we consider these potential benefits to be of secondary priority to us at this point in time, and consequently won’t be evaluated as part of this research.

Opportunity:

For folks reading this document that aren’t familiar with notill or the agro-ecosystem approach, here some good starting points:

Websites:

Gabe Brown’s Website

Ward Labs (information about nutrients and soil)

Excellent Cover Crop resources from Keith and Brian Berns at GreenCover Seeds

Panhandle Notill Partnership

Colorado Conservation Tillage Association

Notill on the Plains

Cover Crops and Soil Health information from NRCS

Documents:

Managing Agricultural Ecosystems –Dwayne Beck 2014

Notill Case Study, Browns Ranch 2012

Managing the soil as a habitat for Biological Fertility and Food Quality – Jill Clapperton

Cover Crops –Best Management Practices –Farm Progress 2013

Cover Crops in No-Tillage Crop Rotations Western Kansas- Kevin Arnet 2010

Recent presentations and research observed during the winter of 2014 suggests some of the following “changes” might be realized in a optimally functioning agro-ecosystem:

Reduction of Applied Plant Nutrients:

Reduction of Pesticides:

Reduction of Herbicides:

Increase in soil organic matter:

The cost savings of such reductions are only worthwhile if overall gross sales can be maintained at similar levels to our current system.

To accomplish these three goals, the following concepts are followed:

  1. Optimal Crop Rotation and Crop Diversity
  2. Managing for optimal soil surface protection
  3. Enhancing diversity and soil surface protection through the use of multi-species cover crop mixes when applicable
  4. Doing “no harm” to the system biology (e.g., using products that neither destroy nor prevent establishment of above/below ground beneficial critters)
  5. Adding large fauna (cows) to the system
  6. Having growing plants/living roots in the soil for the maximum number of days per year (cover crops are used to fill in the fallow and non-growing season parts).

Fact-Finding & Review

As of March, 2014, we have attended four conferences this winter in our region where much focus was put on the agro-ecosystem approach. Through presented materials, online materials, and personal communications here are some attributes gleaned about the current state of affairs.

  1. Adoption of a full blown agro-ecosystem approach has been largely accomplished in two areas
    1. Areas with significantly more effective rainfall than NW Kansas
    2. Areas with low rainfall AND poor water holding capacity soils

Within class 1.a, the trend has been to utilize forage crops, cover crops, cattle, and cash crops. The “future” in this class seems to be pointing towards incorporating perennial cropping (i.e., an acre might be a perennial forage crop for a number of years, then followed by a cash crop system for a number of years). In class 1.b, the overwhelming tendency is to focus on cattle production (i.e., grow forage crops rather than cash crops on farm ground). In drier areas, folks that desire to be farmers rather than ranchers are very hesitant to incorporate cover crops as a regular feature in their cash crop systems due to unknown economics, and sustainability. This is more “true” as soil water holding capacity increases.

  • One universal tendency identified of all early adopters is that none are that focused on building their “businesses” horizontally (more acres), but rather most tend to be more focused on building their agricultural businesses vertically. Of the early adopters, most own a higher percentage of their land (based on my reading of their materials) than does a typical horizontally growth focused agri-business on the High Plains.
  • All researchers and early adopters stress the need to have a plan for everything you do. They all repeated over and over to not “just plant cover crops for the sake of planting cover crops”. In many personal communications with folks at these events, I came to realize that we at Kastens Farms are already accomplishing many of the goals the agro-ecosystem movement is seeking; low pesticide use, economic and agronomic sustainability, improved soil health, optimal fertilizer usage, all the while continuing to focus on our goal (which is different than most agro-ecosystem adopters) of continued horizontal expansion.
  • The abilities of our deep, well-drained silt-loam soils to hold 10-12″ of water put us in a different arena than the folks currently adopting the agro-ecosystem approach. Our soils allow us to have increased yields overall, and provide a buffer for drought. Consequently, any water we harvest for the growing of a cover/forage crop incurs a direct yield impact on the following crop on average. So, in my many conversations I had the core thought kept coming up. Our wheat-corn-pea (WCP) rotation may provide many of the benefits of the agro-ecosystem approach (increased soil health, etc.,) while doing so at a sustainably economic position (short and long run profitable, and allowing for continued horizontal expansion). All recommended to go quite slowly with any changes to our current approach as it could be that we are at the optimal position already, and that we could probably enhance the “soil health” at a faster rate, but at the cost of profitability.
  • In other words, adopting a full blown agro-ecosystem approach carries far greater economic/business risks for us, than it does for folks in either of the two identified classes of adoption due to the ability of our soils to effectively store over half of our annual rainfall.
  1. A final statement is a general reinforcement of our historic and current beliefs.
    1. In most of the central High Plains, successful and sustainable notill rotations start and end with growing good, dense winter wheat.
    2. Good, dense narrow-row crops are the most effective way to minimize herbicide usage.
    3. Don’t cut corners on herbicide rates, and usage. Problems incur quickly when rates are cut, or weeds are allowed to get bigger than 6-8″ before targeting.
    4. Fallow periods are problematic for a lot of reasons, but are especially destructive to our soil health while not necessarily even accomplishing the goals they are used for. Dr. Gary Peterson from CSU showed his results from Eastern Colorado for water storage efficiency during the traditional notill summer fallow period: -5% to +5% storage efficiency on average.
    5. It is very difficult to identify crops that allow us to successfully accomplish continuous cropped notill. Yellow peas and millet seem to be the current crops of choice to bridge between corn and wheat (or sunflowers in the north and milo in the south). However these crops have their own challenges. Some are experimenting with growing forage or cover crops during the fallow period as a potential option. In drier areas (lower corn APH) folks are contemplating pulling corn out and replacing it with a forage crop.
    6. All early adopters and researchers indicate that “diversity” is the key to accomplishing fast changes to the soil health and over all agro-ecosystem. They also indicated that water is a key to getting multi-species covers/forages to work efficiently.

     

Where do we go from here?

In 2014, Kastens Farms will begin conducting research to evaluate potential agro-ecosystem components that might successfully be incorporated into our existing framework over the long run. This research will be ongoing for many years as many observations will be necessary to develop a solid understanding of both the economic and agronomic implications. Unlike with machine control or other fast moving technologies considered for adoption, soils/systems do not “change” overnight.

Some of the goals we seek to address are:

  1. Can we accelerate the time it takes to get previously tilled ground to the productively level of ground with a long history of proper notill management?
  2. Can we further reduce our reliance on ag chemicals and thus reduce overall costs (nutrients, herbicides, pesticides, etc.)?
  3. Can we further “drought proof” our rotations from both an economic and soil protection perspective by accelerating the building of soil organic matter (SOM), and increased surface residue cover (soil armor)?
  4. Can we identify cover crops or cash crops that might be used in those areas of our rotation that currently are not growing anything?
  5. Can cattle be successfully reintegrated back onto our farm ground?
  6. As our goal is continued horizontal expansion, how can identified methods/approaches be successfully employed on rented acres where the short run investment might not be realized in the long run due to a change in tenancy?

 

 

Questions I have about the “settled science” around Climate

In response to a recent post shared on the Kastens Farms Facebook page, I wanted to share my thoughts on the topic of current climate theory. Let me lay a few things down just so folks don’t have to work with too many assumptions as to my underlying motivations. Firstly, I have Graduate degree in Geography, and while at KU, was trained and worked on various funded Earth Science research projects for many years, additionally I have participated in the peer review process as both contributor and reviewer. It is my love of Human Geography that drives much of my concern on the particular topic of Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW). History shows us quite clearly that periods of global warming have been good to us as a species while periods of global cooling have been bad. Right now we are putting all of our eggs in one basket (to the tune of one billion dollars per day globally) based on our assumption that we are smart enough to fully model the Earth’s climate, and can reliably forecast decades into the future.

I have no political allegiance when it comes to most things, but especially when it comes to science. We live in a world today where folks are so “tribal” for lack of a better word, that once in one of the tribes, you are expected to buy everything that tribe is selling. Skepticism against the party line of a tribe gets you expelled or worse. Maybe it’s because I grew up with cynical Baby Boomer parents, or came of age as a cynical & skeptical Generation X slacker, but I’m not a club (tribe) person by nature and just can’t buy into (or even understand) the idea of party line thinking. Everything from social programs to energy regulations should be evaluated in the terms of science and economics, and not tribal association. Now don’t read “economics” as being devoid of the “human” component. For example, a conservative might despise the idea of a minimum wage as simply a market distorting mechanism, while a liberal promotes a minimum wage largely from a sympathetic position. An Economist will look at the bigger picture in determining what the “perfect” minimum wage should be to maximize benefit to all involved actors.

I have no desire to be an activist or climate blogger or anything like that. For me personally as a farmer, global warming or global cooling present opportunities from a business standpoint so I have no personal economic incentive for either to be “proven” one-way or the other. Ok, enough said, this isn’t going to turn into a multi-page thesis but rather just provide folks with what I see as “red flags” and why I believe we are putting too much confidence in the currently accepted theory. Keep in mind that I’m not claiming global warming does not exist (it most assuredly has/does both in larger cycles (recovery from last glacial period) and in smaller cycles (since the little Ice Age (LIA)). I have been trying to stay informed on this topic for the past 5 or so years but it’s exceptionally frustrating to shake “facts” out of anything (maybe why so many folks have simply latched on to the party line belief). The “red flags” below don’t come from any group, scientist, blogger, media person or other. Rather, frustration in fact finding led me down the road of looking at the data itself and forming my own questions. I may not have the skills or training to build a model that grows clouds to measure the change in short-wave radiation reflection, but I do feel quite comfortable in looking at existing empirical data sets (such as the currently accepted global temp databases) as well as commenting on the performance and application of models.

 

My main goal here is not to prove/disprove any theory but rather to lay out the “red flags” cause me to NOT believe the “science is settled” when it comes to AGW.

  1. My first red flag is just simple common sense, based on my work and understanding of Earth systems. The Earth’s climate is chaotic, evolving, adaptable and infinitely complicated. It is not a mechanistic machine (as is assumed by models) but rather should be thought of as a “living breathing organism”. A model is only as good as the underlying assumptions and I find it quite arrogant when folks claim the “science is settled”, implying that we not only know every single interaction out there, but also that we can model them accurately. Working with plant growth simulation models in the 1990′s I gained a firsthand look into what it took just to grow a plant in a simulation model (and growing a plant is like playing with tinker toys compared to modeling the climate). Plant growth simulation models were never designed to predict future yields but rather to evaluate how changes to the system impact near-term plant parameters. Empirical models for predicting future yields always smoked simulation models because they are not encumbered by the myriad of errors that naturally arise and accumulate in a simulation framework due to lack of understanding all relationships, or due to the inability to accurately describe known relationships statistically. Likewise Global Climate Models (GCM’s) were never designed to predict future climate conditions but rather to facilitate understanding how the climate works and looking at near-term relationships between variables in support of meteorological needs. However today, they are used to predict up to 100 years in the future and promoted as undeniably accurate. That’s just crazy, and also why their predictive failure was to be expected (see more in point 3).

     

  2. When one looks at warming trends, we are only interested in the rate of warming (not the absolute temperature at any given time since we’ve been constantly warming since the LIA in the near-term, and since the last glacial in the long-term) as that is the measure that “implies” a deviation from normal conditions. The historic assumed rate of natural warming is approximated to be around 0.4C/Century. From roughly 1980-1998, the rate of warming was in excess of what is assumed to be from natural causes. This roughly 20 year time period served as the basis to rightly ignite the discussion on climate change because it was out of the “norm”. Today, we are sitting at between 14-17 years (depending on dataset used) now with a “rate of warming” lower than that assumed from natural variability. So we are still “warming” per se, but not only is this current rate not in excess of what science considers due to natural causes, but actually at rates below what is assumed from natural causes. Neither of the “tribes” understands this (or if they do, choose to ignore it or cherry pick components that serve their needs at the time). For example, I see many reports from the left today that the “pause in warming” is not really a “pause” as our absolute temperatures are still building and are higher today than they were historically. So although it’s true we are warmer today than 50 years ago, we would have expected that no matter what, since our average warming due to natural causes is assumed to be 0.4C/century since the LIA. Conversely, from the right I see articles calling this pause “global cooling” and although the slope is currently cooler than the historic trend, it’s most certainly not real “global cooling” until we see a sign change in that slope. Both tribes are simply taking liberties with the data to shape the conversation with their base and reinforce their respective party/tribal lines. In politics, abrupt adjustments in position (regardless of the strength of the data) cannot exist as such change would assuredly be picked up by the opposite tribe as “weakness”. This tribal behavior can be seen in all aspects of politics and thus is not unique to positions on climate science.

     

    In the big picture what all this means is that we had roughly 20 years where the rate of warming was above what was to be expected from natural causes, and now we’ve had roughly 15 years where the rate of warming has been below that associated with natural causes. The net effect is still a warmer planet today than yesterday, but the take home message is that we’ve now had almost as many years with the rate below the trend as we had with the rate above the trend. That alone should create a healthy skepticism towards our understanding of climate science and consequently our ability to forecast accurately into the future with the current GCM’s.

     

  3. As would be expected when using simulation models for prediction, The GCM models haven’t just performed poorly, they’ve performed dismally over time as almost all forecasts from the current family of models are beyond a standard deviation away from reality. As someone that relies on models for both prediction and quantification, I find it quite interesting that the dismal performance of the models has not caused the climate science community to “step back” for a re-look at things as that is what would happen in any other field of science. There aren’t any bridges built on an engineering model whose forecasts fall a standard deviation away from reality, yet we are shaping global energy policy with exactly such models. Instead, we have a doubling-down on the models abilities to accurately predict the future by the politicians. That I feel is driven by the climate science “industry” that has developed over the past 20 years. Problems always arise when science mixes with politics as it leads to an industry being created. Most science should be cold, calculating and skeptically driven when it comes to any topic of study. Poor performing models are either scrapped or put back on the rack for a complete rebuild after such a poor performance history normally. But when there are billions of research dollars at stake (as well as folks reputations and ego), it doesn’t work this way once a “science” has become an “industry”. The goal of an “industry” is to remain status quo or grow, whereas the goal of science is to “get it right”. Those are mutually exclusive goals, yet that’s the world we find ourselves in today.

So to sum up, from the standpoint of a human geographer, it concerns me when we put all of our efforts solely in one direction, especially when that direction is “shown” primarily through models, while the current empirical data actually might be pointing in a different direction. We are spending a trillion dollars every three years on a “problem” that was really expressed only in a short 20 year time window. We really don’t have that good of an understanding of the climate in detail, thus we can’t even predict accurately in the near-term. Additionally, we now have 15 years of “reality” that suggests that we might not even have a problem at all. Going further, there is starting to be a body of research out there suggesting we might actually be moving towards a period of global cooling (where the slope actually change sign) based primarily on changes to the solar cycle. Let’s hope this latter condition does not “prove” accurate because we’ve just spent 20 years of labor and cash preparing for the exact opposite world.

 

Dietrich Kastens     First Draft 1/18/14

 

The Drought of 2012-2013

I was hoping to write this blog once the drought was over, but here we are still bogged down by it. As of December 13, 2013, the most recent Drought monitor map from The University of Nebraska – Lincoln Drought Mitigation Center .

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  • D0 – Abnormally Dry
  • D1 – Moderate Drought
  • D2 – Severe Drought
  • D3 – Extreme Drought
  • D4 – Exceptional Drought

Rawlins County is still almost 100% covered in Extreme Drought (D3 –shown by the color red). Our drought started in September of 2011, and in September of 2013 we had our first above average rainfall month since August 2010 and had (have) hopes that perhaps 2014 will be the year we get out of it. Since September of 2011 we have only received 26.33″ of moisture, which represents just 61% of average moisture. With a two year average of just 13.17″ for the years of 2012 and 2013, we have received less rain than the driest two years of the “Dirty Thirties”; 13.86″ average for 1939-1940. The 1954-1955 time period with 13.34″ had slightly more rainfall than 2012-2013, while the 1955-1956 time period had the exact same total as the 2012-2013 time period (26.33″). The scary part is that the 1954-1956 three year time period had an average of just 12.89″ of moisture, so it wouldn’t be a record-breaking event for 2014 to follow in the same path as the previous two years.

 

Besides the obvious crop & pasture production problems, it is quite a challenge to keep a solid residue cover in place on the fields to minimize soil losses especially from wind erosion. The “Dirty Thirties” showed us what kind of erosion to expect from full tillage in our High Plains location. Fortunately today, new technologies such as notill management have minimized the serious soil movement we saw 80 years ago. There have still been instances of soil loss over the past two years, even for the best of “notillers” in the area, but the vast majority of acres are covered these days, as evidenced by the relative lack of media coverage about this drought. The Weather Channel now assigns a name to winter storms that last no longer than a week yet droughts, even multi-year droughts, rarely make the news unless something bad happens like a major auto accident on I-70 due to low visibility created by blowing soil. Even then, drought impacted areas are quickly forgotten by all, except for those that live there, and their families.

Recovery times for drought are slow in our area because it takes time for residue (both crop and pasture) to recover and we rarely get months with excessive rain (> 1 STD above mean), even in our wet years. Looking at monthly data for Atwood, Kansas back to 1931, we’ve never had a single month in that time yield more than 9.25″ of moisture. Of the 11 months (out of 984 total months) that recorded a rainfall amount of greater than 7.0″, only in one case was that observed in a year immediately following a drought year (8.22″ of precip. in May of 1990, following the 1989 drought year). Even with that big month in 1990, the total precipitation for the 1990 came in at 21.77″, or just a pinch over average (average annual rainfall for this database is 21.00″), so recovery time was most likely not accelerated.

In Rawlins County, preserving and managing historic reside (or legacy residue) on fields is key to maximizing crop yields due to the advantages a covered environment has over a bare soil environment. Soil temperatures are kept significantly cooler with surface residue and not subject to the large diurnal changes associated with bare soil. Additionally, evaporation rates are minimized at the surface, so precipitation that falls has a higher chance of making it into the soil before it’s evaporated away. In our area, where we have way more sunlight than we have water, every drop of water we save goes directly to yield.

As such, we spend considerable time managing for high residue and then operating in a manner to preserve as much of this residue for as long as we can. In the fall of 2012, conditions were so hard that wheat emergence and establishment was very poor and consequently, in the spring of 2013, many farmers opted to abandon those acres. Rather than leave those acres bare (and subject to wind erosion) through the summer, many folks went back in with grain sorghum just to keep the ground covered.

So what about 2014? As 4th and 5th generation farmers, our families have seen many of these “hard droughts” across the generations, not to mention the many, many more “soft droughts” where rainfall might be short over weeks or months, but not years. As a consequence, drought is just part of our experience on the High Plains and just something to be managed around. Droughts always end, and folks appreciate the rain and the good years that much more. I won’t say there aren’t down times for everyone, but we have mechanisms today such as notill and crop insurance to at least help minimize the environmental and economic destruction associated with drought.

Plus, we always have next year!

 

DLK 12/13/13

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Welcome to the new Website!!!

After a long hiatus, the new website is completed. The core site is constructed now but you will still see some stuff from the old site, and this will be updated over time. My big push was to get the main site online and in a position where I could start updating rather than re-building. The new site is much more up to speed in terms of not only how it works, but also how information can be conveyed. With this site, I can make updates from any computer, and from my phone. This should allow it to stay much more “fresh” than in the past. In conjunction with the new website, we are also going to begin using Facebook so be sure to click on the button at the bottom of the page and “like” Kastens Farms. If you “like” us on Facebook or follow me on twitter, then you will know anytime changes are made to the website or content added.

I’m going to try to use the “blog” format of this site to keep the site updated as well as make new content additions. Eventually, I’ll get much of the photo gallery annotated so that folks know what the heck they are looking at. I’m very excited about this new website as it gives me a lot of functionality that just wasn’t possible even five years ago. From live weather station feeds, improved photo/media management, google calendar integration, and the ability to put “live” content on it.

This site will continue to evolve over time so please don’t hesitate to send me any questions, comments, and/or suggestions you might have.