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?