Friday, September 21, 2018


Two inches in the gauge this morning, total of the last three days and once again we are put in the awful position of being happy at a circumstance that brought others five and six inches of rain, plus extensive damage.  Even with the way we have lucked out so far for the last three years, we have gotten far too much rain and far too many rainy days.  Whatever the causes of the current climate upsets, it is certainly true that the water cycle is broken.

It is satisfying to think that at the present time, our entire farm with the exception of 45 or 50 acres that is in standing ripening corn, has living roots in the soil.  After three springs and summers of coping with lumps and hard crusts to try to make seedbeds, we are happy that we pushed ourselves and the equipment to the limit to get oats sowed back on the land where we had to destroy corn to control weeds that we couldn't cultivate in June, as well as land that we harvested grain from in late August.  We had three days, during which we also needed to make the final crop of hay, to get it accomplished and we made it.

Currently, we have 100 acres in permanent grass/clover pasture, 50 acres in corn, 60 acres in grass/alfalfa hay, 30 acres in complex cover crop for annual hay and fifty acres in oats cover.  I wish these last 50 acres were in perennials, but am happy to have the oats there.  This is important.  This is for the future and not just next year either.  We and all other farmers need to learn some new things.  Our only impact upon the weather is a very indirect one and that is our soil and how we manage it.    

Thursday, September 13, 2018

cover crops

Five Principles of Soil Health

Keep the soil covered
Minimize soil disturbance
Increase crop diversity
Keep living roots in the soil
Integrate livestock

If what I have been saying in the last several posts is true, tillage is a problem. And related to that, we have in agriculture a very long tradition of using annual plants-which must be planted each year-almost exclusively since the very beginnings of agriculture thousands of years ago. Until the late twentieth century annual crops meant tillage. In the middle of the twentieth century crop chemicals became available and there is now a group of farmers that are practicing annual plant production exclusively with use of crop chemicals for weed control in generally just two crops, corn and soybeans. Now, though, an individual who suffers from cancer has received a land mark settlement against Monsanto, makers of Roundup herbicide, which he claims caused his cancer. Other cases pend, and evidence mounts that all is not well. I fully expect to hear that all our foodstuffs are contaminated with one or another of the crop chemicals and that all our body tissues carry these chemicals, all with bad or unknown consequences. The future for heavy and regular, or even any, use of crop chemicals is not good.

On the other side of it are a group of organic farmers still depending very much on tillage for control of weeds. I am one of those. There is a tendency toward self righteousness in it. We sometimes fail to remember that tillage of annual plants is what destroyed the fertile lands of the Middle East centuries ago and also what reduced the organic matter levels in our Midwestern soils so drastically and so fast, all of this well before the advent of crop chemicals.

There are several approaches to reduce tillage in organic cropping systems. None of them are perfect. We can study carefully the impact of crop rotation on the control of weeds in the cash crops. It really does matter what is planted after what and we need to know more about both the crop plants and the weeds. We need to use cover crops, which are planted not necessarily for harvest, but to keep the soil covered and filled with living roots for as many months as possible. Cover crops can do double duty, for good planning can result in better control of weeds by use of covers and we already know that cover crops that are planted before, after, or interseeded with the crop plants do a huge service in building carbon-organic matter-into the soils.

We can also do whatever we can to embed our annual plant production into a system of perennials and perennial production. This is our practice. Our cropping acres spend just three years in annual crop production, which then alternates with three years of perennial hay for the cattle to winter on. This in addition to our permanent pastures means that at any given time two thirds of our acres are in perennials. Many of the smaller vegetable producers, such as community supported agriculture farms, are doing this very well.

And we can applaud the development of perennial wheat-Kernza-by the Land Institute in Kansas and do whatever we can to encourage this kind of research, both in and outside of the University system. This is a critical event in agriculture, as it moves us toward perennials.

Planned grazing systems are the gold standard for soil health. Cover crops and crop rotation with perennials can help us duplicate that effect on the cropping acres. There is much to learn.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

organic matter

The differences between soil samples in a very rainy time on our farm as shown in the post just below, is connected with the water cycle and the carbon cycle, both of which are involved in the idea of climate change. Returning our soil to good health is a critical part of coping with and mitigating climate change. And it is always easier, when faced with a big problem, if one can grasp a good handle on it.

Earth’s water cycle is denatured because the soil does not hold water well enough. Hence too much runoff to the surface water with attendant flooding and erosion, both field and streambank. Too much surface water in a warming environment leads to excessive rain as well as flooding. You see where this goes.

It is apparent that our pasture soils hold water better than those under a cropping use. Note the crumb structure with its openness between and among fragments. This is evidence of an abundance of little critters in the soil, millions of species, most of them yet unknown. Their presence is in itself evidence of a higher proportion of carbon in the soil. We know this to be true because we have a higher organic matter reading in our pastures than in our cropping areas. Soil organic matter is about 58% carbon. Our farm has high readings in both pastures and cropping practices, which is very encouraging to us. But our levels, at five to six and a half percent organic matter, are still only half of what they were thought to be at the time of white settlement. It is sobering to realize that in the short time of three or four generations that amount of carbon was lost to the air through tillage, which exposes the soil and burns off organic matter. Since organic matter level is generally read in terms of the top six inches of the soil, each tilled acre has contributed a tremendous weight of carbon to the atmosphere in that time. I am not mathematically adept enough to quantify this. It is, in any case, huge.  Is it comparable to the loads dumped by coal burning and petroleum use?

So one of the things we can try to do in order to help stabilize the water cycle is to change the carbon cycle on the farm. We do this, in farm terms, by building organic matter in the soil. And we know that not only does tillage of the soil work against building organic matter, but also that a planned grazing practice encourages organic matter. This is because of the essentially “pulsing” effect of the animal impact. The periodic grazing of the plants cause them to slough off some of the root structure building humus-organic matter-in the soil. It is this event, plus the regrowth of those same roots as the grass grows back, which kicks the activity of the soil critters into high gear and will increase the amount of carbon in the soil over time.

Sunday, September 9, 2018


 Tools to help you hear what your farm is trying to tell you are simple enough-in this case a spade and several pails.  Pictured to the right here are two samples from our farm, spaded up today, September 9th, 2018, just five days after our most recent rain which was two and a half inches.  This of course is the latest installment of another very wet season here, the third in a row.

The samples above are from our corn field, a field now three years in row crop (corn-soybeans-corn) on the left in my right hand and on my left, and your right, from our permanent pastures, seeded twenty years ago and grazed rotationally in a managed system.  Note the fracturing of the soil under grass, the way in which the roots have divided the soil mass into stable particles not very subject to erosion.  There is very much soil life in the pasture sample, virtually millions of little critters doing their thing in a healthy soil.  This soil structure with all its pore space stands up well to excessive rainfall as the formation constantly allows the admission of air.    
The other sample, in contrast is showing the stress of the wet weather.  Even in our soils with their high organic matter content and even with our practice of holding each parcel in row crop for three years only before it goes back to hay production, the soil simply cannot maintain the structure under the pounding rains and is susceptible to ponding, runoff and erosion.  This soil needs more roots in the ground for more of the year.  It shows that we need to improve in our use of cover crops to provide that.