Saturday, September 29, 2018


My daughter, our youngest, came to visit overnight with her brood of four in tow. It was dark and I startled her coming up to the house on my way from shutting in the chickens for the night.
“How do you do that?” She demanded. “Walk around in the dark without a flashlight?”
I told her that it was long familiarity with the place. I said I didn’t need a light because my body knew every inch of this farm. I finished, rather lamely I suppose, by saying that “It amounts to love, finally.”
Whatever the truth or fancifulness of that, it is so that my fascination with the place increases daily as I age. Among the many things that interest me about my life and everything that surrounds it, my interest in what this place is going to do next is chief. Late in life I have begun to hunger for the names and habits of plants and animals that I now know I have lived surrounded by and had always taken for granted. I want to know what they want, if that is the proper way to think of it, what their lives consist of, why they are here and what pleases them about their immediate surroundings. And especially is this so lately regarding the changes in the weather, or climate if you will and the response of the farm to those changes.
This summer, for the third consecutive year we have had rainfall that can only be described as excessive. This summer has featured an extraordinary surplus of rainy days in addition to the heavy amounts of rain, making field work nearly impossible. It is difficult not to see that some of the rainy days are a blessing in disguise as nearby areas have in the process been hit with five to seven or eight inch rainfalls in the course of a single night. We have essentially been missed by the heaviest of the precipitation. Other related things are different. Humidity readings stay above fifty percent pretty reliably. It does not drop off a day or so after a rainfall. The wind does not blow. Consequently, the house does not cool overnight and in the mornings. These things are unexpected here where we have sayings about the prairie winds (There goes Grandma, bucking the wind again!) Traditionally we have expected occasional humidity readings of seventy percent or higher, but at least as frequently, twenty percent or less. We expect thunderstorms complete with electric light shows in the sky and the occasional tornado, but not every week. It seems as if the elements of our weather are stuck and we are on constant replay.
The pasture project is the only thing we have going here that has been working well in the excessive rain. But the cattle have compacted some of the lower areas and the higher traffic zones. I know this because of the increasing size and hardness of the callous in the center of my right hand, which I use to push in the fiberglass rod posts we use to subdivide the grazing, but also because of the plants I see. We have not had much problem with ragweed, either the common or the giant, which befouls so much organic planting, but we do now. It is ragweed that shows up in the entire paddock nearest the lowest and wettest area of the pasture. It appears to like compaction. We have always had patches of Canadian thistle wherever the cattle have torn up the sward eating a hay bale or where several bulls are tussling. Canada thistle is useful in fixing small areas of compaction with the taproot, but I doubt that ragweed will be. Cattle will eat the buds off thistles, but they avoid ragweed like the plague.
It is this general trend of wetness that has increased our problems with compaction on our heavy clay soils. Some farmers have taken to coping with this by rotating their grazing in and out of a year of crop production, enabling the use of primary tillage, usually a plow or heavy chisel plow. I question the usefulness of that approach on our farm, as any new seeding we do seems overrun with weeds for several years before coming back into production with good forage. Perhaps we have too large a weed seed bank. Presumably some of the neighbors think so.
It all must be viewed in the framework of what we think the trend is going to be for the coming years. If it is going to be continued wet, we have to look at real and major changes here as the land is quite low lying and the soil composition is not at all porous and fast draining. It is quite possible that some of the areas lower in elevation will begin to revert to the sloughs and wetlands they were before we whites came here, and that we will not be able to engineer a solution. After all, water only leaves a place by running to a lower place or by evaporation, on its own or through a plant.
Of course, if this wet trend is to be followed by a dry one, we would be best served by not being too rash in the solutions we devise today. There was drought here in 1988 reducing crop yields by more than two thirds. With that in mind, it seems that a good approach to the ragweed would be to try to control the seed production by early enough mowing, and to till the heaviest infestations followed by a seeding of Reed’s Canary grass. This grass, where we have it currently, allows no ragweed or thistle either in its stand. Once established, which will be after several very weak years, it can be very aggressive, to the point that it will be difficult to get a clover to thrive as companion. White clover seems to have worked the best for us; Alsike survives the wet conditions better, but is low growing and short lived, two or three years at the most. Canary grass will do well on higher and dryer ground too if it gets a few years time to colonize those swards.
We can get low alkaloid versions of the Canary grass which are quite a bit more palatable than the common type, but it still makes better cow feed than for growing livestock. And a real advantage of the older stands of Reed’s Canary is that they form a thick loose sod which will stand up under animal traffic that would otherwise pug the soil. I cannot imagine a compacted soil under a stand of Canary grass.
So we could let a few wetter acres produce cow feed rather than high octane finisher grass. It seems contrary to willingly give up striving for top production. The attitude is pretty deeply ingrained in us farmers. But perhaps affection teaches what school and reading, or even experience cannot always. Perhaps asking the farm what it wants is the question with which I should always have started.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018


Mr Torkelson wanted to call the safety of Metro Transit into question.  The entire thing turned out to be nothing as riders on Metro Transit are safer than they are in most of the rest of their lives and the numbers show it.  The local Fox News affiliate which reported the non-story yesterday did its best to leave Minnesota in suspense as to the safety of the buses and trains.

It is useful to remember that this Mr. Torkelson, together with his seatmate Mr. Hagedorn, both from the New Ulm area, was last seen explaining to a roomful of upset constituents the reason why the state Department of Agriculture should not be offering to the citizens a voluntary program to help them test their water for nitrate levels.  The pair ended by asserting that the women at the mike probably could not really understand how laws are made. And this in defense of a secrecy that farmers who care about their land and their farming would love to see broken.  And so once again, the pressing need to ask real questions about agriculture and how it is done takes a back seat to cheap hot button "get me elected" non issues.  There are farmers who do not worry about nitrate tests of the ground water because they have deliberately chosen to operate in ways that keeps that from happening and they would love for once a chance to be heard.

This is how it is in politics and how right wing politicians are made, that is, by making up stories about scary brown and black people using a system few of their real-rural-constituents ever will, and using a right wing outlet to publicize the stories, and get them elected.  We are so easily lied to!

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.