Gabe Brown is a debt free farmer who grows almost 25-30% more grain than the county average with minimal inputs. He spends almost half his time away from home, speaking at grower conferences, doesn’t worry about below average rainfall and only sprays for weeds once every couple of years. He doesn’t have flash machinery, nor does he buy government subsidised crop insurance policies.
Yet in the mid 1990’s Gabe was forced to seriously consider whether he wanted to be a farmer after drought and hail ruined his crops three years in a row, despite the adoption of no-till.
The hardship that he faced forced Gabe to think about his system from a different point of view. Challenged with feeding cattle and little money to spend, he sowed a pasture crop of triticale and hairy vetch. Not only did he grow stock feed, but he also began to see that the cover crop had a positive effect on soil health and subsequent grain production.
Realising the potential of cover crops, Gabe set about concocting various cocktails, which have been applied to his farm to regenerate soils. The key principles of diversity and permanent ground cover with the utilisation of cattle as a system catalyst have led Gabe to turn his farm around into a healthy, sustainable and profitable enterprise. He is now a sought after speaker who travels around the world talking various farmer groups about his methods.
On the 2500 hectare property, Gabe grows wheat, corn, oats and hay and runs cattle, a small mob of sheep, and chickens for eggs and meat production. He farms with his wife, Shelley and son Paul who has recently returned home from university where he studied agriculture.
I first met Gabe last year when he spoke at the SANTFA conference, and I contacted him when I was putting together the itinerary for my trip to the states. He invited me to spend a day on his North Dakota ranch, including lunch where he cooked up some of his grass fed beef.
The first site we visit is a cover crop paddock sown with cattle grazing in mind. The cool season mix included grazing sorghum, grazing corn and kale, with varieties picked specifically for their palatability and nutritional values. Interestingly saff flower, which is a prickly plant, was also included. “That’s in here just so cattle don’t eat it”, explains Gabe.
Saff Flower is included into cover crops to increase residual biomass after grazing.
Despite this paddock having already been grazed, there is still a significant amount of cover on the ground. As well as growing biomass to feed stock, Gabe is keen to impress that adequate cover must be reserved to feed the soil. “I have to leave that much to feed soil biology, otherwise we will never have enough to keep this system going”. He considers ‘enough’ to be one third for stock and two thirds for the soil. “Most producers will graze their pastures to the ground, and then they wonder why they don’t have any litter on the soil. This paddock will not be grazed again, and by next year it will decompose and you won’t have anything left, and we’ll seed straight into it”.
For Gabe, the secret to concocting cover crop mixes is diversity of species “I would say you need at least seven or eight species as a bare minimum in a cover crop”. Ensuring diverse root structures and including grasses, broad leaves and brassicas into each mix are the other guidelines that he recommends, but Gabe has been known to break the rules and try something left field. Last year, he decided to including his veggies garden with a cover crop, planting a whopping 70-species cover crop. After harvesting vegetables for his families own use, they donated the rest to community programs, and still had adequate biomass to field soil health.
We have a look at a soil pit in this paddock, which Gabe dug for a large group of farmers who visited the week prior. It reveals a foot of new top soil, which Gabe has built since buying the farm in 1993.
The restoration of soils is a big focus for Gabe. “When I go around and speak the thing I try to impress on people is that we all have a degraded resource, so we need to regenerate them and this is, in my opinion, the fastest way to do this – with multi species cover crops and livestock integration and a lot of diversity”.
Soil tests indicate that he has been successful at increasing soil health. In 1993, soil organic matter levels were between 1.7 – 1.9%. Today they stand at around 5.3 and 6.1% on crop land and 7% on native pasture. Gabe has also consulted with Dr Rick Haney at the USDA in Texas who many cover croppers rely on for soil testing services. Tests spanning soil nitrogen and potassium rates, water extractable organic carbon and nutrients as a dollar value show that the diverse, grazed paddock soils outperformed the monoculture paddock every time. These test results echo the anecdotal findings of the rain simulator test conducted at the Menoken Farm.
Gabe has managed to increase the soil organic matter for a test plot on his farm to 11.1% and the long term goal is to increase this figure to 12%.
In the paddock adjacent to the cover crop, Gabe shows me two horse floats which have been converted into mobile nesting boxes for chooks. The horse floats, which were procured for free thanks to the invention of the gooseneck, have been modified at minimal cost. Wooden floors were removed and replaced with reinforced mesh, allowing chicken litter to fall onto the paddock surface. Roosting boxes have been added to the back tailgate, and a large tank provides water on demand. A small access door on the side of the float is attached to a $100 automatic timer which opens in the morning and shuts at night, protecting the birds from kyotes but also removing the need for daily human supervision.
This project is the brain child of Gabe’s son, Paul, who works full time on the farm, but is away when I visit. He sells the eggs once a week at a producers market in Bismarck, netting $15,000 in revenue per year. Eggs a sold at three times the local supermarket price, thanks to the burgeoning demand for free range, direct-from-the-farmer produce. Paul sells out of eggs every week and has just ordered another 200 laying hens to increase production.
Additionally, they raise grass fed broilers which sell for $5/lb, despite the average store selling price of chicken being $1/1lb, again marketing the meat as a healthier option to conventionally raised birds.
While the chooks are making Paul’s piggy bank fatter, they are also the pest control and fertiliser agents of the farm. The horse floats are moved to a new spot in the paddock about once a week. “The chickens are tremendous, for one thing they eating all the pests like grasshoppers etc, the other thing is all their manure, and they stir up and scratch the (cattle) manure”.
Grassfed beef for lunch.
After lunch, we head to look at a paddock which had a warm season cover crop on it that Gabe recently bailed for hay. In 2011, this paddock had a corn crop on it yielding 143 bushels per acre, with the district average being 100b/a. The corn was planted with vetch in it, shading the ground during the growing season and providing additional nutrition for the soil. Remember, no synthetic fertiliser is applied any more. In 2012, Gabe planted a mix of oats and three types of clovers into the corn stubble, and bailed the oats only for hay using a straight header at rate of 150b/a, which was an “exceptionally profitable” hay crop.
This years mix was made up of phacelia (which he likes particularly for its extensive root network and pollinator attractant features), cow pea, sedan grass, soy beans, sorghum, kale and vetch. Since bailing, the residual biomass will be left to regrow and feed the soil until the next crop is sown.
Improving the soil health of his farm has effectively increased the viability of the farming enterprise significantly. “I don’t write cheques any more, I mean we don’t use fertiliser, we don’t use any pesticides or fungicides. We only use a herbicide pass every two to three years when needed”. Because his input costs are so low, producing revenue from each paddock every year is not necessary. “Even though we’re not strictly growing a cash crop every year, the net dollars are way better than if I would buy all those inputs”.
No weed seeds are present in harvested seed, despite Gabe’s low use of herbicides.
We drive by a paddock which Gabe has recently reaped for oats, sown without inputs and yielding 80-85lb/acre. Gabe estimates that by selling the oats at $7/lb as certified seed, he will receive around $600 an acre, with expenses totalling $100/acre, leaving a net profit of $500 an acre.
The decrease in input costs and maximisation of profits means that bad years can happen without the whole operation going belly up. Gabe doesn’t invest in crop insurance, even though it is subsidised by the government to the tune of 70% per policy. A failed cash crop to him, is an opportunity to provide feed to cattle, rather than being a financial disaster.
The Bowns ranch is further drought proofed through the development of multiple revenue streams. The cover crops are pivotal as they feed stock and soil health, reducing input expenses. The cattle, sheep and chickens help to facilitate the soil health regeneration program by breaking down the cover crop and providing fertiliser and direct income when sold.
I broach the subject of the “feeding 9-billion people by 2050” paradigm with Gabe, who responds “There are so many enterprises on this farm, were producing way more pounds of edible product than if it was just a monoculture. Feeding the world is no problem, if we get back to a diverse production model”.
“It’s all about diversity and keeping the land covered”.
The last stop for my day with Jay Fuhrer was to meet ranchers Todd and Penny, a young couple who have recently bought 780 acres outside Bismarck.
With Jay’s guidance, they have been working on developing a system to minimise synthetic input use and to restore soil health, while increasing stock feed. Along with stress free stock handling methods, they aim to raise premium grass fed cattle for the domestic market.
We head out to have a look at their 160 acre cover crop, which was planted in the middle of June. Despite minimal rainfall and higher summer temperatures, the crop is thick and more than 6 foot tall in places. This crop includes sorghum sedan, millet, soybeans, oats, field peas and sunflowers. These are all warm season varieties except for the oats which survive in the shade provided by the taller varieties. Todd is surprised with the number of oats given he threw these into the seed bin at the last minute after finding an open bag in the shed. The field peas are also performing exceptionally well in this crop. Penny spots one which is almost a meter long, having climbed up the stem of a sorghum sedan plant.
Photo – this cover crop cost $35-37/acre in seed + oats.
The cover crop will be bailed for feed at the beginning of September, with the hay used as supplement feeding when native pastures are buried under snow. Even though Todd sowed his crop without fertiliser, I ask Jay whether there are any instances where it would be advisable. “If you wanted to put a cover crop into wheat stubble, you have all that carbon which is going to tie up as it’s trying to digest the stubble – especially on degraded soils with a history of low diversity”. This is just an initial measure to get the ball rolling – “Once the nutrients are cycling, there’s no need to add fertiliser”
Although this crop will be bailed, Todd has grazed stock on cover crops before. He’s noticed that they will pick through the crop, selecting varieties which they particularly favour and avoid toxic varieties -‘self medicating’, which Jay suggests cows are very good at doing. Todd agrees, “Man messes everything up. We’re just going to make them east just this, they can pick at the buffet and get what they want”.
Todd is reluctant to remove nutrients from the farm by selling grain or hay, and this is the theory on which his system pivots. Home grown hay is fed to their stock, and fertiliser is provided through manures and ground cover and the sale of cattle mimics natural losses of cattle in a wild herd. “We’re a long way from our goal, we’ve only been here for two years now so were kinda starting over. I’d like to increase hay production from two to four bales per acre, we’ll get there but it will take a while”.
The opportunity to consult with Jay, has given Todd the confidence to make change on farm, especially given feedback from their more conventional neighbours. “Most of the people we talk to think we’re nuts for what were doing, they think we’re odd for not planting all 780 acres to corn, but were going to opposite way”. For Penny, it’s reassuring to have a resource like Jay who is on the same page “commonality” quote.
Todd and Penny are a relaxed and happy couple, and you can tell that part of this is related directly to their approach to farming. In fact, all of the farmers who I met with Jay talk about how they are more satisfied and happier since they have improved their operations. Most revealing is a sense of relief since they now view their operation as being more profitable and resilient.
My day with Jay Fuhrer was one of the hilights of my trip and gave me so much to think about. Jay has a great knowledge of farming systems spanning no-till and cover cropping, and if you ever come to the states, I highly recommend looking him up.
*’more on this subject when I finish my blog on cover cropper Dirk Oconnor. Stubble on his paddocks breaks down within two weeks of a cc being planted.
After our visit to Jerry Dohns, Jay takes me to see two growers who are focused almost purely on the use of cover crops for soil health and stock feed.
The first farmer, Mike Small, inherited a grain and cattle business from his father. The rising cost of inputs and high risk of crop loss and increasing price of cattle made him question the future direction of the enterprise.
He was also battling issues caused by long term ploughing and overgrazing of high-leaching sandy soils.
Five years ago, Mike and Jay formulated a plan to implement a cover cropping programme for cattle feed, as well as a grazing management plan to improve soil health and feed levels on his native grass lands.
The farm’s grazing land has been divided into a network of more than 50 (25-40acre) paddocks, with watering points installed where 4 or 5 fields meet. Underground water pipes have been installed, supplying water to troughs made out of large tyres available locally courtesy of the current oil boom. The bottom of the troughs are cemented and a wooden structure is built over the widest part of the trough to prevent cattle from jumping in.
Each trough provides water to multiple paddocks and the wooden structures prevent cattle from having a bath.
Cattle spend no more than 1 week in each paddock before being moved, meaning that grazing is minimised to 1 or 2 weeks per year. Primarily, this approach stops over grazing, but also provides each adequate recovery time to native rangelands, mimicking the grazing patterns of native bison who roamed these lands before a mass slaughter in the 19th century.
Mike is amazed with the results the new paddock lay out has been. Despite having grown up on this property, he is constantly spotting species of flora and fauna he’s never seen before. Additionally he has more feed for cattle, and is preventing the erosion of his fragile soils with permanent ground cover. 5 years ago, the farm supported a maximum of 220 cattle pairs. Today this figure stands at 240 and Mike hopes to increase it to 260 over the next year.
Additionally, Mike has planted a cover crop specifically to bale for cattle feed. He shows me a paddock which has recently been cut and bailed for hay, with the regrowth doing surprisingly well in their sandy, dry soils. The mixture of hairy vetch, oats, sweet clover, canola, turnip and radish cut for hay, was sown at the end of April, and the residual ground cover will also be used to graze weaner calves for a week later on in the year.
Mike has seen a significant increase in the number of earthworms in cover cropped paddocks since he’s been growing additional forage, indicating an increase in soil organic matter. Although earthworms not native to USA, they have thrived on American soils.
The system means that soil erosion and health are dealt with by full season ground cover, which also provides feed by way of hay and paddock feed. It enhances the natural attributes of the farm and helps address some of the weaknesses.
Mike is a happier farmer for it. “It’s fun and enjoyable and were not throwing out as much money”, but he is quick to point out that it works for him because of the custom approach in designing the changes. “I’ve been to a lot of the (soil health) workshops and the way I see it, this will work for me but the same approach won’t work for my neighbour”.
Jay’s experience in applying the ‘rules’ to varying enterprises lead him to agree with Mike. “The principles are universal to improve soil health, but the road is different for each grower depending on their system”. He is quick to add a caution, “Whether you think it will work or you think it won’t work, you’re right either way”.
After our visit to the Menoken Farm, Jay takes me to lunch at a tiny country diner called The Little Cottage which serves up oodles of home style food – heaven for a girl away from home.
We head off to meet some of the growers Jay has been working with. Our first stop is to the ranch of Jerry Doan who has a crop and cattle operation as well as offering a fee-hunting service including lodge accommodation.
Jay and I begin to talk about the process he goes through with growers when designing cover crop programs. “We identify the resource concerns, and then you start to cook”. In the case of Jerry’s operation, this includes considering what the grower wants to achieve by cover cropping as well as enterprise features and limitations (I.e. requirements for stock, available man power etc).
Jerry wanted to build soil cover, increase the soil health of his high-leaching sandy soils by improving soil organic matter, and bring up leached nitrates to a soil available level in the profile. Additionally, he wanted to provide feed for his cattle and needed a cover crop that wouldn’t grow too high as to completely hide game from hunters.
Jerry’s initial experiences with cover cropping weren’t very successful, but tweaking the ‘cooking’ including seeding later, and allowing them to grow season long, has been much more fruitful. He now grows 400 acres of cover crop a year, which is rotated around the farm.
Jerry’s persistence in creating the right cover cropping regime for his ranch is a key component to his successful enterprise.
This years crop is a cocktail of 12 species which Gabe Brown helped Jerry to design, with ingredients including millet, grazing corn, sorghum, sedan grass, cow pea, soy beans, clover, sunflowers specifically with soil health and high nutritional value for cattle in mind. Seed cost between $26 and $28 an acre, and was sown without fertiliser on the 20th June this year.
Jerry also talks about the lack of summer rain, but the crop is thick and waist high. The recipe was designed to keep the crop at a smaller height to prevent prey from being completely concealed from hunters. Digging around in-crop reveals cool soils, with similar compaction issues to the soils at the Menoken Farm. Jay digs up a plant with a fine root system and shows me root exudates, responsible for releasing essential substances into the soil including carbohydrates, organic acids and vitamins.
Cattle will be turned out to graze this crop in around November this year, depending on available feed in native pasture paddocks, and will return to a cash crop next year, either soy beans, wheat, corn or peas.
The new approach has been successful on several levels for Jerry. “Cover cropping has been good for all three (enterprises)”. In 2012 sunflowers grown on a paddock which had back to back cover crops on it yielded 600-700 lbs/acre more than its previous best result, even though it was sown with 25% less fertiliser than the recommended application.
The cover crop also reduces the need to buy feed in or store hay for cattle during winter, and feed tests have revealed that stock will maintain weight while on the cover crop. Jerry sends faecal and tissue tests to a laboratory in Texas to ensure that forage will provide adequate nutrition to the herd.
The crop also provides habitat and feed for pheasant and deer, which keeps the hunting part of his enterprise flush with the profitable hunting operation.
Anecdotal evidence also leads Jerry to think that cover cropping does help store rainfall. “It sure helps on the moisture, whatever you get at least its not evaporating out as bad”. Last week on a 90degree day, visitors to the ranch record the soil temperature at 68degrees in-crop.
Jerry’s corn yields significantly better following a cover crop, than when planted on fallowed land.
He’s also significantly reduced the rate of erosion which plagued his sandy soils in a notoriously windy area by including year round soil cover.
In my mind, The success of cover cropping on Jerry’s property can be attributed to two main factors.
1 – careful considerations of resource issues, the enterprise features and limitations allows cover cropping to correct issues and fit into the rotation without creating a need for great expense or increased labor.
2 – is Jerry’s flexible attitude to cover cropping. Instead of giving up when it didn’t work initially, he tweaked planning to later seeding and a longer growing period. Facing a $10/acre increase in seed cost from 2012 – 2013, Jerry reconsidered his plant choice and amended the cocktail to keep the price reasonable.
Back of the envelope calculations:
400 acres x 650 lbs / acre = 260, 000lbs (yield increase)
260,000 x $20/100lbs (low end of today’s price for sunflower seeds)
= $52,000 for the hip pocket, or a $130 / acre gross profit margin increase.*
*That’s without considering the 25% reduction in fertiliser, feed value and long term soil health benefits.
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