Don’t farm naked
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”.