Some unusual plants and livestock are showing up in High Plains crop rotations as farmers push the envelope to expand biological diversity and create new revenue streams on conventional farms.

Some unusual plants and livestock are showing up in High Plains crop rotations as farmers push the envelope to expand biological diversity and create new revenue streams on conventional farms.

Tubular daikon radishes and crunchy turnips have been a mainstay of cover crop mixes for many years, mostly because their bulbous roots help break up soil compaction. But squash? Cucumbers? Okra?

Common edibles like these are making their way into cover crop mixes on farms in western Kansas.

“We’re always trying something different,” explained Mike Neff, who farms south of Oberlin. “Squash is really good for the soil.”

After his family’s garden is planted in the spring, he likes to throw all of the leftover vegetable seed into the drill box and plant it using a method he affectionately calls “chaos gardening.”

It’s a term originally coined by Gabe Brown, a North Dakota-based farmer who is considered one of the gurus of the no-till/regenerative farming movement. Another nonconformist who has encouraged his peers to think about incorporating food crops and growing them more nutritiously is Gail Fuller, who hosts his own on-farm field school every summer near Emporia, Kansas.

The “kitchen sink” approach to crop mixes has been gaining traction, as no-till farmers, seed providers and agronomists embrace the view that diverse “cocktails” of plants, which mirror the native prairie eco-system, are better than single species plantings. Farmers can often get a discount on their seed if they are willing to buy floor sweepings, which contain a little bit of anything and everything.

As cover mixes evolve beyond forages, legumes and brassicas to include vegetables, the enhanced diversity appears to boost soil organic matter and attract wildlife. But harvesting the produce to eat? That’s labor intensive, Neff admitted, although he is exploring ways to involve the local community and neighborhood food pantries in gleaning his fields.

Dan Wahlmeier, another area farmer who is experimenting with similar techniques, recently retrofitted an old stock trailer into a mobile chicken coop to drag across his fields. Mesh flooring allows the manure to fall through onto the ground below.

“I love having chickens in my operation now,” said Wahlmeier, who farms at Clayton, Kansas, and raises registered Gelbvieh cattle.

Wahlmeier said the poultry provide him with free fertilizer. “Chicken manure is the richest source of nitrogen you can get,” he said. So far he and his wife have been giving most of the eggs away to needy couples in the community.

With commodity prices low and production costs high, however, these farmers and others like them would prefer to capture more value from what they produce as they continue to intensify their rotations.

Jacob Miller has spent considerable time pondering this dilemma too. The young farmer from Culbertson, Nebraska, is a popular speaker at educational meetings around the region, where he often talks about his program of grazing 365 days a year with no supplemental feeding.

Earlier this year he joined the board of directors of the Colorado Conservation Tillage Association, a regional group that organizes the annual High Plains No Till Conference.

Miller started raising broilers and pigs, in addition to running cows and yearlings, as a way to “stack” multiple enterprises on the same farm.

His verdict on chickens is also positive.

“I’m amazed at the amount of manure they produce,” he said. “I know a guy who bought 600 laying hens and doesn’t even collect the eggs, he just basically lets them fall on the ground.”

Still, he and farmers like Neff and Wahlmeier would like to capture more value from the consumable food items they produce. However, marketing is a big challenge for most conventional crop farmers, Miller said.

It’s easy to have $20 in a bird by the time it’s ready to sell but hard to get that kind of premium back out of the marketplace, he noted. Finding processing is often difficult, which is why North Dakota’s Brown co-founded his own slaughter facility.

Miller is more optimistic about selling beef. He’s currently custom-butchering a few head of cattle and, if he’s pleased with the quality, he plans to begin selling it, perhaps by approaching doctors’ offices in the area to help him get the word out.

Miller is looking into other revenue generating possibilities, too, for example, offering paid hunting. He’d also like to connect with kids in the local FFA program who are interested in growing food but lack access to land. His farm is located about 20 miles from McCook, but his sister-in-law is the agriculture instructor there, which got him thinking about the potential for collaboration.

While Miller is trying to figure out ways to optimize revenue, he is also dealing with having more hungry mouths to feed within his own soil.

“Nutrient cycling hit me this year,” he said.

As soil becomes more biologically active, the microscopic critters underground become hungrier and consume more plant residue. Miller is finding it increasingly difficult to keep them satisfied.

One strategy he’s using is to plant some forages that are less palatable to cattle so it winds up on the ground rather than in their bellies.

“A challenge for us right now is how to keep up with the monster we’ve created and just keep the biology fed,” he said. “But those are good growing pains to have, and we’ll get through it.”

Intent on breaking new ground, these farmers don’t seem put off to encounter a few speed bumps along the way as they tinker with finding the right crop mix.

“It’s kind of a never-ending puzzle,” Neff said.

“Everybody has cattle that need to eat, weeds that won’t die, or erosion that’s happening, so there’s no excuse not to do this,” Miller added.