The president of the Colorado Conservation Tillage Association is hosting a soil health field day at his farm on Sept. 10.
Michael Thompson farms with his dad and brother in northwest Kansas, roughly 120 miles east of the Colorado border near the town of Almena. His family manages close to 2,000 acres of cropland and runs 200 cow-calf pairs on a mix of native pasture and cover crops.
Over the years, CCTA has evolved into a regional support group for growers who want to adapt popular soil health practices to fit a limited rainfall environment. The group puts on the popular High Plains No Till Conference, a two-day event held every year in Burlington in early February.
The field day at Thompson's farm and ranch is being sponsored jointly by CCTA, No-Till on the Plains, the Nature Conservancy of Kansas, Kansas Rural Center and the Kansas Watershed Restoration and Protection Program. Registration is $50 and space is limited. Sign-up can be done online at NoTill.org.
This is the second time Thompson has opened the farm for an educational field day. He hosted a similar event in 2015.
Being on the farm will allow participants to observe the practices being applied and the effect on the soil firsthand.
"We'll have a warm season grazing mix planted into wheat stubble for everyone to see," Thompson said. "We'll also be looking at some actual in-field soil pits."
The event will also include a producer panel with other farmers taking about their own soil health journey and answering questions about what they've learned along the way. The panel is expected to include Brice Custer, of Hays, who specializes in crop farming, and Jacob Miller, of Culbertson, Nebraska, who runs diversified livestock and sells meat through a direct marketing program.
"We'll open it up so people can ask any questions they might have about how to implement a system like this," Thompson said.
Several other conservation meetings have been held in Kansas over the past month, including a couple of tours of companion-cropping demonstrations on various farms.
Thompson said companion cropping has become a popular option for fighting a potentially costly and damaging pest in grain sorghum, the sugarcane aphid. Flowering crops attract beneficial insects that can minimize aphid pressure and reduce the need for chemical pesticides.
The main emphasis on Thompson's farm is eliminating fallow by having cover crops growing on the soil surface at all times.
"Basically on our cropland we try to plug the holes. Wherever there's fallow, we're looking for a crop that can be grazed or a soil improvement-type cover crop of some kind, to create more residue and help with water infiltration," he said.
Eliminating fallow and increasing residue prevents evaporation loss, while diverse rooting systems open the soil up and allow more moisture to penetrate down into the soil profile, he said.
The crop residue is then incorporated as organic matter that enriches fertility and improves soil structure.
"To get a more resilient soil that holds water better, you need to add more carbon," he explained. "For every part you increase soil carbon, you can hold seven times that amount in water, so it can really help to drought-proof the soil."
Erratic rainfall is one of the features that make dryland farming particularly challenging on the plains. Even in a wet year, such as the current one, flash droughts can develop virtually overnight.
Thompson said his area went through a pronounced dry period in July and early August, before a wetter pattern returned at mid-month.
The main thing he hopes other farmers take away from the field day is support and encouragement to try at least one new thing to better the health of the soil.
"It will be a day for learning about the soil and how to improve the soil," he said.