After Lucinda Hardesty Stuenkel lost her husband and brother-in-law in a vehicular accident just before Thanksgiving in 2010, she was forced to make changes to the farm's infrastructure and management to keep it going.
To farm "with less muscle," as she puts it, required adopting gentle livestock handling methods and looking for ways to work with nature rather than against it.
While tragic circumstances forced her to bring a woman's touch to the farm's oversight, she sees her approach as part of a broader cultural shift.
"It's not a gender mindset, it's an open mindset," she emphasized recently. "It's about using the resources that are already there and making the most of them, not trying to bully or subdue things; building things up rather than trying to destroy something."
While most farmers will never have to go through such a wrenching change overnight, farmers on the arid plains are being forced to reckon with declining irrigation wells and a dwindling aquifer, cumbersome grain surpluses and heightened trade uncertainties.
The Bottom Line Conference, a two-day workshop held in Lakin, Kan., and sponsored by several area conservation districts along with the Natural Resource Conservation Service, helps farmers explore how to adopt popular soil health management strategies to fit a region stymied by limited and often erratic rainfall.
Hardesty Stuenkel, a rancher from north central Kansas, was joined on this year's program by Nick Vos, of Hugoton, whose enterprises include farming, livestock production, seed sales, crop inputs and consulting.
Balance and timing are two key ingredients for farming more profitably with fewer inputs, Vos said.
While cover crops require adequate moisture to bring them up, Vos addressed a long-running controversy over whether cover crops remove water from the soil or replenish it by saying evidence from soil moisture probes is making believers out of former skeptics.
Unlike bare soil that loses moisture to the surrounding air, underground roots capture and hold it, creating a residual supply, he said.
"Roots are 90 percent water," he said. "Your recharge rate will be higher in the spring than what you can save by fallowing."
But it is important to consider environmental limitations when deciding which cover crops to plant, he added.
It's a common fallacy that getting lots of biomass to grow above ground is the primary goal. That might be true in some environments, but not in an area short on rainfall, he emphasized.
"Residue isn't what grows organic matter in your soil, it's the growing roots," he said. "It's not about the biomass for me. I want better cycling of what's out there."
Too much of a high-carbon species can negatively impact future crops, he said. Non-legume, mature grasses tend to be highest in carbon, which means they break down more slowly and require more nitrogen to decompose.
Instead, farmers need to aim for the proper carbon-to-nitrogen ratio, he explained.
In limited rainfall environments, it's best to stick with a straightforward mix rather than highly diverse cocktails, he added.
He recommended a basic combination of a grass like proso millet, a legume like sunn hemp, and brassicas like radish and rape for the most consistent results.
"This is a mix where you can almost always throw it out there, and it will grow," he said.
By grazing livestock, farmers can further heal degraded soils, he said.
Vos raises approximately 330 sheep on about 22 acres. This year he started moving them onto some of his poorest farmland as an alternative to fallowing it.
He started out by planting it to wheat. Although wheat is what he called a "non-profit cash crop," it can be grazed multiple times in the fall and early spring, harvested for grain and then grazed for another month or two after weeds and mixed covers come up in the stubble, he said.
As a grain crop, it is also eligible for crop revenue coverage, he explained.
Vos said his wife is largely in charge of the Dorper hair sheep, a docile, easy-to-handle breed that exhibits balanced grazing behavior. While goats are primarily browsers and cattle prefer grasses, his sheep will eat "anything that's green," he said.
While sheep have to be managed differently than cattle, they can be trained to clean up problem weeds like bindweed, he said.
The market for lamb isn't as stable as it is for cattle, but less market concentration makes for unique marketing opportunities, he said.
Vos currently direct-markets a handful of his sheep by sending them to a federally inspected custom processor in Garden City, and the rest go to Whole Foods Market through a collective marketing group called Capra Foods Premium Lamb. He is working toward Global Animal Partnership certification and eventually organic certification as well.
He also sells breeding stock.
"The sheep deal has been our biggest growth in equity over the last three years," he said.
Bob Price, who attended the conference, has been raising sheep near Lakin for the past 40 years. He said sheep grazing was common in the area back in the 1940s. While a lot of that production has since faded out, he believes there's potential to bring it back, in part because American consumers prefer the taste of American lamb to imported product.
"The demand is there," he said.
Vos said eventually he plans to add a few cattle into his rotation to increase the diversity on his farm.
"They will eat the tall stuff where the parasites live, so they compliment the sheep in that way," he said.
Hardesty Stuenkel recalled that when her late husband first wanted to experiment with planting oats into wheat stubble following harvest, he did it on the backside of a field hidden from the road and away the neighbors' view.
"He just wanted it for the biomass, but we ended up getting a tremendous amount of grazing from November all the way through February," she recalled.
That opened their eyes to the potential of cover crops, and even weeds, as a source of highly palatable, nutritious grazing. In the years since, Hardesty Stuenkel has developed a thriving market for grass-fed beef in Manhattan, Kansas, about 60 miles southeast of where she farms.
Nowadays farmers are openly experimenting with similar approaches and sharing their successes — and failures — through social media groups, conferences and field days, and finding ways to coax rewards from specialty markets, all of which she considers a positive trend.