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No-till farmers seek increased profitability, sustainability through traditional practices

Candace Krebs
Special to Ag Journal

Minimum input no-till agriculture — or MINT — could help reverse a century-long trend toward environmental degradation, low profitability and shrinking rural communities, according to the keynote speaker at this year’s No Till on the Plains Conference, hosted virtually with assistance from Wichita State University.

Darrin Qualman grew up feeding cattle and raising crops on 4,000 acres south of Saskatoon in the 1990s before going into public policy work. In 2019, he published a report, “Tackling the Farm Crisis and the Climate Crisis,” and a book, "Civilization Critical: Energy, Food, Nature and the Future."

Over the last century, he said in this talk, farmers became less self-sufficient and more reliant on purchased inputs, producing more but ultimately earning less, with detrimental impacts to the soil and environment.

Conversely, if farmers could reduce their dependence on inputs like fertilizers and chemicals, they would ultimately become more profitable while being more sustainable, he added.

Nitrogen fertilizer production is a significant source of carbon emissions, he said, noting that its use has doubled in Canada since 1992.

He said he liked the idea of no-till organic, but added, “I know the challenges around that.”

“I think we need to get the conventional no-till and organic farmers talking to each other, take the best ideas from them both and come up with a hybrid approach,” he said. “I think that’s probably where we will find that sweet spot with the lowest carbon emissions per ton of output.”

Chris Teachout, a farmer from southwest Iowa who also appeared on the program, said he had long been troubled by declining soil organic matter, nitrogen runoff and greenhouse gas buildup.

“I always knew traditionally what we were doing was wrong, just by doing a gut check, but there was not really anything out there to help with that,” he said. “We need to be honest with ourselves, and look at the direction we’re going. For me, it’s about what can I pass on or how can I help with the change (that needs to happen)?”

Teachout, who farms 1,850 acres of mostly corn and soybeans, outlined how he used multiple on-farm experiments to improve his farming methods.

He tested 50 different varieties of field peas before finding the right warm season legume to intercrop with corn, dramatically reducing his nitrogen use.

He also learned to seed early-planted soybeans into cereal rye, carefully controlling the planting population to allow for each plant’s fullest expression. If the rye is taller than four feet, he rolls it before planting. If it’s shorter than that, he chemically terminates it.

Despite using less nitrogen, his yields are above trend-line, leading him to conclude integrating cover crops is adding something valuable into the system.

He’s also been pursuing the re-establishment of an old style course-stemmed cereal rye. Dissatisfied by the tall, thin stems on modern varieties, he dug some 37-year-old seed out of a barn on his fifth-generation property and started propagating it.

He also constructed his own on-farm bioreactor, in which he makes compost without turning it, the goal of which is to achieve a one-to-one ratio of bacteria to fungi before applying it to his soil.

As soil health improves, it sequesters more carbon, reducing the need for nitrogen applications, explained John Kempf, a crop health consultant and founder of Advancing Eco Agriculture, which helps large-scale farms transition to regenerative practices.

“Your No. 1 priority (when you start transitioning) is converting as much sunlight and carbon dioxide through photosynthesis into soil carbon as possible,” he said during the conference. “Photosynthesis is the engine, so constantly having green growing plants and a living root system is one piece we’ve missed or haven’t fully appreciated. The level of photosynthesis we are getting is only 15% of what we are capable of.”

With better nutrient management, it is possible to double the rate of photosynthesis, he said.

“Everything flows from that, and that’s how the soil biology gets built,” he said.

Farmers will likely never completely eliminate use of commercial herbicides or fertilizers, he noted. But healthier soil reduces input costs and encourages the development of non-chemical alternatives, such as using electrical vibrations to inhibit weed seeds prior to planting, an idea being studied in Australia, he added.

Keith Thompson, a farmer from Osage City, Kansas, who helped start the no-till movement 26 years ago, said the minimum input message resonates with farmers increasingly frustrated by the lack of profitability.

“My whole life farming, I have never farmed in a time when you could really make money,” he said. “My income has gone down every year since I started farming in the late 1970s. I’ve been putting all of my money into inputs.”

“Everybody’s making money but the farmer,” he added, a trend he observed on other farms during his travels around the world.

What he saw drove him and two other soil health advocates — Rick Bieber, of South Dakota, and Bud Davis, of Kansas — to form a nonprofit organization called Health First, aimed at using the latest science to connect soil health to the health of food and ultimately human and environmental health.

“It’s not going to be easy,” he conceded. “It may take 20 years.”

Still, it took 30 years for farmers to begin to recognize the importance of soil biology and roughly the same amount of time for society to transition from horses to cars in the early 20th century, he said.

During the keynote sessions and in online chat rooms, conference attendees discussed the future of no-till, including how to collect better data and metrics to quantify the benefits of fermented compost; how to extend agricultural stewardship approaches to management of public lands; and whether annual carbon credit payments were preferable to long-term contracts.

Even if public policy doesn’t always encourage it, farmers putting soil health first — rather than chasing yields — are breaking out of a mindset that dates back to when the plains were originally settled, according to moderator Dwayne Beck, long-time director of the Dakota Lakes Research Farm at Pierre, South Dakota.

When Europeans came to the plains, they were looking for new sources of wealth to extract and exploit, he said.

“The Europeans wanted to extract maximum wealth from the colonies. Now it’s not governments so much as it is the multinational companies,” he said.