WINDOM — Joe Swanson of Santa Fe Trail Farms in Windom has used no-till farming methods and cover crops for more than three decades.
His soil is dark brown, soft and loaded with worms — unlike the soil of many other farmers in the area. Because of his rich soil, brought about by his farming efforts, Steve Swaffar, the CEO of the nonprofit organization No-Till on the Plains, held a field day Tuesday at Swanson’s farm.
“We’re providing knowledge to the farmer of how they can improve their crop and profits,” Swaffar said. “It’s so important for farmers to understand how their actions both positively and negatively affect the soil.”
More than 40 people from Eastern and Central Kansas attended this educational session that covered no-till farming, cover crops and the benefits of bees. In addition to the speakers, attendees viewed the soil at three locations on Santa Fe Trail Farms.
According to Swaffar, only 20% of farms in Kansas are no-tillage — where a machine is not used to till the ground after harvest.
No-till and cover crops
But no-till alone is not the complete answer, Swaffar said, as leaving fields dormant for months, even days, depletes them of nutrients and causes their soil to harden. That’s why cover crops are important. By using no-till and cover crops, the ground is warmer in winter, cooler in summer and contains more nutrients.
Ryan Speer of Jacobs Farms in Sedgwick was a keynote speaker at the event. He added no-till practices in 2000 and cover crops in 2006. Speer resisted adding cover crops for years.
“I spent six or seven years saying cover crops were dumb,” he said. “I wasted a lot of years saying I shouldn’t be planting them, and that was dumb.”
Speer learned cover crops can decrease soil erosion and add nutrients and minerals. Because of these factors, he improved his soil, increased water infiltration, decreased erosion and used fewer herbicides.
“Mother Nature is going to cover your ground with something,” Speer said. “You need to put in what you want.”
Every acre on Speer’s farm has a living root growing on it. He plants cover crops of rye, produce, sunflowers, milo and other crops, adding 40% more nutrients to the soil. Without the cover crops, he said, the land loses more in evaporation.
“We always get high rainfall events, and we need to be able to capture it,” Speer said. “You need living roots to keep that field infiltrated.”
Slowly, over time, Speer said he is changing the soil’s organic matter. By having the soil covered year-round, the soil retains moisture and nutrients — even in dry climates like western Kansas.
“It’s taken me 10 years to go up 1% in organic matter,” Speer said. “If you go west, you are limited to what your rotation could be, but you are not limited in your cover crop.”
Last season, farms near Speer’s farm were down in soybean production. But, he said, he did considerably better than many others in his region.
Learning what works
Jane and Ken Gamber of Hutchinson came to the event, which was also sponsored by the Nature Conservancy, to learn about no-till farming and cover crops and possibly implement these principles. They live on farmland that has been in Jane Gamber’s family since 1873.
“We had tremendous flood damage last year,” Jane Gamber said. “People have to keep learning. This makes perfect sense. It’s what nature is doing all the time.”
Yvonne Burden of Stephenson Land and Cattle in Medicine Lodge also wanted to learn about no-till and cover crops. She experimented with no-till several years ago.
“I want to make our land better, decrease costs and increase profits,” Burden said. “I’m trying to work with nature and not against it.”
After listening to the presentations, Darren Nelson of Nelson Bower Farms in Windom said he wants to add more cover crops.
“We should have done more last year,” he said. “We’re trying to avoid soil erosion.”
Some farmers, like Robin Griffeth of Griffeth Family Farms in Jewell, have used these methods for decades. Griffeth said he is always looking for new ideas. He started no-till farming in 1995 and cover crops in 2004. He said it is challenging to keep enough residue in the field — with no-tilling, residue is an asset.
Griffeth plants wheat, corn, milo, soybeans and sunflower seeds for cash crops and uses buckwheat, rye, mustard, cowpeas and a clover mix for cover.
“Keeping live root in the soil is essential,” Griffeth said. “That feeds microbes. There is life in the soil.”
Griffeth bought a microscope so he could examine his soil a few times a year. He said it was amazing to see so much life in the soil. Swaffer pointed out soil samples, which included a variety of long, multicolored worms, on Swanson’s farm and recommended each farmer purchase a small gem magnifier to examine their soil with.
Speer told the crowd not to listen to "coffee shop peer pressure."
"There’s a lot of barriers," he said. "A lot of it is a mindset."
Speer said his profits have increased, and he’s having fun. But, he warned, no-till and cover crops are labor-intensive, and there is no cookie-cutter method.
Winterizing your soil
Jim Johnson, an agronomist with Noble Research Institute, an independent nonprofit agricultural research organization in Ardmore, Okla., told the crowd to be creative in feeding "underground livestock."
“All of the biology underground is a livestock,” Johnson said.
Johnson researched agriculture in the Great Plains during the 1930s and ’40s. He realized a lot of methods farmers are currently using were second nature to them years ago. Now, he said, he’s farming similarly to the way his grandfather did.
“The definition of insanity is when you spray for weeds every year and you get weeds every year,” Johnson said.
By using no-till, cover crops, wood chips, mulch and livestock grazing — including cattle, goats, lamb and other animals — the farmer is feeding the soil with nutrients in both manure and cover crops and increasing the amount of water it can hold.
“We want water to go straight into the ground in our fields,” Johnson said. “The same principles apply whether it’s grass or crops.”
Even though the cover crop might look shabby, the roots grow deep, and usually straight, in a well-managed no-till farm. By maintaining the underground livestock, the farmer increases water retention by 6 to 10 inches and decreases the effects of drought from between 13 and 61 days.
But life happens, and Johnson said each farmer and rancher must have a plan in case of fire, drought, excessive rains or hail.
“A dead soil has no smell,” Johnson said. “Check your soil. If your soil pH is out of whack, you’re going to suffer.”
By limiting unnatural disturbances, such as compaction, tillage and too many pesticides, Johnson said, the land will naturally produce helpful residue and minerals.
“Residue provides thermal protection for us,” he said. “It’s like a blanket.”
For more information, visit www.notill.org.