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Rebuilding a Farm

Managing for soil health rebuilds fertility and increases yields.

From the time he was a teenager, Rocky Bateman never doubted that he was meant to be a farmer. Yet, soon after getting started with his own operation in 1974, he began doubting his management methods.

Like other farmers around New Salem, North Dakota, Bateman was growing wheat in rotation with summer fallow on marginal land. “That summer fallow-wheat rotation was driving me into bankruptcy,” he says. “I had clouds of dirt blowing from the fields.”

To stop wind and water erosion, Bateman switched to a cropping system of reduced tillage and continuous cropping of diverse crops. “I tried to keep the soil covered, and that did stop it from eroding,” says Bateman.

The cropping system continued to spiral downward, though. “In the early 1990s, soil tests showed the organic matter in my fields was .7% to .9% – not even a full percentage point,” he says. “At that low of a level, there’s not enough organic matter to feed the soil biology or to grow anything. It seemed I couldn’t put on enough fertilizer, and yet I had crop failure after crop failure after crop failure. My banker encouraged me to quit.”

Despite the repetitive crop failures and dying earth, Bateman believed there was a way to breathe life into the soil and crops. A man of faith, he sat on a hill and prayed for ideas to find better ways of farming.

Soon after, he participated in a tour of no-till farms in western North Dakota. “Like me, these farmers were farming marginal land, but they had phenomenal yields; their cropping systems were clearly working,” he remembers.

Inspired, Bateman tracked down no-till mentors and learned all he could about how to practice no-till in ways that would rebuild the biological life in the soil.

Bateman hasn’t looked back since. Soil organic matter on his farm now tests 4.5% to 5%, and yields have more than tripled. Per-acre fuel costs are 25% of what they were earlier.

Crop failures are a thing of the past. “Before making changes, I might get a crop two or three years out of 10,” he says. “Five years out of 10 would be a bust. Now, I simply have good years and some better years. Even last year, with low crop prices, I cash-flowed; I made a profit.”

In recognition of Bateman’s efforts to improve soil, the National Association of Conservation Districts named him one of its Soil Health Champions.

Restoring biological life to the soil on his farm resulted from building organic matter, he says. Along with growing a diverse crop rotation of wheat, corn, soybeans, and sunflowers, he credits the elimination of tillage with the building of organic matter.

It took some tweaking of seeding equipment to achieve as little soil disturbance as possible.

“When I first started no-tilling, I seeded with a rigid-shank hoe drill,” he says. “Yet, I still had too much soil erosion. I was trying to achieve less than 5% soil disturbance with the seeding pass, but the hoe drill disturbed too much soil.

“When I went to a disk-opener seeding system, the cropping system really started to change,” he says. “I got down to 2% to 3% soil disturbance during the seeding pass. My goal is to have zero disturbance. I have the technology today to open a seed slot in the ground and cover it back up again.”

Nevertheless, crops and soils did not respond overnight. “Making these changes did not provide an instant fix,” says Bateman. “The improvements in the soil and in yields took place over a long period of time.”

More immediate were the savings in costs for fuel, equipment, and repairs. He was able to downsize his line of equipment by eliminating tillage passes.

The fuel savings were dramatic. Before transitioning to no-till, Bateman’s fuel consumption was 7 to 8 gallons per acre. “Now, I can seed, spray twice, and harvest for less than 2 gallons an acre,” he says.

Conversely, fuel costs for grain hauling are higher because crop yields have increased. “Yields have been on a continual upward trend since I started focusing on soil health,” says Bateman. “In the 1970s and 1980s, my proven yield for wheat after summer fallow was 21 bushels per acre. My proven yield for continuous wheat was 16 bushels per acre.

“Last year, though, my wheat yielded 50 to 55 bushels per acre, and my corn yielded 100 bushels to the acre,” he says. “For wheat, I have more than tripled my continuous cropping yield in 20 years’ time. Some of that could be due to new varieties, but a lot of it has to do with increasing soil organic matter. I did that by taking tillage out of the equation and by growing more diverse crops.”

The higher levels of soil organic matter translate into a savings in fertilizer cost. “I figure the cycling of the organic matter in the soil provides at least 50 pounds to the acre of free nitrogen every year,” says Bateman.

Further savings come from less need for herbicide as weed populations have decreased. “I have a good layer of residue on the soil surface, and it suppresses weed seedlings,” he says.

From a starting point of failure, Bateman’s management changes have built a farm that is resilient to both adverse weather and challenging economic times.

“Tough times cause change, and because of the changes I’ve made on my farm, I’m hopeful for the future,” he says. “What I’ve learned from all my experiences is that soil health drives everything, and that’s why the health of the soil has become my focus.”

COVER CROPS ON GRASSLAND

To revitalize a field that had been in grass production since 1960, Bateman no-tilled a multispecies cover crop into the existing grass stand.

“I didn’t want to spray out the old grass because there were a lot of native species trying to come back,” he says.

The spring-seeded cover crop struggled to compete with the existing grass stand the first two years. Cattle grazed the field in the fall, adding manure to the system. Bateman again no-till planted the mixed-species cover crop the third spring.

“I was successful with that planting, and the cover crops added diversity to the existing stand of old, unproductive grass,” he says. “Plant diversity replaces a lot of fertilizer.”

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