How to build carbon-rich soil
Twenty years ago, some of the heavy clay soil on Josh Lloyd’s farm near Clay Center, Kansas, was so degraded it had an orange color.
That’s changed. Today, soil dug from the same spot has grown darker, a testament to the carbon built in the soil over the past two decades.
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“My goal is to build soil carbon,” he says.
However, it’s not for the carbon marketplace. He says he hasn’t given that a thought.
For one reason, he says there’s little evidence yet that farmers and ranchers like himself who have spent years sequestering carbon in the soil through their management practices will be fairly rewarded by economic incentives.
The reason he aims to build carbon in the soil is to restore his farm’s soils to the natural productivity they possessed before being tilled by farmers. It’s key to robust health of crops and livestock and the increasing profitability he experiences in his operation, he says.
“Historically, productive topsoil was built by plants and animals living on top of it,” Lloyd adds. “There are four components in native ecosystems that built carbon in the soil. They are not tilled. There’s plant intensity. In other words, there’s something growing all the time. There’s diversity of plants, and there are animals grazing the plants.”
Mimicking these natural-system components, he says, is how he has built carbon in the soil. It’s also how he has reduced inputs of both fertilizers and herbicides, and how he has increased profitability by 50% compared with 20 years ago when he took management of the farm from his father.
At the time, most of the farm was already in no-till. An exception was a tillage operation between the back-to-back winter wheat crops in the farm’s rotation of two years of winter wheat followed by milo and soybeans.
An eye-opener for the young Lloyd was a No-Till on the Plains conference he attended with his father in 1998. Little did he know then that some 20 years later, he would be invited to speak there regarding his own experiences with no-till, double-cropping, and cover crops.
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Back then, though, it was obvious to him to stop all tillage, primarily as a means of stopping potential for soil erosion. “When we got home from the conference, I said to my father, ‘Let’s sell all the tillage equipment so that we’re not tempted to use it,’” says Lloyd. “We also bought another no-till drill.”
Today, Lloyd still grows winter wheat, milo, and soybeans on his 2,800-acre farm. However, he has added a double-cropping component to the operation, along with cover crops and livestock grazing.
“I want to keep plants growing on every acre all the time in order to build back the carbon-rich topsoil,” he says.
Double-cropping soybeans is one way Lloyd has intensified the cropping sequence to keep living roots in the soil at all times. It’s also a way to harvest two cash crops in one season.
“We harvest winter wheat at the end of June, and we’ve found that we can plant soy- beans after the winter wheat up to about July 10,” he says. “We’ll harvest the soybeans in the middle to the end of October, and they’ll yield between 25 and 30 bushels to the acre.”
After harvesting the soy- beans and the spring-seeded milo, and some years corn, Lloyd plants a cereal rye cover crop. “In the fall I plant cereal rye on most every acre that’s not already growing winter wheat,” he says.
The rye provides fall and winter grazing for livestock. However, on some fields after the harvest of winter wheat, he plants a diverse cover crop for grazing.
In other fields he establishes “perennial breaks” to further intensify diversity of plants and roots growing in the soil. These plantings also provide grazing for livestock.
“The perennials are a mixture of cool- season grasses and legumes,” he says. “I’ll leave these perennial plantings in place for about five years.”
Incorporating the grazing of cattle and sheep into the cropping system offers the benefits of adding value to the forages through livestock production. Their grazing also stimulates additional carbon-building plant growth resulting from regrowth after grazing, and the livestock add fertility to the soil through manure and urine.
Lloyd runs 50 cow-calf pairs and 500 ewes.
Augmented by three native-grass pastures totaling some 250 acres, the cropland pro- vides much of the grazing for the livestock. Lloyd juggles the grazers through the crop- land acres in a sequence that matches plant growth to stage of the growing season.
He harvests hay from grass waterways and feeds these bales to the cattle while they’re grazing the fields growing perennials.
“When I feed hay in those perennial fields I’m adding extra carbon to the system,” he says. “It’s a way to super-charge the rebuild- ing of the topsoil.”
|Incentives For Sequestering Carbon|
Farmers adopting practices similar to Josh Lloyd’s can expect greater soil health, better water infiltration, and increased profitability. These results, of course, generate economic rewards from within the system itself.
The carbon marketplace potentially offers additional economic incentives to farmers adopting these practices. However, the present trajectory of the incentives indicates that long-term soil health builders such as Lloyd are being left behind.
“Soil that’s low in carbon is going to sequester a lot more carbon than soil that’s already high in carbon,” he says. “We need to start rewarding the people who are already doing a good job and have been doing it for a long time.”
Lower Costs and Higher Yields
Reduced input costs have resulted from Lloyd’s crop-livestock system. The synergistic effect of livestock grazing on cropland combined with continuous plant cover has contributed to reduced costs for fertilizer.
“We’re applying at least 25% to 50% less fertilizer [than we did 20 years ago],” he says. “I have found that the key to weaning our- selves off fertilizer has been no-till along with having diverse plants growing all the time.”
Herbicide costs, too, are one-third to one- half less than in earlier years.
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“When I plant rye in the fall, I don’t have a fall herbicide cost,” he says. “In the spring we plant into the rye while it’s green. Then we apply herbicide to burn down the rye, killing the weeds with it.”
He also reduces herbicide applications in the diverse cover crop mixes where livestock grazing controls weeds.
Hand in hand with reduced costs have come increased wheat yields. “We used to think 40 to 50 bushels per acre was a good wheat yield,” says Lloyd. “Now, if we don’t get 75 bushels per acre, we think it’s a bad year.”
The driving force keeping costs down in Lloyd’s livestock enterprises is managing cattle and sheep according to natural rhythms. He calves and lambs on pasture in May and develops livestock on pasture, where they are less vulnerable to disease. He culls individuals with physical weaknesses and behavior problems.
“We don’t prop anything up with inputs,” he says.
Feed costs for the livestock are low because of their integration into the cropping system.
The operation’s enhanced profitability spins from the whole-system synergy created by building soil car- bon, keeping diverse plants growing, reducing inputs, increasing yields, and weaving livestock grazing into the cropping system.
“The profitability comes from building a system that builds on itself,” says Lloyd.
Josh Lloyd, 785/632-7256, email@example.com