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Put Your Soil First

Focusing on soil health balances their system.

In the late 1990s, Gabe and Shelly Brown had a four-year run of bad luck on their crop farm near Bismarck, North Dakota. Two years in a row, their crops got hailed out, the third year brought drought, and the fourth year brought hail again.

“Money was extremely tight,” says Gabe Brown. “I started asking, ‘How can I farm without expensive inputs?’ Searching for the answer to that question sent me down a path of learning about the way soil functions. I started doing a lot of experimenting with cover crops, and nothing came easily; it seemed I had to learn everything twice.”

The hard lessons paid off, however. After years of weaving cover crops and livestock grazing into a no-till system, the Browns, who now farm in partnership with their son, Paul, rely almost solely on soil, plants, and livestock to meet the health needs of crops.

“We use no purchased fertilizer, no pesticides, and no fungicides,” says Brown. “On some fields we might use an herbicide about every third year.”

All this is because their soil now teems with life and restored health. “When we bought the farm in 1991, the soil organic matter was 1.7% to 1.9%,” says Brown. “Historically, soil scientists tell us that the soil organic matter of some Northern Plains regions like ours was as high as 7% in the pre-European-settlement period. So farms such as ours had lost 75% of their soil organic matter.

“On our farm today, the organic matter on cropland is now 6.3% to 6.9%,” he says. “We’re getting close to restoring the soil to its historical condition.”

Hand in hand with high levels of organic matter and, thus, well-structured soil aggregates has come nearly free-flow water infiltration. “In infiltration tests done by scientists studying our ranch, water infiltrates our soil at a rate of 1 inch in nine seconds,” says Brown. “The second inch of water infiltrates in 16 seconds.”

Because it’s well watered, undisturbed by tillage, and fed a constant diet of live roots and recycled plant residue along with livestock manure and urine, the soil is populated with mycorrhizal fungi. These are the linchpins in bringing the soil system to its fullest life.

“Mycorrhizal fungi have to be present in order for soil aggregates to be built,” says Brown. “They secrete a substance called glomalin that acts like a sticky glue that binds soil aggregates together. The fungi have a symbiotic relationship with plants because they extend out from the roots and draw water and nutrients to the plants. It’s well documented that tillage destroys mycorrhizal fungi, and it’s my view that synthetic inputs are also destructive to the fungi.”

The results on the 5,200-acre Brown farm suggest such thinking is on the right track. While soil health and profitability trump yields when it comes to the Browns’ goals, consistently good yields are commonplace. “While our county average for corn production is 100 bushels per acre, our corn typically averages 127 bushels per acre,” he says.

“By regenerating resources, we can be least-cost producers,” says Brown. “Because we don’t have a lot of expenses for purchased inputs, that makes us profitable. We can grow a bushel of corn for a production cost of less than $1.50 a bushel.”

Besides savings in inputs, the Browns add value to crops by marketing them through multiple species of livestock, most raised right on the farm. “Of our cash crops, 30% is consumed by hogs and poultry, and 70% is sold as either seed or feed,” says Brown.

While 3,000 acres of grassland is committed to the rotational grazing of 300 beef cows and 400 to 800 stockers, the 2,200 acres of cropland grow corn, spring wheat, oats, barley, peas, rye, and sunflowers. The Browns also grow hairy vetch and winter triticale for seed sales.

Covercropmix

“We don’t use a set crop rotation,” says Brown. “In general, we try to have one of all four crop types – cool-season grass, cool-season broadleaf, warm-season grass, warm-season broadleaf – on a particular field every five years. An example would be oats followed by peas, followed by corn, followed by sunflowers. However, there would also be cover crops every year, either before, along with, or after the cash crop.”

Cover crop plantings are of diverse species. “After peas, we might plant millet, kale, clover, daikon radish, and buckwheat,” says Brown. “After barley and rye, we might plant oats, lentils, peas, and radish.

Some cover crops are season-long covers, planted in June. These, along with short-season cover crops, provide grazing for 250 stocker cattle. Most are marketed directly to consumers as grass-finished beef.

To graze yearlings on cover crops, the Browns use temporary fencing to cross-fence fields. They rotate the cattle through these small paddocks in a daily series of moves. Cattle trample much of the plant material into the earth, thus, building soil. The cattle also gain rapidly.

“Cover crops like rye and hairy vetch seeded in the fall will produce a lot of biomass when they regrow in the spring,” says Brown. “We’ll let the yearlings graze these in summer. On this and other types of cover crops we can get 3 to 4 pounds a gain per head per day. That makes those cover crops profitable.”

Besides raising and direct-marketing grass-fed beef under their trademarked label Nourished by Nature, the Browns also direct-market pastured hogs from 25 sows farrowing one and one-half times per year. They also direct-market grass-finished lambs from a flock of ewes, along with eggs from 1,000 free-range laying hens.

Providing most of the labor for the diverse enterprises are Gabe, Shelly, and Paul Brown, along with Paul’s girlfriend, Shalini Karra.

“We’ve found a lot of opportunity by being observant,” says Brown. “Agriculture is all about symptoms caused by problems. We’ve tried to figure out what causes the problems in our system. While trying to solve these, we’ve found an enjoyable and profitable way of farming.”

5 steps to better soil health

Brown frequently addresses farm audiences across North America. He typically shares his five-step journey to soil health.

  1. Disturb soil as little as possible.
  2. Keep armor on the soil at all times in the form of crop residue or plant growth to provide ground cover.
  3. Grow diverse species of plants. Consider that the native prairie was made up of many plant species.
  4. Keep living roots in the soil as long as possible throughout the year.
  5. Use animal integration to add soil fertility, to recycle nutrients, and to stimulate renewed plant growth.
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