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Renting land for the long haul

As manager and co-owner of Jacob Farms near Sedgwick, Kansas, Ryan Speer oversees operations on 6,000 acres of rented cropland. Working with landowners is central to his responsibilities.

Equally important as his commitment to good relationships with landowners is his determination to improve soil health on every acre he farms. The result is a two-pronged mission:

“Our goal is to provide a fair return to our landowners and improve soil conditions to a state better than when we started farming the land,” he says. “We strive to make the land continue to be profitable, and to improve the soil so that it can be resilient to weather extremes and is more productive tomorrow than it is today.” 

Speer’s soil-building strategy hinges on no-till and maintaining permanent soil cover by growing diverse cash crops, double cropping, and planting cover crops. “Our motto is: One crop off, one crop on. We try to have living roots in the ground 365 days of the year,” he says. “The soil is a living organism and needs to be fed by living roots year-round. So when one crop comes off, another goes back on, whether it is a cash crop or a cover crop.” 

While some producers struggle with the viability of investing in cover crop seed on rented land — or the question of convincing landowners to permit the planting of cover crops — to Speer it’s a no-brainer with an easy solution. “Planting cover crops is a service we provide to our landowners at no cost to them,” he says.


This photo taken several years ago is of Ryan and Jennifer Speer and their twin sons, Alton (left) and Evan, now 19. Taking care of land long term is a major goal for Jacob Farms.

Cover Crop Seed

With most of their land leased from landowners on a crop-share basis requiring owners to share costs as well as income, Jacob Farms technically could ask landowners to share in the cost of the cover crop seed. However, by covering the seed’s full cost, Speer removes any potential for the economics of cover cropping to present potential stumbling stones to landowners.

“The cost of the cover crop seed is irrelevant to us because the cover crop pays for itself,” he says. “We have had substantial yield increases following cover crops in the on-farm tests we have conducted so far. We consider, too, how the cover crops benefit soil, even two or three years after they’re grown. Those benefits are hard to measure, but the values are real.” 

Beyond benefits to crop yields and soil health, cover crops eliminate the need for one herbicide application in the fall after harvesting corn. “And in some cases, the cover crop removes the need for any post-planting passes on the soybeans,” says Speer.

Thus, the cover crops reduce input costs, boost income from cash crops, and increase the value of land by improving soil health for the long term. These are benefits in which the landowner shares — benefits Speer points out to owners.


Eliminating Yield Drag

When transitioning to no-till land that’s been continuously tilled, Speer says the addition of cover crops to the transition has eliminated the initial drag on cash crop yields. 

“When we first started transitioning conventionally tilled fields to no-till, there was a drag on crop yields,” he says. “But by including cover crops in the transition, we’ve been able to make the switch without yield drags.” 

The cash crops the farm grows include corn, soybeans, grain sorghum, cotton, and winter wheat. 

Because their area typically receives 30 inches of annual rainfall, they’re able to double-crop dryland acres. With double-cropping, they can grow more than one crop per year on the same field.

“Our typical double crop entails planting soybeans or grain sorghum after winter wheat in late June or early July,” says Speer. “We also put wheat behind soybeans in October.” 

Cover crops follow wheat, corn, and cotton.

“After harvesting winter wheat, we plant a five- or 10-way cover crop mix on some of the fields,” says Speer. “After harvesting corn in September, we plant a multispecies blend. Last fall after corn, we planted a mix of rye, radishes, black oats, and hairy vetch. After cotton is harvested in late fall, we plant rye because rye can be planted in November and December here.”

Speer grazes cattle on a portion of the cover crop acres. The farm owns some of the cattle and custom grazes some for other owners. 

“The manure and urine from the cattle contribute to soil fertility,” he says, “and the cover crops recover well after grazing. There’s an economic benefit to the farm because we retain all of the income from the grazing of the cattle, without losing the other benefits cover crops provide, such as weed suppression and reduced moisture evaporation from the soil surface.”

Communication is Key

A question Ryan Speer often hears from other farmers is, “How can I get my landlord to let me plant cover crops?” 

The question is a moot point for Speer, of course, because he covers the cost of planting cover crops on rented land. Still, the question indicates the need for communication between landowner and tenant. “It’s all about communication,” says Speer. “We share with landowners information about the benefits of cover crops, and we provide data to back up everything we’re doing.” 

Speer and Jacob Farms co-owner Steve Jacob share information with landowners during one-on-one meetings. They meet with some landowners monthly and others annually. 

“We share planting intentions along with expected expenses and returns,” says Speer. “We also send out quarterly news articles telling about activities on the farm.” 

In addition, they maintain an informative website landowners can visit to learn about the farming practices Speer is implementing. 

Jacob Farms also hosts an annual appreciation dinner for landowners. Speer has not yet discussed with landowners the potential for marketing carbon credits from the farm.

“We’re looking into the carbon market and trying to learn more about it,” he says. “We’re always trying to do a better job of communicating with landowners, some of whom are second- and third-generation owners renting their land to Jacob Farms,” he adds.

Irrigation Water Savings

Speer’s cropping practices pay off in tangible improvements to soil health and water infiltration. Perhaps most telling is the reduction in water applied to the farm’s irrigated acres. 

“Compared with five years ago, we’re using 35% less irrigation water,” he says. “Cover crops are the reason. We have so much less evaporation than we used to have, and so the soil holds the moisture longer.” 

Additional evidence of improving soil health across the farm is erosion elimination, says Speer. This has been accompanied by increases in soil organic matter of one-tenth of a percent per year. 

Another perk: Cash crop yields have risen while inputs have decreased. “For instance, our typical N [nitrogen] application rate for corn is 180 pounds per acre. In our area, a more common application rate is 230 to 250 pounds per acre.” 

The potential for profitability and visible soil-health benefits of Speer’s practices are not lost on discerning landowners. Recently, one such owner looking for a new tenant reached out to Speer.

“He wanted his ground farmed the way we do because the long-term success of the land was important to him,” says Speer. “Through that exchange we were able to take on another 2,000 acres. When landowners approach us because of our reputation for caring for land, that usually leads to the long-term relationships we try to maintain with owners.”

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Ryan Speer

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