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The Road to Restoring Soil Health

Ways to farm the same soil – with different results – are the work of innovators like Derek and Tannis Axten.

Back in 2007, Derek and Tannis Axten were looking to tweak their no-till farming operation near Minton Saskatchewan, just about 30 minutes north of the Montana border town of Plentywood.   

Their farm is in the heart of rolling grass prairie. The fragile, pale brown clay-loam soils are well suited to buffalo, less so to farming. 

“We just wanted to upgrade to a drill that would follow the ground better and move as little soil as possible,” says Derek.

So, the husband-wife team traveled nearly 500 miles southeast to buy a John Deere 1895 zero-till drill at Gettysburg in central South Dakota. Seeing they were intrigued, the implement sales manager gave them a piece of advice before buying: “If you’re here to buy a disk drill, you must talk to Dr. Beck,” he said.

Beck’s Beliefs

Dr. Beck is Dwayne Beck, who taught high school in Gettysburg in the mid-1970s and now manages the Dakota Lakes Research Farm near Pierre, South Dakota. 

The Axtens had never heard of Beck or the Dakota Lakes farm. The next summer during a farm visit, Beck took Derek, his father, and a neighbor to an irrigation system. They walked into the field behind the sweeping system, but their feet didn’t get wet. The irrigation system applied 2 inches of water in nine minutes. 

“If I was doing that, water would run everywhere, out the fields and down the ditch!” Derek points out. “It wasn’t. Beck then began talking about long-term no-till and diverse rotations, including warm-season crops. All of a sudden, the doors were open to a whole world. When we went home, we didn’t know where to start, but we tried.”

Conventional with No-till Tools

Three years later, the Axtens had a disk drill and a stripper header for their combine. “We still were conventional farmers with no-till tools,” he says. 

On their next trip to Dakota Lakes, Derek and Tannis stopped near Bismarck in central North Dakota to enjoy a county grazing day.

They stood in line for a hot dog and encountered their second alternative farming giant, Gabe Brown. 

The Bismarck, North Dakota, farmer invited the Axtens to his farm, where his soil was “black, porous, and gorgeous.” Across the road, the typical Burleigh County, North Dakota, soil looked like the Axtens’ own soil at Minton.  

Brown started telling the Axtens about cover crops, intercropping, growing multiple crops, and his reasons for diversity. 

“It was a lot,” Derek says. But it marked a turning point, breaking from conventional farming, moving a step toward organic farming. It was alternative farming or, perhaps, agroecology.”

The New Beginning

The next year, 2011, Derek and Tannis did their first intentional intercrop on a half section, planting peas into canola. 

“It turned out really well,” Derek says. “The return was quite a bit better than
a monocrop.”

Rather than canola, they now intercrop mustard with peas and with lentils. The concept, Derek says, is that twinned crops support each other in the rows, reduce the weed population, allow airflow to reduce disease, and produce more net return per acre. The pulse also fixes nitrogen (N) in the soil. 

The intercropping led to conversations with Colin Rosengren at Midale, Saskatchewan (intercropping since 2004), and with Lana Shaw, South East Research Farm manager at Redvers, Saskatchewan. The focus was chickpeas and flax. 

Derek had tried chickpeas, but disease destroyed every field. “There was good money in them, but we didn’t want to use fungicides,” he says. 

Rosengren suggested planting chickpeas with flax in alternate rows. 

“We set that up, and the first year, on 1,500 acres, we got away with it without using fungicide,” Derek says. “This still is the only crop we grow in alternate rows.” 

In 2014, they also transitioned to controlled traffic farming (CTF) to reduce soil compaction. The Axtens also installed RTK towers for precision guidance. Meanwhile, their machinery lineup changed dramatically as they adapted to a 30-foot-wide system. 

“There’s been a lot of cut and welds, too,” Derek says. 

The CTF line includes a John Deere 1890 drill paired with a 1910 commodity cart. A John Deere 9 series track tractor, widened with a kit from Manitoba, pulls the system and the liquid caddy behind it. 

More than half the Axten farm is in cereal production. They seed cover crops after harvest, with the exception of 180 acres in a new trial. Generally, they want cover crops – not weeds – growing as long as the weather allows, even in dry conditions.

Last year, for the first time, Derek planted 180 acres of cover crops between the wide rows before harvest. The cover crops emerged, paused, and waited for sunlight and moisture after the cereals were stripped off. 

Derek built a planter for that job, using ideas he picked up from Brown and Beck. Timing for the ideal seeding date was a work in progress. 

Eventually, heavy frost in October or November kills cover crops. Cattle from a nearby ranch enter the fenced Axten fields. They fatten on the cover crops and boost soil fertility for the no-till farm.   

A case in point is a lush field of spelt. 

“Four years ago, we did 200 acres of full-season cover crops here and brought in cows for 24-hour high-density stock grazing moves,” Derek says. “We didn’t see the big bang we were expecting the next year. Since then, that field just keeps getting better. 

“It was, by far, our poorest field. Now, it’s in the top five. That’s where the spelt is this year. I don’t want to own cows or be a cowboy, but I think our fields are going to see more of them,” he says.

Their foray into spelt is typical of the crop diversity grown by the Axtens. 

As seed growers, they sell pedigreed durum wheat, barley, oats, large green lentils, desi chickpeas, maple peas, yellow mustard, and rye. Besides spelt, some of the other 15 to 17 crops include a second chickpea, buckwheat, faba beans, flax, forage barley, and forage oats.

Mentors

Derek Axten refers to Beck and Brown as mentors in innovation. 

“When I saw Gabe’s results, I thought maybe we could do it,” he says. “That was when it started to really get crazy.”

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