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Tillage matters

Producers disturb soil as little as possible, and turn to technology for tillage.

For more than 20 years, Gabe Brown has been zeroing in on bringing the soil on his North Dakota farm back to life. 

“In 1991, NRCS did a water infiltration test on our crop ground. At the time, it infiltrated ½ inch per hour,” he recalls. “If it rained more than that, water would pond and run off, causing erosion.”

Because Brown has learned how to better manage the soil, those same acres can absorb water at over 30 inches per hour today, according to testing by soil scientist John Norman using a dual-head infiltrometer.

“Healthy soil should resemble marbles in a jar. The marbles are the soil aggregates, and the space between the marbles is the pores that allow water to infiltrate,” Brown explains. “Tillage destroys soil aggregates, and the soil biology that helps form them.”

Since 1994, no-till has been a key component of his soil health management system – and a core principle of regenerative agriculture. Stacked with other regenerative practices (integrating cover crops, growing an array of cash crops, adding livestock where possible), the soil structure on Brown Ranch has transformed into a healthy ecosystem.

The soil health pioneer’s next step: Educate more farmers on the importance of relying on nature to enhance the functionality of the ecological community. Through Understanding Ag, a company he, along with Ray Archuleta, Allen Williams, and Shane New, founded in 2017, Brown is realizing that goal.

Recently partnering with General Mills, the consulting firm is teaching oat producers how to reap the benefits of regenerative practices. “We are working with people like Paul Overby, so they can advance the health of their soils while increasing profitability,” Brown says. “In turn, he can supply a high-quality product to General Mills.”

Merging Overby’s interest in soil health with raising food for customers – not just commodities – the Wolford, North Dakota, grower is moving beyond what he knows to learn more.

Go beyond what you know

Economics, labor, and conservation came into play when Overby decided to convert from conventional till to no-till nearly 15 years ago. 

“Because air seeders had the ability to be wider than a conventional double disk drill, I went from a 28-foot seeding tool to a 40-foot Morris shank-style air seeder,” he says, adding that he later switched openers to reduce plugging in wet soil.

Increasingly wetter weather patterns also meant fewer days for fieldwork. No-till eliminated two to three tillage passes, and Overby was able to use the good days for seeding rather than tillage.

Although erosion isn’t a serious issue for Overby, some wind erosion did occur on conventionally tilled fields if snow didn’t keep soil covered during the winter.

Before switching to no-till, Overby had a fairly diverse crop rotation to spread risk and workload. “As I started no-till, diverse crops became a management tool for that as well, using sunflowers for deep soil tillage, for example,” he explains. 

What he didn’t know until a few years ago was the positive impact this diversity had on soil structure and microbial populations. 

“We are raising peas, oats, hard red spring wheat, canola, sunflowers, and soybeans this year,” Overby says. “We have a variety of rooting structures and influences on insects, birds, and microbes going on.”

As he continues to learn about the ecological component of regenerative practices, creating buffer strips around wetlands and field edges, where soil was not producing a good crop, further promotes helpful insects and birds.

For the past decade, Overby has also been working to incorporate cover crops.

“At a meeting several years ago, Gabe said something that stuck with me. ‘If you are trying to no-till this far north, you need to get your soil biology working for you by adding some cover crops first,’” he recalls. 

Shortly thereafter, Overby began trying to work cover crops into the farm’s rotation in earnest, but it has been difficult.   

“Peas and oats give me the best opportunity to get a cover crop planted post-harvest, as they are usually harvested in mid-August,” he says, adding that cover crops will be grown in pea and oat stubble this year.

Identify a market

Overby is also exploring the potential of carbon credit payments. While the jury is still out on how much and how fast carbon can be stored in a mature no-till system, he believes it can improve. “The carbon storage issue will be more pertinent for farmers just starting to no-till,” he says.

What no-tillers should be looking for, Overby believes, are food processors that want regenerative grain and livestock sources, so they can identify a market. “My crops are sold for small premiums,” he says. “Just as important, I am getting good production contracts that allow me to do what I know is best for soil and ecology while, at the same time, getting a solid price for my product.”

With that established, trying some regenerative techniques is a little easier for Overby because the marketing is covered. 

“We are consulting on over 17 million acres across North America,” Brown says. “We are able to increase profitability on the vast majority of those acres the very first year, because it’s about education.”

Turning to tech for tillage

As Chad Crivelli struggles to find quality labor, the diversified row crop producer desperately needs an alternative solution to ensure his farm stays productive.

“My dad has basically come out of retirement because I can’t find anyone to drive a tractor,” says Crivelli, who farms 1,800 acres in central California. 

It’s a pain point Bear Flag Robotics wants to help farmers address. Founded in 2017, the company has developed software for tractors that autonomously plans and executes routes using state-of-the-art perception sensors and robotic actuators. It automates tasks such as spraying, mowing, and tilling.

“From a technology perspective, we’re creating a framework we can build on,” says Igino Cafiero, CEO and founder. “Because every crop looks different, we have a lot to learn. It’s also why we are focused on tillage right now.”

This past season the company’s autonomous tractor, pulling Crivelli’s Case IH 770 offset disc, incorporated wheat stubble in a 150-acre field. 

“I honestly thought it was going to be the latest fad that wasn’t dialed in,” says the third-generation farmer. “I couldn’t believe it was making the turns without me touching the steering wheel. The tractor was doing everything it was supposed to.”

As Bear Flag works to bring the concept to market, initiatives like John Deere’s Startup Collaborator program offer critical insight. “The program helps Deere better interface with ag tech start-ups. We can learn about what they’re developing, and they can learn about what we do,” says Mark Fincham, business development manager, John Deere.

As part of the program, Deere also introduced Bear Flag to its tillage experts. “We wanted to give them a deep understanding of how we look at tillage, what our machines do and what their capabilities are, as well as the wide range of tillage practices across the U.S.,” he says.

While these relationships are vital, so are the connections to farmers.

“It’s always great to hear what we’re doing well,” Cafiero says. “But it’s also important to learn what we can do better. Getting feedback from Chad is invaluable. We need to understand how a farmer is using the technology, so we can improve on it to serve his needs not only now but in the future.”

It’s also why the company is initially offering autonomy as a service. 

“At no point should there be frustration around what the machine is doing,” says Daniel Carmichael, farming operations manager, Bear Flag Robotics. “By offering a service, Bear Flag is always there to make sure the operation goes smoothly as we continue to refine the technology.”

The start-up also wants to ensure farms of all sizes realize the value of this technology – a question Crivelli had for his operation.

“For technology this advanced, I really thought it would be out of my price range. Surprisingly, it was very reasonable,” he says.

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