Maximum benefits seen when cover crops and cattle grazing added to no-till
Driving conditions were challenging as Brandt, S.D., farmer Tyler Brown made his way south to the Texas Panhandle this December.
“I started out in a snowstorm, then it became a dirt storm. And it made me realize, we could do something better in the ag industry to prevent soil erosion,” said Brown, a fourth-generation cattle producer. “As I got into the Panhandle, the fields were empty. I wondered if cover crops could make a difference?”
Brown says this question was answered by Jimmy Emmons’ presentation, “Recovering Tillage Addict,” delivered during the South Dakota Soil Health Coalition’s virtual 2021 Soil Health Conference January 6-7.
Emmons is an Oklahoma crop and cattle producer who has been implementing soil health practices since 1995. His talk focused on soil health benefits that result when cover crops and livestock grazing are added to no-till field management.
“The fact that he changed the soil color and classification based on how he treated his soil – that is impactful,” Tilford, S.D., rancher Andrew Snyder added. “Jimmy was talking about Oklahoma red dirt, and he said in places it is this way because of how we treated it. That puts a lump in your throat. We made it that way.”
Along with the changed color and classification, the resulting increased water retention on Emmons’ land was the benefit Snyder was most excited to learn more about when he made time for the SDSHC’s virtual conference. Although Oklahoma climate differs quite a bit from Snyder’s western South Dakota ranch, the limited annual moisture in Dewey County, Oklahoma, is similar.
In fact, moisture retention is what first motivated Snyder to begin implementing no-till practices on the family’s hay and forage acres. “I did several agronomy internships in eastern South Dakota, and I’d be out at a guy’s place, and he’d say, ‘Yup, I’m going to hit this with a disc to dry it up.’ And I am thinking, ‘OK, out west we are always trying to conserve moisture. It is our limiting factor. So, why are we discing the soil?’”
Emmons shared that no-till is just the start. His experience showed integrating cover crops and cattle into field management is key to achieve maximum moisture infiltration and retention.
“It’s very important to have a soil health accelerator in the system,” Emmons said. “Animals are very important if you want a truly functional system. … In a truly functioning system, there is a circle of ongoing life all the time. Remember, that the herd below the ground need to feed continually. To do this, you have to have living roots and animals at all times.”
The “herd” below the ground that he references is soil biology. “Now I have this really dark, carbon-rich soil. How do you get that? You let the earthworms do the work for you,” Emmons said.
He explained when livestock and cover crops are integrated into field management, the soil structure changes. To emphasize this point he shared a slide showing root mass from a no-till field where cover crops and cattle grazed and a field where only no-till practices were implemented (Figure 1).
“Eight years after I began implementing grazing and cover crops, my soil was reclassified to porous with large aggregation,” Emmons said. This porous soil not only allows moisture to infiltrate more quickly, but it retains moisture. In fact, following a rain event, Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) testing showed 102 percent moisture retention in a field where cover crops had been grazed, versus 20 percent retention in a field where only no-till practices were implemented.
Now, Emmons understands that in many regions of the country, freezing temperatures don’t allow for a living root year-round. In colder regions of the country, SDSU Extension Soil Field Specialist Anthony Bly said, “If populations of soil biology are high during the growing season, although they go dormant during winter months, the soil biology restarts itself when favorable soil conditions return. To maintain greater populations of soil biology, it is advantageous to maintain living roots in the soil as late into the fall and early in the spring as possible.”
As his soil health improved, Emmons’ overall cost of production was drastically cut:
Fuel costs went from $128,000 to $20,000.
Chemical fertilizer was cut by 85 percent.
Feed costs were reduced.
Herbicide and pesticide costs were reduced.
Emmons explains the same cover crop that feeds his cattle and soil biology also controls weeds. “The more cover you have, the less weed pressure. The less weed pressure, the less money you spend on herbicides,” Emmons said. “I have seen Palmer amaranth grow 3-feet under the cover crop looking for sunlight before it died.”
When Emmons selects cover crops, he said he expects a minimum of three outcomes from each species. Throughout his talk, Emmons shared other practical tips he’s picked up over the years, including one to simplify fencing.
“I found when the cover crop is pocket-high, if you drag an old truck tire behind a four-wheeler, it’s a pretty good and quick way to mow it down for the cattle to see the poly wire.”
Learning from actual producers about soil health practices that work is one of the many goals of the annual SDSHC conference, explained Cindy Zenk, SDSHC coordinator.
“There’s a big difference between seeing results from a 5-acre test plot and seeing results from a 2,000-acre farm or ranch,” Zenk said.
In addition to this annual conference, SDSHC provides many educational opportunities throughout the year. To learn about upcoming events, visit the organization’s website at http://www.sdsoilhealthcoalition.org. The website provides access to many online resources and staff who are available to work one-on-one with those eager to learn more.
–South Dakota Soil Health Coalition
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