Networking for healthy soils in western Kansas

The Living Acres Network (LAN) is a group of farmers in western Kansas working together to improve soil health and implement water conservation practices by planting cover crops and transitioning to no-till. The group united to better understand soil health, no-till, and cover crops by sharing experiences and resources. Embracing the mission to build healthier soils for the future, a steering committee of five decides the direction and activities of the group. Producers in Living Acres Network have integrated cover crops and no-till in order to affordably achieve numerous benefits, including improving the health of the soil, improving the soil’s water retention and infiltration, and saving tremendous amounts of energy. Steering Committee member, Daniel Schultz explains,

As farmers, we have a moral obligation for these resources. We’ve been given this ability to take care of water and soil. We need to do that. We have to do the right thing to take care of these resources for generations to come, for our cities and towns, for life in western Kansas.

Water

The Living Acres Network strongly encourages practices that economize water usage on farms. Some of the most notable ways that no-till and applying cover crops can economize a farm’s water usage are improving the infiltration and retention of water, and also controlling erosion. As several WEP award winners have demonstrated, no-till systems that prioritize healthy soil positively impact the soil’s water infiltration and capacity to hold water.

When rain hits the soil’s surface, it is critical to retain as much of it as possible. Improving the health of the soil and providing additional organic matter increases the infiltration so the soil absorbs water at a faster rate. When the soil’s infiltration is increased, it also decreases the amount of runoff, which can have an enormous impact on water quality and reduce silting issues in nearby sources of surface water. Therefore, increasing filtration not only makes for more efficient farm soils, it also improves water quality issues by reducing runoff. Additionally, when farmers use cover crops and no-till, they increase the residue on the soil and reduce evaporation. This improves retention, and since the water is kept in the soil, it reduces erosion. Cover crops also filter the water, so any water that does become runoff will come off cleaner—another reason why these approaches improve water quality. Tanya Allemang explains,

We lose a lot of our moisture just from evaporation. Having residue of any sort, whether it’s a living plant or dead residue, it’s protecting that from the wind, from heat units, and shading the ground which keeps it cooler. That saves the moisture from evaporation. The other thing is that when we do have rainfall, having it covered will slow down the runoff and the physical impact of the runoff. By doing that, we can start to increase the infiltration. As the plant material starts to decompose, you are increasing that organic matter in the soil, which allows the soil to hold more moisture and more nutrients. It also increases infiltration.

Increasing organic matter improves the soil’s ability to retain water. While tillage creates a hardpan, resulting in roughly 5 to 6 inches of storage, a no-till approach provides a much deeper profile for storing water than tilled soils.

Integrating cover crops into no-till improves the system, while livestock makes even bigger impacts both to soil health and the bottom line. John Niswonger explains:

My goal is to be able to change the soil to get the infiltration and to build the organic matter to hold the water that comes in. We have seen some huge strides in the last two years on that, but until we can change those two things, we won’t be able to grow cover crops. As we change that soil, they will actually flourish and we probably will be able to start stacking enterprises on hat ground. Economically, the sky is the limit as far as what you can do in our area.

Darrel Kaiser agrees,

In our operation, we’ve used the cattle with the cover crops. I think it’s another profit center. Instead of trucking your commodities off the land for profit, you’re going to walk it off in profit on the hoof.

Water is a great moderator of temperature, so holding more water in the soil will keep the area cooler. When a large area becomes overheated it creates a "hot plate” that pushes away clouds, and the area receives little rain (instead it rains on cooler areas that are likely already have sufficient supplies of water). This is one example of how extremes in climate are created—exceptionally high temperatures can result in severe, problematic droughts. Moderate temperatures and water evaporating out of the soil can augment the local water cycle and help stabilize the climate.

While the water situation in western Kansas is complicated and getting moreso, Daniel Shultz believes that cover crops are appropriate for both dryland and irrigated systems:

I’m still in the process of where they need to fit in my operation. With the irrigation, we have the ability to apply moisture in the dry times; we can’t just flip a switch or turn a motor on in the dryland. It’s probably more user-friendly to fit covers in irrigation, and more management to get them to fit in dryland. It’s easier to fit them in irrigation because we have water, but you also have to remember that it is a resource that we need to watch and be careful with and save. We feel that with the 100% no-till and different rotations, that we’re able to do that with a whole lot less water.

Living Acres Network: Cover Crops in Western Kansas from Climate + Energy Project on Vimeo.


Energy

In addition to the positive impacts on soil health and water quality, the approaches advocated by The Living Acres Network also reduce energy usage. Switching from conventional tilling to no-till is huge in energy savings, primarily because no-till cuts fuel consumption by reducing the number of trips across the field. In an average 3-year rotation, no-till can save six or more trips across the field per year. Using Covers and no-till together requires even fewer chemicals like herbicides and fertilizers, and the reduced reliance on chemicals saves fuel by eliminating field passes. Moreover, the indirect energy savings are proving to be quite significant. The production of inputs to agriculture (fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, and so forth) requires gargantuan amounts of energy, so any reduction of inputs saves energy. http://www.nrcs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/nrcs141p2_023113.pdf Steering committee member, Darold Zimmerman explains,

When you’ve got cover out there, your weeds are not as aggressive, so you do not have to use as many chemicals to control the weeds. Also, the cover crops recycle the nitrogen and phosphorous and other fertilizers, so that cuts down on energy, too, because it takes a lot of energy to make fertilizer, and apply fertilizer. The longer we’re into it, our fertilizer costs are going down, and we’re still getting the same yields. I feel that they are recycling a lot more nutrients than we first though tthey were. Plus, getting your soil healthier, your fertilizers and chemicals and everything work a lot better, by having healthy soils.

Increasing the system of living roots and augmenting the carbon from plant material feeds the microbiology below the soil surface by converting inorganic nutrients to organic nutrients which feeds the following plants. Covers can collect and hold the fertilizer, and when they die and decompose, they release their nutrients at the soil surface or root level, and the following cash crop can absorb it. Furthermore, covers increase the amount of Mycorrhizal fungi—an important underground network of nutrients. Covers offer great potential for agriculture, as Darrell Kaiser explains,

I think with the cover crops, that will be our next step to transition from the chemical side of it to the biological side of it. A lot of the chemicals that are coming will have more biological influence on how they work on the weeds instead of the salt or acidity side of it. I think that’s going to be very interesting and a lot less harmful to the environment. If we can integrate our cover crops and suppress weeds whether it’s through moisture or overall cover, it’s just going to be good.

These practices are also very conducive for implementing renewable energy. For grazing cover crops, The Living Acres Network recommends temporary fencing, the majority of which is solar powered. Supplying and delivering water to fields can be handled a number of ways, but sometimes windmills are sufficient energy sources. Finally, in their commitment to reducing energy usage, The LAN also arranges carpools to travel to out-of-town meetings and using a bus to save fuel on tours.

Living Acres Network: Soil, Water, and Energy from Climate + Energy Project on Vimeo.


Progress

Planting cover crops and switching to no-till is an affordable way to improve the soil’s water infiltration and retention, control soil erosion, and save energy. Yet the benefits of these important practices do not stop there. In addition to the improvements in water quality, air quality is also improved. A living plant covering the soil is rooted down, which prevents the wind from taking particles off the soil where they end up in the atmosphere. Living covers are a big benefit for wildlife, specifically deer and bird populations. Pheasants, quail, turkeys, and a host of other species require diets of broad leaf plants and insects, not grain. For instance, cover crops provide a suitable habitat for raising pheasant chicks. Pollinators can also benefit from cover crops, as a portion of the living covers will flower. Furthermore, planting covers in counties that are predominately a monoculture can significantly increase species diversity. With multispecies plantings, there are a multitude of organisms eating the plants both above and below the ground. A strong network of microrhyzial fungae increases plant health and disease resistance.

Improvements in soil health has important benefits for human well-beings as well. Studies indicate that food grown in healthy soils are more nutrient dense, and improving soil health has the ability to increase nutrition. Simply put, health soils are a key component in producing healthy food. Healthy soil can also reduce greenhouse gases which contribute to global warming, specifically with regards to carbon sequestration. Carbon is stored in the soil through the growth and subsequent decomposition of plants. No-till does not release large amounts of carbon dioxide, a major greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere. Soil is a large carbon sink and it has enormous potential for sequestering carbon and reducing atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide. Remarkably, plants do all of the work of taking carbon dioxide out for the atmosphere and injecting it into the soil for free, so it is economical.

It is also important to highlight the cost-effectiveness of such healthy practices. Conversion from conventional tilling to no-till saves money immediately through reduced fuel consumption. Over the long term, soil health improvements will lead to increased yields and a decreasing reliance on herbicides and fertilizers, which can be very costly. While cover crops may not save money in the short term, they do not cost much more than having to spray multiple times in the fallow. The Living Acres Network has found that all of these soil health practices are very replicable, and economical.

Improved soil health is a tremendous asset whether in extremely dry or wet conditions. As previously mentioned, increasing organic matter increases the holding capacity of the soil so it holds rainfall during droughts and stores more in wet cycles—this reduces runoff and erosion. In addition to the soil’s improved water retention, the evaporation from the soil is reduced with cover crops and no-till. Furthermore, no-till increases residue, and covers increase residue even more because of the living root systems. Both improve soil health, and both protect against extremely dry or wet seasons. Allemang says, "it is miraculous because the same principle can protect from either end of the extreme.”

Cover crops are still an emerging science in Western Kansas, but the Living Acres Network hopes that covers will eventually reduce herbicide usage from weed suppression. Daniel Schultz explains,

We have great soils and great climate. Not being able to grow them [covers] is not the problem, it’s how they fit into our systems and what we want to have them do for us. We can use them for grazing for cattle and livestock, for soil cover, for water savings, to break up disease cycles. There are a lot of factors they can do, soil health, fixing nitrogen, it’s finding how they fit for an individual purpose. But they will work.

The collaborative approach of the Living Acres Network benefits the community, the soils, and the entire system. The guiding principles of the group include: Convening and encouraging networks of innovation, like the Living Acres Network, yields tremendous benefits. Larry Manhart explains,

I was excited about it because I wanted to do this ten or fifteen years ago. But, since it is a new idea, and not everybody is supportive, you need to have everyone on board that are of like mind or like thinking. . . I felt it was good because everybody was more open to discussion and what works or doesn’t work. I think we have a unique group now that can feel free to express themselves and not feel alienated. Because it takes such a long time to improve your soil health, you can’t stop at one little hiccup. With us being able to share ideas, I think it’s a very good way for us to narrow that timeframe down to not a half of a lifetime, but at least we see some results in four or five years. When I do my own thing, it takes three or four years before you realize the benefits. By the time you do it again, it’s a ten year span to do it twice. If we all do this together, we can just accelerate this so fast.

Collaboration & Progress from Climate + Energy Project on Vimeo.

Implementing no-till and covers have been two highly beneficial practices that are championed by the Living Acres Network. Among some of the advantages of no-till and cover crops are improved soil health, increasing the soil’s water retention and infiltration, large energy savings, lower operation costs, and several crucial environmental benefits. The Living Acres Network team has been able to identify some of the most needed—and perhaps overdue—sustainable farming practices for farmers across Northwestern Kansas. Tanya Allemang says,

A lot of what the message is, as far as the health of the soil is, always talking about the future. If you think about the future, there’s hope in that. The person who is status quo, and only worried about that crop, that yield, that bottom line, that year, they don’t necessarily look that far ahead. They’re not worried about who’s going to take the farm over; it’s a very short-sighted view. When you start to look at it as a whole, instead of as a piece, and you start to take the community into effect, and your family, and your lifestyle, it changes your mindset. Anything you can do that is going to make improvements in the future, and build, and make things better is hopeful. Part of what this group work and what makes soil health so interesting is that it does have a message of hope.

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