No-till + Cover Crops = Immediate Impacts

Darin and Nancy Williams farm close to 2,000 acres near Waverly, KS. They raise non-GMO corn and soybeans, wheat, milo, triticale, rye, and barley, as well as 31 head of British White cows, and 25 Katahdin hair sheep. Their system is unique in that they switched from conventional to no-till with cover crops at the same time, as compared to many who adopt cover crops after several years of no-till. Industry claims that with no-till alone, it takes 5-7 years to see results. However, since Williams adopted both no-till and covers at the same time, he has seen improvements in less than half that time. Darin says,

"I have peace of mind realizing that I'm doing a better job. I’m not where I want to be but know I'm making an impact. The soil is starting to change its attitude. Things are turning around. To be successful at this, you have to be a good student, learn as much as possible, be humble and never give up. Always look to learn something!”

No-till + cover crops + livestock = a diverse system with multiple, interconnected impacts and benefits. Reduced erosion, increased water infiltration and holding capacity, reduced fuel usage, improved water quality, more family time, and peace of mind are several – but not all – of the benefits from this impressive system.

Read on or download the full case study here!

Water

Commonly held as a means to reduce soil erosion and improve soil health, no-till systems also positively impact water infiltration and water holding capacity. Cover crops enhance the benefits of no-till while also filtering water and further reducing erosion. Cover crops improve water quality because they keep chemicals from leeching into watersheds. Covers also reduce erosion and silting issues.

No-till + cover crops are a great way to reduce erosion, improve water quality, and benefit the local watershed. The Williams’ recently dug out ponds that had silted in. Nine ponds had between five and six feet of silt that had eroded over the last 40-50 years. Current practices will keep ponds from silting in in the future and also make sure that whatever goes into the ponds is cleaner. Darin says,

My practices have revived a watershed lake. That's the biggest deal to me. No-till alone will not keep the lake from silting in, we need cover on the soil. If I did no-till without covers, the soil would still erode. Every farmer who has water should do no-till with covers. It's simple, the cover keeps the dirt from blowing. I want to keep as much soil in field as possible. It just makes sense.

About 130 acres of the Williams’ land is irrigated out of a pond. The irrigation is limited by the water availability. Darin has made efficiency improvements on the Center Pivot irrigation system by adding 2 foot extensions and lowered the nozzles. The previous owner had them high so whenever the wind would blow, the water would evaporate before reaching the crop. The 2 foot, 3/4 inch line drops are only about 4 foot/50 inches from the ground. The Center Pivot is GPS driven and rate controlled to change speed depending on the application.

Darin shared a picture that was taken when they were digging the foundation for their house. The picture shows just 18-24 inches of topsoil. Darin knows how important it is to maintain what soil he has. The focus on soil health and improving organic matter will preserve and improve his soils. He explains,

Cover crops and no-till keep more soil on the farm. What is the dollar amount per ton of soil you keep on the farm? You can sell farmers a chemical if they think it will yield more with two or three applications, but the same farmer will snub at cover crops or no-till. It's how you look at it. For me, the cost of the seed is gained back in the health of the cattle grazing out there where we don't have to use all the shots and antibiotics on the livestock. Healthier cattle, better yields, more grain to sell.

Reduced soil erosion results in cleaner water and less chemical leeching. If the chemical is bonded to the soil, it can't go into the water. If you are not leeching chemicals into the field, the water is cleaner. See a great Corn and Soybean Digest article featuring Darin and Nancy Williams. Furthermore, the air quality is a lot better when the soil is covered, as Darin explains, "you don’t have a dust storm following the tractor.”

Energy

The diversified system that Darin and Nancy use also positively impacts their energy usage. No-till reduces fuel usage by reducing tillage passes in the field. Using no-till means that there are less impacts on the soil from equipment, so the Center Pivot can move through the fields easier, reducing wear and tear on the pivot. No-till planting burns less fuel than cultivating, as you reduce the number of passes required.  By the fourth year of no-till and covers, Darin and Nancy virtually eliminated the need to replant every year which is a huge savings in money, time, and fuel. They are also seeing great results by planting cool and warm season crops together.

Hard to imagine? Watch Darin and Nancy explain how they are saving fuel and time by planting cool and warm season crops together on Vimeo!

Saving Fuel & Time: Planting Warm and Cool Season Crops Together from Climate + Energy Project on Vimeo.

Overall, the biggest impact is better yields since he started focusing on soil health. Yield increases vary from field to field, but Darin has seen anywhere from 10-30 bushel/acre increases on wheat yields. This year, his wheat averaged between 40-50 bushels/acre (the county average is roughly 30-35 for Coffey county). Soybean yields are also better than before. For example, in one field cattle graze on wheat, then they plant soybeans. For perspective, the county average for soybeans is approx. 28 bushels/acre. That non-irrigated field made 52 bushels per acre where he had never yielded over 50 before.

No-till + Covers requires less chemicals, although it is a learning process. Darin aims to use the least amount of chemicals as possible. In 2013, he cut almost 1/3 of chemical passes out of crops. Reduced chemical usage saves fuel directly by eliminating field passes. However, the indirect energy savings are substantial. The NRCS publication, Agricultural Energy Consumption in the United States, explains, "Indirect consumption, by contrast, is consumption of energy in the production of the non-energy inputs to agriculture, such as fertilizers and pesticides. It accounted for approximately 1.63% of total US energy consumption in 2002.” The USDA Economic Research Service confirms, "fertilizer accounted for slightly more than half of all indirect energy use on U.S. farms in 2011.”

No-till on its own saves fuel but that financial savings can be offset by the cost of cover crop seed costs. The cost of the seed is gained back in the health of the cattle grazing. Plus, reduced chemical and fertilizers will eventually result in money savings. This year, the corn has had half the rates of fertilizers.

Integrating livestock, like cattle and sheep, into their farming operation decreases the need for energy-intensive chemical fertilizers. Plus, Darin and Nancy plant cover crops to use as forage, saving money on the energy-intensive practice of feeding hay to livestock. Last year, he grazed 13 cows on 80 acres of covers and only fed 4 round bales of hay while the average is three to four truckloads. The fuel savings realized on the reduction of hay is fourfold: cutting the hay, baling the hay, transporting the hay to the farm, and transporting the hay to the field. (see Dale Strickler’s case study for more info on reducing energy costs by eliminating hay) The savings on time and diesel fuel is impressive. Furthermore, growing cover crops increases the health of the soil and the health of the livestock. Darin says,

They’re putting their manure back on the soil, we’re not hauling nutrients back in here, they’re helping recycle the cover crops back into the soil. We can increase our organic material this way faster than trucking in fertilizer or any other thing I can do. Whatever we do on our farm, we want it to be the healthiest it can be.

Nancy continues:

You’re fertilizing the ground and you’re doing it evenly because we’re doing it in paddocks. About every week and a half we move them. They like it because they are getting more than just grass. They’re getting radishes and turnips and sunflowers and sedan grass and sun hemp. They love it.

Check this system out! Darin and Nancy talk about increasing soil health naturally with livestock and cover crops on Vimeo!

 

Increasing soil health naturally with livestock and cover crops from Climate + Energy Project on Vimeo.

Progress

"Profitability comes with better soil, better crops, less chemical fertilizer input,” Darin explains. A change in mindset helps to see the affordability. While many farmers do not hesitate to spend $20/acre to put chemicals on several times, some balk at paying $20-30/acre for cover crops. Darin sees this as a minimal expense compared to the benefits. He explains, "Some farmers will spend that two or three times over because they can see immediate impact, but they don't see the drawbacks. I will get my investment back in nutrients and on cattle gains.”

Managing for the Extremes. The best way to prepare for drought or rains is to have the ground covered which results in cooler soil temperatures and healthier biology in the soil, better infiltration and holding capacity. Darin explains,

When droughts or heavy rains come, you already have to be in this system for safety. You can't wait until the flood or drought comes and then say, ‘oh no, what do I do?’ You have to be able to learn and adapt on the move. If you're not paying attention daily or weekly . . . you won't learn anything!

You can’t control your system. You can’t just wrap a rope around it and drag it around, or push it, or lead it. One year it’s going to rain a little more in the spring, one year it will be drier. You’re going to have to plant at different times. You’ve got to make decisions on the go. But you’ve got to be prepared to make those decisions. You almost have to dance with it instead of trying to control it.

Nancy agrees, "You’ve always got to be thinking ahead.”

Watch "Preparation + Diversity = Success!” on Vimeo!

Darin Williams Preparation + Diversity = success from Climate + Energy Project on Vimeo.

 

The diversified system on Darin and Nancy’s farm improves the health of the soil, saves water, saves energy, and improves their quality of life. Darin and Nancy Williams are a great team, working together to improve the land on which they farm. Darin explains,

The biggest thing we’re trying to accomplish out of this whole system is increasing organic matter. Along the way comes infiltration rates, hopefully less fertilizer, less soil erosion, less dependence on fuel, more time to do other things on your farm like move your cows, spend time with your family. Things like that.

Nancy agrees,

It completes the circle, too. You come full circle. The cows are working with us to get to our goal. We need them to do what we want to do. With the cover crops, it’s putting nutrients back into the ground naturally but it’s also feeding our animals. You’ve already got it so you’re feeding them for free and you’re fertilizing, so you’re increasing your soil health naturally.

Watch Preparation + Diversity = Success

Saving Fuel & Time: Planting Warm and Cool Season Crops Together

Video: Increasing Soil Health Naturally with Livestock & Cover Crops

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