Leading the way in Dryland: Michael Herrmann

Michael Herrmann is a dryland, no-till farmer in Northern Edwards County. Michael began farming with his father, Quentin, in 1971, but began experimenting with no-till farming in 1978 when they bought a Buffalo no-till planter. Looking for a better way to control run-off and conserve soil moisture, Michael developed a dryland, no-till approach which sets him apart from other farmers in the area. By converting to no-till, he not only achieved his goals of saving water and reducing runoff, but he also noticed other benefits, including saving time and energy. Michael farms 7,000 acres of dryland acreage, and his farm also has 300-500 head of feeder steers and 100 cows. Michael Herrmann has integrated dryland farming and no-till in order to affordably achieve an impressive number of environmental benefits, including saving water, reducing soil runoff, and saving tremendous amounts of energy.

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Water

Michael Herrmann first began no-till farming on 200 acres in 1978, but continued conventional farming on the rest of his farm. After noticing that his non-tilled fields conserved water when his rainfall was inconsistent, he made a commitment to no-till, transferring all of his acres to no-till in 1995. In Michael’s estimation, conventional farming loses six inches of moisture every time the field is tilled, and over the years he reassessed the efficiency of his methods.

When we were doing conventional farming, I would think to myself as we were working the ground three to six inches deep, I was thinking all the time, ‘we are losing all that moisture every time you work the ground.’ For some reason it just started really bugging me. I thought there had to be a better way to save that moisture, so that’s when we started experimenting with no-till. On average we are around 22 inches [of rain] right here. This past year, we are at 26”, three years ago, we were really droughty through here, as the whole state was. We were down around the 12-15 inch range, but I was still growing my fall crops—my milo and stuff. I mean, I was still growing 45-50 bushel milo, whereas conventional guys were not cutting anything or down in the teens. That just proves the moisture we’re saving.

With no-till approaches, the groundcover keeps more of the moisture on the field. This also reduces runoff, which is a big concern for farmers. In fact, ground that is not tilled holds moisture (and nutrients) better than tilled soil. As many of the WEP innovators have found, no-till systems improve the soil’s infiltration and capacity to hold water (see Darin and Nancy Williams, Gail Fuller, Dale Strickler, Lucinda Stuenkel). When farmers use no till approaches, they increase the residue on the soil and reduce evaporation. This improves retention, and since the water is kept in the soil, it also reduces erosion. While no-till does not eliminate runoff, it is greatly reduced, and cleaner. The runoff that does occur appears less muddy or cloudy. Herrmann farms on rolling hills, which normally would produce a high amount of runoff with conventional tilling. That runoff would represent lost nutrients and moisture usual held in the soil, but Herrmann has greatly reduced that problem through no-till. "With no-till, I can’t say I have no runoff, but I don’t have much.”


Overall, his operation is almost entirely no-till. The only acres he tills are the new acres he acquires that need to have some work done, and the tilling helps get the new land ready. This new ground will then be put into no-till operation. Michael also has 400 acres in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), which is on highly erodible ground to keep it from washing out and damaging water quality. "It’s just best for the ground—there’s just no other way to put it.”

Another important way Michael keeps his water quality high is by implementing winter feeding on milo stalks. The cattle feed on milo stalks, spreading their manure out in the field, instead of keeping it confined in the corrals. Manure that compiles in corrals can get carried away by runoff destined for nearby creeks. Therefore, winter feeding is a sensible way to reduce pollution in nearby water supplies and protect water quality. Michael stresses that water availability will be increasingly problematic for many farmers in Kansas, and he feels that his methods will have to be adopted more widely in the future:

Water is going to be the biggest issue we have in western Kansas. The irrigators are having to make some major changes to conserve water, and some of them are going to be shut off down the road… In order for them to keep farming, in this part of Kansas, the only feasible way to do it is through no-till, and to conserve all the water you can.

Making transitions that can be more sustainable and profitable are going to be key in the future of farming, and there have been numerous efforts encouraging the adoption of innovative methods, (see South Central Kansas Residue Alliance).

Energy

In addition to the positive impacts on water supplies and water quality, Michael Herrmann’s practices have also resulted in energy savings. Switching from conventional tilling to no-till has huge energy reductions, primarily because no-till cuts fuel consumption by reducing the number of trips across the field. By no-tilling farmers generally only have to go over the ground 2-3 times to spray the crops with herbicide. Michael can spray 2,000 acres of land with just one tank of fuel—nearly 0.06 gallons an acre, compared to conventional farming requirements of 1 gallon per acre. In 2013, he used 12,000 gallons of diesel fuel in all of his machinery. Michael estimates that if he used conventional tilling, he would use a minimum of 30,000 gallons. Herrmann was also one of the first in the area to implement auto-steer in his equipment. This results in less overlap, fewer passes, and saves time devoted to applying herbicide and pesticide. Moreover, recent research suggests that using less inputs can significantly improve the indirect energy savings. The production of inputs to agriculture (fertilizers, pesticides, and so forth) requires massive amounts of energy, so any reduction of inputs saves energy

Renewable energy also has a great deal of potential for Kansas farmers, and Michael Herrmann’s operation serves as a very effective model of renewable energy utilization. He uses eight windmills to pump water on his farm. In his part of the state, windy conditions are fairly consistent, and the windmills offer a reliable source of energy. More technologically impressive is his investment in solar energy, Herrmann explains:

Solar panels made it possible for me to utilize [my] pasture. Solar panels are coming down in cost…. Pricewise, it is easier to put up solar panels… they’re just less maintenance. Windmills you have maintenance. You have to pull them every two to three years… they've got mechanical gears that wear out that you have to keep oiling every year. Rather than putting a windmill up, people are putting solar up because it’s getting economically feasible to do that.

Herrmann has three systems of solar-powered fences that enable his cattle to graze in the fields instead of corrals. Michael also has a solar-powered submersible pump which can be moved into different pastures. The panel can be set up next to a well, the pump can be dropped into a well, and it can pump water out at the rate of 5 gallons a minute. Both wind and solar energy are great renewable resources, and using them to extract groundwater cuts well-pumping expenses.  Michael says, 

 If I didn't have solar panels here, I would have to have electricity brought in… it costs considerably to bring electricity into a location anymore. Or else I’d put a windmill up, a windmill’s probably three to four thousand dollars. Solar panels are low maintenance, and I’m saving a lot.

Benefits of Solar and Wind Power from Climate + Energy Project on Vimeo.

Speaking of affordability, Herrmann’s practices are great ways to keep farming expenses in check. The wind and solar water systems save electricity and money, but the savings do not stop there. Feeding steers in the winter by letting them graze on milo stalks in the fields saves significant feed dollars that can be invested in other farming expenses. Michael does not have to buy or haul feed, and the manure improves the organic matter in the fields. This saves money because he does not have to invest as much in nitrogen, which can be a big expense on a farm Michael’s size.

Running a dryland, no-till farm also has benefits in terms of saving time, and the amount of time saved by implementing no-till is tremendous. He keeps busy by working on other farm projects, managing more acres, and spending time with his family. He has been able to serve on Kinsley City Commission, as City Mayor, and as Financial Secretary for the local Knights of Columbus Council. "With the amount of acres that I farm, [dryland and no-till] makes me more available to do things like that.”  Michael also had time to invest in repairing a local school that was shut down and repurposing the school to accommodate hunters from all over the nation if they need a place to stay or meet with community members. The school now appears to be redesigned and redecorated with themes associated with Kansas wildlife, agriculture, and hunting.  Michael explains:

It turned into a community project. A lot of neighbors would stop in and help us do different things. …It just gets back to my no-till and the time savings. It opens up a whole new parameter for time, family, and projects. It seems like the younger generations are wanting to reconnect back to their ancestors, and I think this project with this school, will help do that.

Another advantage of converting to no-till is the noticeable improvement in soil health. Building organic matter increases the holding capacity of the soil so it more effectively holds nutrients and moisture. This leads to lower levels of runoff and erosion, which can have an enormous impact on water quality and reduce silting issues in nearby sources of surface water.

In my operation when you go out in the spring, [in fields] where it’s been long term no-till, when you dig down you’re going to find earthworms. Those earthworms are doing the tillage for me…. With the crops you plant, the more roots you keep out there, the more passageway there is for water to soak in.

Fortunately, not only are these practices affordable and environmentally responsible, they can also be adopted by other farmers. When asked whether they were replicable, Michael replied:

Absolutely. Over the years, my dad and I were the first to experiment with no-till. A few more tried each year and are now seeing the benefits of it. Many neighbors over the past few years have gone complete no-till after seeing what I’ve done and what the benefits are.

In addition to staying committed to these excellent environmental practices, Herrmann is also enrolled in the Conservation Security Program. As a member of that program, he leaves strips of crops at harvest time for wildlife habitation. Along with one of his landlords he has constructed a dam to hold water for wildlife. He has also started investing in pheasants and quail to help increase the bird population in the area.  He says,

It’s nice to see wildlife. I have a large group of cousins and family that come out every pheasant season… and want to pheasant hunt… We try to keep people connected with the ground in a way. People have been gone from the farms so long that generations don’t understand where our food comes from. This is one way to at least get them out to the country to show them how things are done out here. We’re not abusing the land. We are trying to do things in an environmentally-friendly way, and wildlife is one way of getting people out in the country to see that.

 

Michael Herrmann from Climate + Energy Project on Vimeo.

Progress

Improved soil health is a tremendous asset whether in extremely dry or wet conditions. No-till increases residue, improves soil health, and protects against extremely dry or wet seasons. Since farmers make their decisions about crop rotation on moisture conditions, these are also important soil attributes. More generally, having healthy, high-retaining soils will be increasingly valuable as droughts continue to threaten the High Plains. Farming practices that keep the soil healthier will allow the soil to hold more moisture during dry years. Better soil structures will facilitate a healthy level of saturation after the fields receive rain. Herrmann noted:

Before no-till we had big mud holes. When it rained, the hole filled up. Now you drive by and there’s water one day, the next day it is gone—it soaks in. The same happens with terrace channels: water soaks in because of the residue, earth worms, [we] got rid of hard pans, water just soaks in. It saves time, energy, and money.

As previously outlined, Michael has made progress in conserving water, energy, fuel, and time with his approach to farming. He continues to be innovative and forward-thinking in his practices, and has become an unassuming leader among no-till farmers. His advice and guidance are appreciated by many neighboring farmers when they are deciding whether to transition towards no-till operations. Herrmann was a featured speaker at one of the first No-Till on the Plains Conferences and has spoken at numerous extension meetings about farming practices.

Michael Herrmann’s farming operation is substantially different from his neighbors because he uses entirely dryland grain farming. For decades, he has been successful at no-till and minimum-till farming thanks to his technical acuity and uses of the latest in machinery. His practices should be a useful guide for those interested in combining non-tillage approaches with dryland farming. Michael Herrmann’s operation is a testament to water and energy-efficient agriculture, which are practices that will become increasingly important in the western, arid parts of Kansas.

No-Till, Wildlife, and Community

Michael Herrmann from Climate + Energy Project on Vimeo.

Benefits of Solar & Wind Power

Benefits of Solar and Wind Power from Climate + Energy Project on Vimeo.

No-Till & Water Conservation in Western Kansas

No-till and water conservation in western Kansas from Climate + Energy Project on Vimeo.

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RESOURCES
South Central Kansas Residue Alliance, "A Framework for Change" One Producer, One Farm at a Time
Soil Quality and No-till
South Kansas Residue Alliance
Activating Soil Fertility in mulh-prepared small-plot commerical no-till
USDA Rural Energy for America Program