Guest Post By Courtland Kelly, 2019-2020 Sustainability Leadership Fellow and Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Soil and Crop Sciences and the Graduate Degree Program in Ecology
How do you prepare for your future? Do you think about saving money, eating well and getting exercise so that you can be healthy in the years to come?
For farmers, planning for the future means thinking about the soil. Caring for the soil can be a challenging task as farmers manage risk, uncertainty and a need to keep the farm profitable. However, without good soil, farms can be even more vulnerable. Many innovate farmers recognize this, and so are trying out new ways to care for the soil while staying in business.
One strategy to feed the soil is to plant cover crops. Cover crops are grown to help the soil, acting as a blanket to protect the ground from wind and rain, hold on to soil nutrients and help create dark, rich soil . We can think of growing cover crops as a deposit into the savings account of soil; farmers may not see the immediate benefits, but the soil will pay back when conditions get difficult. For example, heavy rainfall can turn a field into a muddy lake, causing soil to be swept away and making it too soft for machinery to get into the field. However, cover crops can help make the soil a porous sponge, allowing the water to soak in instead of sitting on top getting washed away. With cover crops and healthy soil, a grower can stay on schedule despite nature’s curve balls.
In dry areas like eastern Colorado, it is very hard to grow cover crops because of large short-term financial costs. Especially in fields without added water from irrigation, cover crops use up scarce water, potentially leading to lower yield in the next cash crop. The reduced profit would come on top of the added cost of buying and planting the cover crop seed.
Despite these challenges, some farmers in these dry areas recognize the important of cover crops and want to start paying back their soil. But how to do so when the cover crops are using up the essential water needed by the cash crops?
In 2015, a group of farmers approached researchers with an idea: What if we grow cover crops, but instead of leaving all of the plants for the soil, we give some to cattle? That way, income from the livestock can make up for any lost profit from lower crop yields because of drier soil.
It’s a creative work-around, though some may argue that these aren’t true “cover crops” since they are being harvested by the cattle. The farmers were willing to accept that, especially if they left enough of the plants on the surface or allowed the plants to regrow after being grazed by the cattle. The most important thing is to leave behind
Researchers from Colorado State University and Kansas State University collaborated with these farmers to figure out if this approach was feasible. Would the soil actually improve even with heavy cattle stomping around? And would the finances work out?
The numbers are still being crunched, but things are looking good. From a soil perspective, cover crops are improving the sponge-like qualities of the soil, and the cow-stomping is causing minimal soil compression. That means that there are enough air spaces in the soil for water and roots to move deep into the soil.
Because the study was implemented on real, working farms, the economics are complex. Cover crops did cause a slight decrease in wheat yield overall, but the effect wasn’t noticeable in over 66% of the fields. And, when the additional costs of the cover crop seed and added labor for managing the cattle were also accounted for, the system appears to be profitable even with this reduction in wheat yields; that is, growing and grazing cover crops actually paid more than leaving the soil bare and getting slightly higher cash crop yields.
Our data is optimistic news for farmers looking to mix-up their farming operations. Not only may adding livestock improve the soil, but it can also lower economic risk. Adding in different types of agricultural products, and thus income, can protect farmers from a volatile market and crop failures.
I joined this project as a nascent graduate student in 2016 and have been repeatedly impressed by the scale of this work and the commitment and generosity of our cooperating farmers. These folks go against the grain with their practices, with eyes on the future. After meeting these farmers, it has become clear to me that resilient soil is built by resilient farmers. Several of them feel like outcasts because they are doing something new that is not accepted by others in their community. However, they persist and are working overtime to share their discoveries with other farmers.
These farmers want to build their soil so that their children can inherit a valuable asset that will support their families, and all of us who depend on farmers for our food. My hope is that the positive findings in our research will support, with real numbers, the pioneering work of these brave individuals. If more fields start using cover crops, we might be able to build a stronger foundation for the future of our food.
Learn more about innovative approaches and farmer perspectives on water-limited agriculture in the Great Plains at www.drylandag.org