Monday, July 7, 2014

Touring through the Dakotas

The first day was mostly driving as we headed to Bismarck in North Dakota with farmers, researchers and advisers from South Africa, Brazil, France, Nepal and Australia.

However, on the way we did make a couple of stops. The first was at the Irvin Goodon International Wildlife Museum in Boissevain, a little town in Manitoba just north of the US border. It has a fantastic display of taxidermy with many of the animals propped up in real life situations. Tracey's father and 2 uncles run New Zealand's largest taxidermy business, so here a few photos for you Nevin (and Lance and Kerry).

   Not sure what the significance of the ninja turtle was! 

       Self propelled sprayer - North Dakota style! 

The second was at the Peace Gardens on the US/Canadian border for lunch - great fried chicken! I think the Peace Garden was purposefully place on the north side of the border because if you haven't spent time there chilling out, you could get very frustrated when your bus takes over 2 hours to clear immigration when all the passport details had been forwarded the day before to fast track our crossing! We had to feel sorry though for the person who was held up because they had "misplaced" his passport! I think the Canadians are a bit easier to deal with when heading north. 

Our only agricultural stop for the day was at the USDA ARS (Agriculture Reserach Service) Northern Great Plains research farm at Mandan (just north of Bismarck).  One research project has looked at soil organic carbon levels across different rotations and the results have shown that the dynamic rotation has responded best and especially under the worst conditions. The higher soil C levels are driven by the corn biomass, a common theme we were to here for the next few days. 

Corn seeded into alfalfa (lucerne) at USDA ARS Mandan 

The question is can I put a short season corn into our rotation somehow/somewhere? Hearing how wet and backwards the crops are going at home while I am away with the rain and waterlogging, I'm thinking this might be the year to put some strips in to see what happens. Sorghum, millet, safflower and sunflower are other options to grow and I have grown all except sorghum in a summer crop trial in 2009/10. Sorghum will probably be a better option than corn as less costly and more likely to get to yield in a Mediterranean environment.

They have a paddock with 31 continuous years of wheat. That's it, I didn't take any notes on it and there was nothing in the handout - I will follow up to see what the results have been.

The USDA team cooked up a great BBQ for dinner - certainly wasn't the chopper beef that Australia sends to the US. 

    Think this is the continuous wheat paddock. My note taking did get better.

Spent the night at the Seven Seas Inn in Mandan, appropriately named as that's about how many attempts it took to find Annieka Paridaen from Southern Farming Systems a room that wasn't occupied by others! Really, how hard can it be to look at your bookings list and find a room without a name against it. One room had a guy half dressed, another a carton of beer and bourbon cans on the bench - so what was the problem Annieka, too many choices? 

So while Tracey and I were getting to meet the local North Dakotans who joined the tour at Bismarck, Annieka was back and forward for a couple of hours. To top it off, just as she had got into bed, the front desk called asking her to come down and pay the tables bill for the drinks, which they found we had left on the table - but did Annieka get an apology??

Brown Ranch, Bismarck, North Dakota

The second day started at Gabe, Shelly and Paul Brown's property at Bismarck where we were joined by Jay Fuhrer, District Conservationist with NRCS (Natural Resource and Conservation Service) and long time advocate of no till and cover crops. 

Gabe is widely known for pushing the boundaries of what can be achieved with no till, cover crops and the integration of livestock of livestock (cattle, sheep, pigs and chickens) into a system he described as "beyond organic" (he still uses the odd herbicide but not any synthetic fertiliser). His approach over the past 21 years of no till has been to try and mimic nature as closely as possible, and with 140 species in his native pastures (of which approximately 90% are native), it as good an example of a revived native pasture I have seen. 

    Paul and Gabe Brown with Jah Fuhrer in the background

The Brown's don't use glyphosate, GMO's, fungicides or pesticides and uses high stocking rates with cell grazing, where most pastures are rested for 360 days after grazing. The use of cover and companion crops has allowed the livestock to be integrated into their holistic system, something which they see as mimicking the bison that used to roam the prairies each year, grazing each area once before returning the following season.

    Strip grazed triticale crop - cover crops to be seeded in the next couple of days.

    Soil good enough to eat!

The Browns sell beef and eggs at local farmers markets in Bismarck at a significant premium. 

Menoken Farm, Bismarck, North Dakota

The next visit was to Menoken Farm, a 150acre (60ha) educational site owned and operated by the Burleigh County Soil Conservation district and which Jay Fuhrer is involved in it's operation. It was established in 2009 and the condition of the soil highlighted a number of areas of concern common to most soils in the district after decades of continual cultivation - lack of soil cover, minimal biological diversity, poor nutrient cycling, infiltration and soil structure, low soil organic matter levels and little beneficial insect habitiat. 

The farm has 10 large demonstration plots looking at a range of cropping systems targeted at soil health and aiming to eliminate the use of fungicides, insecticides, GMO's, and commercial fertiliser while minimising the use of herbicides, soil disturbance and fossil fuel use. 

These include seeding companion cover crops with cash crops (sunflowers or corn) either in alternate rows or as a mixture in each row. Cattle and sheep have been introduced recent years to cycle nutrients and control weeds while chickens and pigs are being considered. Perennial grasses, legumes and forbs have been introduced this year to increase the plant diversity and to provide a continuous living root. 

    Sunflowers interseeded with companion crop

A no till demonstration garden was set up in 2011 growing corn, beans and squash as companion plants, known as the 3 sisters by the native Indians, such as the Mandan Indians whose reconstructed village we visited later in the day. The Mandans weren't nomadic like most Indian tribes who followed the Bison herds across the prairies for food, shelter and clothing. The Mandans lived in villages along the Missouri River in North and South Dakota from the early 1500s until the 1880s, when they were virtually wiped out by small pox. They cultivated the three sisters garden (using over 14 different types of corn) as well as caught fish, hunted Bison and collected native plants and fruits. They stored produce in cache pits, a ancient form of refrigeration where a bell shaped pit was dug in the ground and produce buried. 

    The three sisters garden at Menoken Farm 

    The infiltration and run off demo comparing different soil covers after 1" (25mm) of 
    simulated rain (high intensity). Interesting the amount of percolation of water (rear jar) 
    through the soil between cover crop and various pasture treatments. 

   Cross section of a cache pit for storing produce - the original esky/chilly bin/cooler!

    Mandan earth lodge - above and below

Miller's Ranch, Mandan, South Dakota

Our final visit for the day was to Ken Miller. Ken works at Mennoken Farm and farms on the weekend raising beef cattle, corn, alfalfa (lucerne), cereals (wheat and triticale) on both irrigated (pivot) and dryland - not a bad effort for a weekend farmer! 

Ken uses cover crops, high intensity grazing and bale grazing as strategies in his operation to achieve maximum profits, not necessarily maximum yield. Bale grazing is where round hay bales are placed in paddocks over winter and the cattle are strip grazed on a number of bales at a time, instead of being placed in sheds over the winter. 

   Ken in an lucerne (alfalfa) paddock. What are you doing hiding behind Chandra Gerard?

   Bale grazing - an alternative to over wintering cattle in sheds all winter

His winter cover crops mixes are based on forage barley, field peas and vetch with turnip, daikon radish, ryegrass, sunflower and sweet clover, while his spring cover crop mixes are a mixture of cowpeas, soybean, millet, Sudan grass, corn, sunflower, pasja turnip, radish and sweet clover. 

Ken has set up grazing cells on his pivot for rotational grazing, a sight common in dairy, but not so in beef herds. If the numbers hadn't stacked up, I guarantee Ken wouldn't be doing it!

We spent the night at the Prairie Knights Casino on the local Indian reservation, just out of Fort Yates. It  wasn't anything exciting as they only had poker machines, no tables or high roller rooms, not even a tribute show to the band that once did covers on Roy Orbison - must have been booked in the next night! 

Don't ever think there is a correlation between a meals price and the amount of food served in the US - I had that many ribs I couldn't finish even after sharing with the rest of the table. With not much to keep us entertained, we had an early night and listened to the storm roll in over the prairies during the night - disappointing really after the anticipation in the the bus that afternoon for everyone to get together for a night out on the town to really get to know our touring buddies - next time maybe. 

Bieber Farm, Trail City, South Dakota

The next day we headed to Rick Beibers farm about 30 minutes west of Mobridge and Lake Oahe. Rick first started in no till in 1987 and by 1991 the whole farm was no till, a legacy of his family's heritage of soil conservation. His grandfather visited the Senate in Washington and lobbied for all counties to have conservation offices, which they still have today. Soil salinity has become a major problem in the county, with most farmers just giving up acres to the problem as it takes hold, whereas Rick has the approach that farming caused the problem, so farming can fix the problem. 

Rick farms with his son and a number of South African workers who come out for 7-8 months each year. They farm in a 16"/400mm rainfall and use a combination of cash crops (corn, wheat, sunflowers, radish seed, millet, cover crops seeds), cover crops (4000ha/10 000acres in 2013) and a cow/calf operation where soil health has become the driver of profitability on the farm. The industry rule of thumb is around a pound of nitrogen fetiliser is required to produce a bushel of corn, but Rick is getting close to only using half a pound of commercial nitrogen to produce 150bu corn crops, while his water use efficiency has been improved by around 50%. Such is the success of the system, he still harvested successfull corn crops in the devastating drought of 2012 whilst neighbours crops on conventional cultivation were decimated.

    Rick in his corn - he is one passionate advocate of soil health! He was going to drive the
    tour bus across this paddock after 3" (75mm) of rain the previous night except it was only 
    a single drive - that's how confident he is of his soil health and structure.

Rick is a great believer in the 25 second fallow - that's how long it takes for the crop to go in the front of the combine and the straw come out the back end - after that time the seeder is ready to follow behind and start seeding a covercrop. 

One thing Rick isn't a believer in is controlled traffic farming - they have tried it in the past but the nature of his soils combined with high intensity rainfall events has resulted in severe washouts and gully erosion, as often happens on the cultivated farms in the county. Something the guys on the Darling Downs in Queensland might want to arm wrestle him over! 'Horses for courses' is what I'd say. 

One thing I picked up on is Rick using a blend of urea:sulfate of ammonia, the SOA giving the crop a growth boost which increases the chlorophyll concentration of the plant and increases the uptake of the urea nitrates. POST SCRIPT Have just put out this mix in trials across the farm to compare with urea.

    Example of gully erosion on cultivated land. Rick has spent $250 000 in the past year 
    repairing washouts on his farms alone, so imagine the soil loss that has occurred on 
    cultivated paddocks. Some gullies have been 6'/1.8m deep. 

The county has experienced it's fair share of population decline as farms have consolidated and many farms are owned by remote owners who farm from a base 100 miles or further away. Rick has undertaken a project to reverse this and to give young farmers-to-be a hand to get onto their own farm.  In conjunction with a business partner, land is purchased and the young farmer is financed into taking over the farm while still working for Rick. He considers the success he has had with his system can be shared to teach others a better way to farm and as a result get them into a farm whereas in other circumstances it would be virtually impossible. 

Holzwarth Farm, Gettysburg, South Dakota

Our next visit was to the family of Ralph, Jenny and Teddy Holzwarth. We were welcomed with a fantastic home cooked meal, thanks to the generosity of Northern Plains, their local grain and input supply co op. 

In similar fashion to Rick, they started no till in 1989 and were completely no till in 1992, farming in a 18-19"/450-475mm environment. 

They don't have a set rotation but use a combination of both spring and winter wheat, corn, sunflowers, soybeans and use cover crops after winter wheat and corn crops, consisting of peas, radish, barley and oats. They have gone to a base rotation where they are using stacked rotation (2 successive crops) of wheat-wheat-corn-corn-soybean.  

    Dwayne Beck with Teddy and Ralph in Teddy's shed. Note the bar in the background 
    - also had 3 flat screen TVs and a pretty handy ski boat. A man cave to die for! 

    Corn in spring wheat stubble - missed getting in winter wheat the year before so only
    has low residue levels. 

    Sunflowers in corn stubble

Cronin Farms, Agar, South Dakota

Our next visit to Cronin farm, owned by Mike and Tye Cronin, was hosted by Dan Forgey, who has worked for the family for 45 years. I found an article on alternative fertiliser equipment before we left for the trip that Dan had written 12 years ago. I was going to try to track him down but thought what was the chance he was still working on the same farm - pretty good as it turned out. 

That's a credit to both parties the relationship has endured that long! I think it might have something to do with Dan's enthusiasm, he just doesn't stop! First met Dan in Winnipeg and I could tell from the 2 presentations he gave that he was not just an employee, but a key part of the farms progress and success over the years. 

I know this is starting to sound a bit repetitive, but Cronin Farms are long time no tillers and have been using CC for 12 years, including cover crop seed crops, as well as running a 800 head cow & calf operation. If it has been tried as a cover crop, chances Dan has tried it. Given it had rained the morning we visited and it was too wet to get out into the paddock, Dan had spent the morning driving around and digging up a few plants of all the crops growing on the farm. 

    Dan and his paddock tour in the workshop. 

Cover crops represent about 10% of the farms rotation and are usually grown after winter wheat or cut silage. Dan likes to diversity in his cover crop mixes and includes oats, flax, lentils and sunflowers. He has tried the approach of Mennoken Farms and has seeded forage soybeans in alternate rows to corn. Now I know there will be plenty of you going 'yeah, that's all great, but who wants to grow less corn?' Fair point, you might think, but the 'proof is in the pudding' moment came in the 2012 drought when much of the corn crop was decimated but look at the 2 photos below. The corn had hung on better where the forage soybean was grown as a companion crop. Why that is, no one can exactly say but it appears it has to do with that hazy area of symbiotic relationship between plant roots. But really, if it works, who cares how - leave that to the researchers and scientists to work out.

   Corn in the 2012 drought - things aren't always what they seem.

The farm doesn't use any insecticide seed treatments on wheat but does use seed fungicide treatments as Dan avoids using foliar fungicides, as they affect aphid and grasshopper control - stay with me here! According to both Dwayne and Dan, fungi infect and kill aphids, but not where fungicides are used obviously. Grasshoppers need bare ground to warm their bodies, so no till helps reduce this whereas fungi infect grasshoppers as they do aphids. As often is the case, controlling one problem has effects in other areas. 

One new cover crop that Dan is trying is Teff grass, which is not a great competitor but once established has a great fibrous root and cut be cut for hay like lucerne (alfalfa). 

Kent and Brain Tinkler, Pierre, South Dakota

The final visit of the day was to Kent and Brian Hinkler's farm. The farm used a traditional summer fallow - small grains rotation until the drought in the 1980s which saw the introduction of no till and by 1994 the whole farm was in no till. The area farmed has remained constant around 4000 acres (1600 ha), but the harvested area has increased by around 30% as the introduction of cover crops and new cash crops has allowed for more crops to be sown and harvested. This has also enabled the workload to be spread out and labour to be utilised more efficiently. 

Kent wanted to buy a new planter a few years ago and when he started looking at what was available, he couldn't find one he was completely happy with, but liked components of various planters. So in the name of farmers ingenuity, Kent bought al, the components and built his own 60' (18m) planter on 20" (50cm) rows. 

    "Just happened Max, you know, a p-p-piece from here, a p-p-piece from there", the mechanic in Mad Max (classic Australian movie from the 1979) on describing to Max how he out together the V8 Interceptor.

   It's an all liquid affair - except for seed, still working on that one! Front tanks are phosphorus, rear quad tanks and front toolbar tanks are nitrogen and rear toolbar tank is seed. 

Third time lucky with the last days notes! Thats been my excuse why its taken so long to get the next chapter of my blog out. The first time I lost them the iPad went flat before I hit the save button and then last time I logged on I had been told someone had accessed by blog 9 days prior (sure it wasn't me), so had to reset the password, but then discovered it had lost the last blog addition I had done. A hard lesson learnt - twice!

So here we go.

Our last night was spent in Pierre, the capital of South Dakota with only about 14000 people. It's a historical thing, the towns declared each states capital haven't always progressed to be the biggest city in the state, and and no one wants to give it the title to their big brother, do they? 

It was a touch of déjà vu arriving in Pierre, having stayed there almost 10 years ago on a bus trip through the US and Canada with Bill Crabtree, a no till consultant from Western Australia.  And guess who was on bus trip with us, No Till Bill himself! Although Bill must have been a bit excited about being back in Pierre visiting Dwayne Beck as after a couple of pre dinner wines he started doing impersonations of his alter ego, Sméagal (aka Gollum) from Lord Of The Rings over dinner. I would show a photo but thought I don't want to scare any young children (or old ones for that matter). Great to see you still in fine form Bill.  

After dinner we enjoyed a few drinks at the Legions club overlooking the Missouri River, knowing from my last visit that if we saw out the closing hours there, we could go across the river for another hour of drinks overlooking the river. The Missouri is the border for Central and Western time zones. Luckily we decided to go bed instead (unlike the last visit, but that's another whole story that involves local farmer Ed, his pick up, stock whip, lasso and the beer in his cooler parked on the front lawn of the motel with the sun coming up!

   Bill was put on rations! 

This sign was at the motel Bill and I stayed at 10 years ago. Perhaps this could be the new Nuffield logo??

Our final day of the tour was on the Sunday morning with Dwayne Beck, manager at the Dakota Lakes Research Farm.  It was my visit here 10 years ago that was one of the major influences in changing my thinking and approach to looking at our rotation and farming system and where opportunistic summer cropping and/or cover cropping could fit.

The aim of the farm is to "identify, research and demonstrate methods if strengthening  and stabilising the agricultural economy". The farm, originally owned by South Dakota State University, is owned by a not for profit group comprising local farmers (including all of those we visited) which owns the land and plant and equipment. 

The South Dakota State University conducts and manages the research on the farm and the production side of the farm provides roughly 80% of these funds, therefore the farm needs to be profitable to fund research. This model of production funded research, set up in 1983, was established to minimise the effect of external influences, including commercial and political groups.

The farm was originally a conventional tillage research farm and when the current model was established in 1983, a substantial investment in land, labour and machinery would have been required for production to be able generate sufficient income to support research. The plan to overcome this limitation was to use diverse crop rotations combined with no till, which would enable high water crops (eg. corn), normally considered marginal under tillage, to be grown. 

I guess this is one train of thought I have had for a number of years since I established a full stubble retention no till system. Can the no till system be leveraged by adding a wider range of crops at different times of the year when moisture allows, but realising this will mean changing our seeding management from a static (only thinking we can seed in April - May) to a dynamic system (being ready to seed at anytime of the year).

Dwayne's philosophy is that research is all about systems, it goes beyond the agronomy. This holistic approach was adopted from the start as there was little research into the the farming practices the farm was intending to embark on, so research needed to fill the gaps as they went along.

The main change in thinking that has taken place at the farm and for surrounding farmers has been the realisation that long term farm profitability and sustainability is based on natural cycles and principles, which are an ally not an enemy.  

Warm season grass, warm season broadleaf and cool season broadleaf crops have been introduced to the traditional cool season grasses (winter cereals) that have been grown. Stacked rotations (where a crop is grown 2 years in succession and has a long break until grown again) have been developed based on a corn-corn-soybean-soybean-wheat-wheat rotation with cover crops grown in between. The aim of this rotation is to keep the crop sequence and interval diverse, compared to the rotation many of us use (wheat-canola, cereal-canola-legume in various combinations), where weeds and insects adopt life cycles on this regularity, which is the basis for any resistance in a population.

One of the trials that has been conducted on the farm for a number of years is drought resistant corn. The yield difference between dryland and irrigated plots  across other sites has been 40-50%, but on the research farm, it has only been 10%.  The company suspected Dwayne was running the irrigator over the dryland plots! So what does that say about the soil health that has built up over the years for this systems approach. 

Another interesting aspect of the farm is that all soil P levels are <5ppm (Olsen). Starter fertiliser is used in all crops but the soil mycorrhizae network developed with the rotation is a major source of P to the plants, accessing the P normally considered unavailable to plants.

The organic C levels have been raised in the soil surface but not at depth (>25cm) so lucerne (alfalfa) has been introduced to look at building C levels deeper in the profile. 

Not all the research on the farm is directly related to agriculture. The farm has set a target to be fossil fuel neutral by 2026, so are looking at technologies to reduce their fossil fuel use. Various building insulation materials are being assessed in situ in the workshop wall as well as adopting low energy heating systems for the workshop. 

Dakota Lakes Research Farm under Dwayne's guidance has made a significant contribution to the understanding of how agricultural systems can learn from the local natural systems and adopt practices and systems to suit. Dwayne always said the buffalo is the worlds best seeding system! 

So our tour of the Dakotas came to an end and we parted ways, although one of our South African friends Peter was left in Pierre hospital as he had been unwell for a couple of days. Hope you got better Peter and made it home safely.

    Agricultural enthusiasts from around the world.

Tracey and I together with Annieka headed back to Fargo with Abbey, the soil doctor (as we called her) from NDSU (North Dakota State University) for the next part of the trip. 

More to come soon!!

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