Years ago, Gabe Brown heard a farmer who had won awards for his high corn yields talk about how he accomplished the feat. After the talk, Brown asked the farmer how much it cost per bushel to raise such high-yielding corn.
$7 per bushel was the answer. At the time, corn was selling for $5 per bushel.
"What good are high yields if you're not making a profit?" Brown said.
Brown, a nationally recognized expert in soil health who farms outside of Bismarck, N.D., was joined by Grant Breitkreutz, who farms near Redwood Falls, Minn., in talking about soil health with Agweek's Michelle Rook during the Agweek Farm Show.
Both Brown and Breitkreutz practice regenerative agriculture, in which their focus is on improving the land as well as on profitability. Traditional measures of success, like yields in crops and pounds in livestock, are not important.
Breitkreutz, for example, said his cost per bushel of corn grown on his farm is $2.59 per bushel. That gave him a profit even when corn was down to $3.25 per bushel.
Brown and Breitkruetz follow six soil health principles, which Brown walked the audience through:
- Farming in context. Brown explained that he once calved in January and February in often-frigid central North Dakota. "That's not the way nature functions." Switching to calving in late May and June made calving fun, he said.
- Use the least amount of mechanic and chemical disturbance as possible. No-tilling is one step in that direction.
- Keep "armor" on the soil surface. Keeping soil covered protects it from wind and water erosion and evaporation.
- Focus on diversity of plants. Monocultures, Brown said, only exist where man has made it that way. Nature thrives in diversity.
- Keep a living root in the soil as long as possible. Keeping living plants growing helps grab carbon from the atmosphere and sequester it in the soil.
- Integrate animals on the land. "Ecosystems do not function properly without animals and insects," Brown said. "We need to get those animals back out on the landscape where they belong."
Brown said it took him a long time to fully understand all of the principles and how they work for producers.
"Until you know and understand how soil ecosystems function, you need to understand the nutrient cycle, the water cycle, the mineral cycle — once you understand those, then adoption can come very quickly," he said.
Breitkreutz said he and his wife, Dawn, had been primarily corn and soybean farmers with a cow-calf herd. They started no-tilling soybeans and later added wheat. But until he started no-tilling corn and adding cover crops for his cattle to graze, he didn't see much difference in his bottom line. Now, he's able to plant wheat, which is harvested earlier than corn and soybeans, and follow it with a cover crop that his cattle can graze. He has to put down very little fertilizer for the following year's corn crop, and he's eliminated many other inputs. But his corn yield hasn't gone down significantly, and the corn is more nutrient dense.
Brown and Breitkreutz said growing a variety of crops rather than just a couple helps improve diversity. Many farmers are afraid they won't have markets for crops, but they said the markets are there and just have to be found and developed.
"As farmers and ranchers, so often we see that they're very good at production but they're very poor business people in that they don't do a good job of marketing," Brown said.
Brown and Breitkreutz and their families have incorporated direct marketing into their operations. They've added other livestock species, including lambs or hogs or chickens or even bees, and they make their own markets. For the Browns, that's Nourished by Nature. For the Breitkreutzes, that's Ten Creek Range.
And Brown said his farm has moved completely away from using government farm programs.
"Farmers and ranchers are kidding themselves if they think they have a successful business but yet they're taking government subsidies," he said.
Breitkreutz said his family is still involved in some government programs but also is moving that direction.
Rook asked Brown and Breitkreutz about their positioning under potential new programs related to agriculture and climate change, a hot issue under the Biden administration. While both feel they are in good positions to do their part to help the environment and climate change, they're not sure they're interested in participating in any government carbon sequestering programs.
"We're positioned. We're ready," Breitkreutz said. "Don't know if we're going to engage."
Brown is leery of current carbon trading markets, as he feels farmers and ranchers don't get paid enough for their work and that current methods of measuring carbon in the soil are not accurate enough.
Brown has been active in talking about how agriculture can help with the environment and climate change, including testifying in front of Congress recently.
Though the practices Brown and Breitkreutz practice help the environment, they know the profitability angle is what may attract most producers. Research has shown the practices to be to be more profitable.
"As a farmer or rancher, we're not doing this for our health, are we Grant?" Brown said. "It's for profitability."
Still, many aren't trying.
"No. 1 is fear, fear of the unknown," Brown said.
Another reason is that some regenerative practices don't align with traditional farm program requirements, which most bankers require borrowers to participate in. Brown said that keeps many people focused on what they've always done.
"That's not conducive to good soil health and moving you down the regenerative path," he said.
But Breitkreutz said trying on just a small number of acres is a step in the right direction and can move people toward more regenerative practices.
"Step out of the box and try it," he said. "You don't have to try it on your whole farm."