S.D. rancher moves to no-till, reaps reward
WEST FARGO, N.D. -- The "big easy button" of herbicide-tolerant crops has made things simpler to manage on the farm, but some speakers at an annual Conservation Tillage Conference in Fargo, N.D., say a more sustainable, multi-cropped way is likel...
WEST FARGO, N.D. - The "big easy button" of herbicide-tolerant crops has made things simpler to manage on the farm, but some speakers at an annual Conservation Tillage Conference in Fargo, N.D., say a more sustainable, multi-cropped way is likely to emerge.
Bryan Jorgensen is from Jorgensen Land & Cattle of Ideal, S.D. The farm and ranch is about 20,000 acres, including about 12,000 acres of non-irrigated cropland. The farm has a large portfolio of crops - winter wheat, milo, alfalfa, oats, spring wheat, peas and tame grasses. His partner is his nephew, Cody; son, Nicholas, and brother, Greg. In 2015, the ranch won the prestigious Leopold Conservation Award.
"If you start putting more crops back into it, it complicates things," Jorgenson said of the crop rotation. "It's harder to market. But I think the market will force it - barring some farm program or crop insurance, which can always affect what we do."
The Jorgensen ranch started performing conservation tillage practices in the 1980s. One transformative moment for the rancher occurred when he was using a big wide, "V" plow. It cut off weeds in a wide swath, just beneath the soil, without disturbing the soil surface.
"We would cut all of our stubbles with that tool," he said. "We were using this tool in a field that was next to a tree grove, and I happened to get out and check something. I noticed a big clod of dirt had tons and tons of earth worm holes, tunnels, and I thought to myself I just destroyed that entire ecosystem for those worms." Shortly afterward, the farm made big changes to remove tillage from their system.
By 1991 they were entirely no-till, while almost everyone in the area was tilling - somewhere between 2 percent and 5 percent. Today, the percentage is nearing 80 percent, including Dwayne Beck, a South Dakota State University professor and manager for the Dakota Lakes Research Farm in Pierre, S.D.
Big, red easy
Jorgensen raises eyebrows when he suggests the "big red, easy button" of Roundup-ready or herbicide-ready crops can't last, even though it has changed everything. He noted the 1990s has been a prime driver of overproduction of soybeans and corn. "It changed the dynamics of that industry," he said. "Farmers started growing more and more of those crops and less and less of the crops that didn't have the technology."
The production increase was met with more demand, which was one of the big pushers toward corn-based ethanol production. It's also related to the rise in concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs. It increased the amount of corn and soy in the American diet, he says. "It changed everything. It created multi-billion-dollar industries and it's what's driving our agricultural economy today. I'm not saying they're wrong, but I question their sustainability."
Jorgensen doesn't think U.S. farmers can withstand five years of the current market situation, focused primarily on two big crops.
"If you're party to the corn-soybean rotation, and you think it's cool, I want you to ask yourself" if you have more disease, weed problems and fertilization, he said. "Are your soils better today under these conditions?"
The Natural Resources Conservation Service has been doing a tremendous job in educating farmers about the benefits of conservation practice. The information in the "tool box" wasn't available 20 to 30 years ago, he said.
"It's not going to be an easy road, it's going to be a painful process," he said. The practices are easier to implement in his part of the world because they have livestock - an 850-cow black Angus herd. They have agreements with 13 of their best bull customers and buy their bull calves back in the fall. "We generate a large pool of genetics every year that we market through a lease program, or sell every year - about 3,500 head of bulls a year. It's the largest in the country."
Jorgensen acknowledged that farmers in higher-moisture areas such as the Red River Valley have a more complicated task in converting to no-till, in part because they don't have livestock. But farmers must do what they can to mimic Mother Nature.