Demonstration field on North Dakota farm shows the value of trying new things
Jason Strand isn’t farming for bushels, and he’s pleased with his 60-acre field, which he hopes can highlight soil health principles and the idea that farming and ranching success isn’t always tied to yield.
ELLENDALE, North Dakota — Jason Strand stands in his corn field, knee deep in pumpkins and turnips and a variety of other species not usually found in the middle of a corn field. He peels back a husk and reveals an ear of corn that, despite the drought of 2021, was of pretty average length and width and was full of kernels.
Strand’s field later yielded 100.5 bushels per acre. That’s 28% less than the 140 bushels per acre the same variety of corn yielded a mile away. But Strand isn’t farming for bushels, and he’s pleased with his 60-acre field, which he hopes can highlight soil health principles and the idea that farming and ranching success isn’t always tied to yield.
“If I can give farmers in the area even an idea of what they could possibly do or spark some interest in regenerating the soil back to pre-production land or even better than that, that is my plan,” he said.
Strand planted his corn in “what equates to a 40-inch row spacing,” basically, four rows, a 60-inch gap, then two rows and a 60-inch gap. In between the corn were cover crop mixes, legumes on one side of the field and a mix without legumes on the other side. He planted without starter fertilizer, then side dressed 50 pounds of nitrogen two weeks later, he explained.
“And without much rain this summer, I think it turned out pretty well,” he said.
For folks who have been preaching the gospel of soil health and finding a better way forward, experiments like Strand’s are something to be thankful for.
“We’ve run this system, we’ve been down this road. We know that there’s probably a better road and we’re given the opportunity to choose this path, and we have to be thankful for that,” said Darrell Oswald, manager of the Burleigh County (North Dakota) Soil Conservation District’s Menoken Farm.
Trying something new
Strand grew up on the farm near Ellendale, near the South Dakota border. He joined the U.S. Air Force in 1996 and retired in 2014, at which time he worked for an ag co-op in Nebraska. Then he returned home to “do a little farming on our home ground.” His cousin farms much of the family’s land, but a 60-acre field right by his house was open.
“So I . . . took the 60 acres and decided I wanted to see what I could do with it, soil health wise,” he said.
For his first year, he wanted to use the idea of 60-inch corn row spacing without taking quite such a yield hit. He settled on his interseeding system, which wouldn’t take out so many rows but still would allow for sunlight to hit cover crops.
He also worked with Austin Lang, precision ag and conservation specialist with Pheasants Forever, to enroll five acres into the Soil Health and Habitat Program, which takes nonproductive acres out of production in exchange for a per-acre payment that funds cover crops in an attempt to rehabilitate acres back into productivity.
“The five that I took out were alkali and didn’t grow anything anyway. So, there’s no point in putting seed and fertilizer and chemical costs into those acres,” Strand explained.
After six months, he already was seeing some improvement in the once barren ground. And Lang said the financial improvements for most people are obvious in not putting expensive inputs on ground that won’t grow anything.
“Just by doing nothing at all, you’re already going to win in terms of the acres you are farming,” Lang said. “You’re going to have a higher yield average, (Actual Production History) that might help with other farm programs or even your crop insurance.”
Pheasants Forever gains more wildlife habitat through the program, too, he said.
“We don’t need people’s best acres on their farmland to make wildland habitat,” he said. “We want people to be profitable and farmers to be profitable. If you have your good acres, go ahead and farm them.”
Besides the Pheasants Forever program and the corn he would combine, Strand also planned to have a neighbor graze the corn stubble and cover crops. The cattle provide additional organic matter to the soil, and grazing on the cover crops keeps their owner from having to feed them for extra weeks.
“It can improve your soil health a lot faster than if you were just going to plant cover crops and not have cattle out here,” Strand said.
'We can build it back'
Experiments like Strand’s are music to the ears of longtime soil health advocates like Oswald.
“We’re very happy and pleased with that,” he said. “We’re thankful.”
Menoken Farm began in 2009 as a soil health demonstration farm. The farm now hosts dozens of workshops annually that bring thousands of people to the fields, gardens and high tunnel on the property near Bismarck.
Oswald, who has managed the farm since 2016, said the farm was never meant to be the end word on soil health, and people incorporating the lessons taught there always was the goal. They've seen an uptick in farmers in the area incorporating no-till practices, while other principles, like cover crops, crop diversity, complex crop rotations and livestock integration, have been slower to catch on.
Anyone looking for soil health principles to amount to a sudden change should remember that they’re starting with a degraded resource, Oswald said.
“The good news is, and the positivity lies in the fact that we can build it back. And that’s really, really exciting,” he said. “Who wouldn’t be thankful for that?”
The soil health principles have been shown to help increase resiliency. And there are, as Strand has discovered, economic sustainability gains, Oswald said. Fewer input costs, even when the yield isn’t as high, can result in higher gains per acre.
“We’re not talking about taking fertilizer away completely, but what if we could reduce it by 50% or even 25%? What is that going to do for our bottom line and where is that going to put us on the scale to being able to compete and be in the game next year?” Oswald said. “We need to have more of a grasp on our input costs and what it takes us to get that pound of beef or the larger amount of pounds of beef or the more bushels of corn or wheat or soybeans, and then we have to weigh that out. Quite honestly, we lose sight of that often because we’re programmed.”
And then there’s the consumer relations side of the equation.
“This pandemic and the things surrounding it . . . has helped people, I think, get in touch with their food supply and the supply chain thing,” Oswald said. “People want to know where their food comes from.”
That means Menoken Farm has seen more people come in for gardening and high tunnel programming to learn to grow their own food. But it also means that conventional farmers need to be aware of the needs and desires of consumers who may want to know about their sustainability. Embracing the idea of sustainability and soil health can mean moving forward together.
“They’re really the masses, and they’re going to be the ones in control. And so they’re going to dictate policy and things going forward,” he said.
The bottom line
The 28% reduction in yield on Strand’s field, on the surface, would indicate the demonstration was a failure.
“When you talk about it in terms of yield, you would think, well, that’s definitely not worth doing,” Strand said.
But, in the end, Strand sold his corn for $5.55 per bushel, which gave him a return of $275 an acre over input costs. The field he is comparing it to had “at least double the input costs,” including fall fertilizer, a tillage pass, starter fertilizer and a second herbicide pass. With the added income from grazing, “you are way ahead,” Strand said. Adding a carbon sequestration program on top of that could yield another $5 to $25 per acre. And that also doesn’t include the value of soil health improvements, which could improve that yield over time.
He's still working on a plan for 2022, but the main goal remains trying things to improve soil health.
Oswald advises people to follow Strand’s example and start small and find what works in their area.
“We’re pleased that farmers and ranchers and agriculture producers have embraced some of the things we study here at the farm, but again, the need for other demonstration farms across the country and across North Dakota is evident,” he said.
Lang said anyone who wants to look at programs that Pheasants Forever or their partners offer can contact a precision ag and conservation specialist in their area. He might talk to hundreds of people in a year, and he directs many to partner programs, including through the Natural Resources Conservation Service.
“I just think if people can be more efficient with their resources, it’ll help their business and it’ll help wildlife and such, as well,” Lang said.