Like many farmers, Gabe Brown hates the term “sustainable agriculture.”
But his beef is that it doesn’t go far enough.
“For us to have the resources that will be truly sustainable for future generations, we have to regenerate our degraded soil,” said the North Dakota rancher and farmer, an internationally renowned speaker who has toured North America and Australia.
“Everywhere I’ve been in the world, I’ve yet to be on an operation that is not degraded, including my own. We can’t keep operating like that. We have to start regenerating those soils and building them back in order for us to be sustainable.”
Brown’s method was developed on his own 5,000-acre mixed farm following four straight crop losses from 1995 to 1998 due to drought and hail.
“The banker wouldn’t loan me money anymore for operating, so I had to figure out how I had to make my land productive without using any inputs,” he said. “I started planting more legumes, and I saw that when you plant a legume with a grass, it benefits both species. Then we started growing some cover crops, and when I did that, the soil health improved.”
Brown noticed more earthworms in the soil, and then larger yields. Now he plants cover crops on all 2,000 acres of cropland every year, either with the cash crop or on its own.
Organic matter in his soils has tripled, his input costs are lower, and synthetic fertilizer is a thing of the past, he said. He does use the occasional herbicide pass, but hasn’t used insecticides or fungicides in years.
A cocktail of cover crops includes a mixture of different annual crops planted together in the same field. Plants need to be different heights and have different leaves and rooting habits; broadleaf and grasses need to be seeded together; and so do warm-season and cool-season grasses.
“There can be up to eight to 20 plants in a cocktail,” said Nora Paulovich, manager of the North Peace Applied Research Association. “The premise is that all these plants have different growth habits but because of their diversity, they encourage the diversity of micro-organisms in the soil.”
Cocktail cover crops also increase the diversity of micro-flora, which improves soil health.
Brown describes cover crops as “biological primers.”
“We’re just trying to mimic what nature evolved,” said Brown. “It’s just simple. When I describe it to people, they get it right away, or they’re just in denial… It’s so simple that we’re in denial that it can work.
“But part of it is that we’ve been fed this mentality that we’ve got to feed the world — yield, yield, yield; grow more, more, more — and that’s totally the wrong concept.”
Paulovich initially brought Brown to the Peace Country last fall. After his first talk, a group of eight producers in the Manning area formed an informal cocktail cover crop group. The group put together a seed order, and sowed different cocktail cover crops.
“This year was a real challenge because we were so dry and hot up here,” said Paulovich. “But it was really neat to see how well these cocktail cover crops did.”
Staff at the North Peace Applied Research Association sowed four different mixes at four different times during the growing season, with a great deal of success.
“They didn’t look so good at certain times in July and August, but with the moisture we had in September, they are doing phenomenally,” said Paulovich.
Curtis Hale, who raises cattle and grows grain near Hines Creek has the highest number of cover crops in the Peace. He and his sons first saw Brown during his initial visit and that prompted Hale to travel to North Dakota to see Brown’s farm.
“For the most part, on the production side, we’ve been impressed with what we’ve seen on an extremely dry year,” said Hale.
“We’re just getting going and we believe that the potential is phenomenal. We intend to keep going in this direction. We’re convinced this is the only future for us.”
Even during a dry year, Hale’s cocktail cover crops improved his forage yields. With monocropping, he got six to eight tonnes an acre. That jumped to 13 tonnes an acre using the cocktail cover crop.
“This is a tremendous advantage for us,” said Hale. “We have high-quality feed, high production, and we’re building soil health. Those three things are all happening all at once for us, so it’s a no-brainer.”
Hale didn’t have as much success on the cereal side because of low moisture levels, but he’s said he’ll conduct more trials in 2015.
More producers will likely adopt this system, especially in a time of high input costs and low grain prices, said Hale. Americans in some regions have adopted the system and have done a great deal of research, and Hale said he thinks it might be because of low corn prices.
“I do believe that this is the future, I really do,” he said. “I think people are beginning to wake up to the fact that you can’t ride the highs. If you have a dip and you can’t sustain yourself, you better look at a different system. I think that’s where we’re headed.”