Greg and Jan took Jake and I to a really great presentation last week. The presenters were Ray Archuleta who works for NRCS and Gabe Brown a farmer/rancher from North Dakota.
Gabe Brown is doing some very impressive things on his ranch in North Dakota. He is using a polyculture of cover crops planted among conventional plantings of things like corn, soybeans, field peas, rye, and wheat. His goal is to feed the soil life, and he is doing everything organically. This style of farming that he is practicing is called “No Till,” meaning he doesn’t plow the land, EVER. He plants his polyculture cover crops and cash crops using a No-Till-Drill.
The above picture is an example of what a No Till planting may look like. I couldn’t find a picture of Gabe’s operation, but the species that he plants as cover crops are very diverse, unlike the picture above. He refers to them as “cocktails” which I think is awesome.
There are many different ways to use these cover crop cocktails. Sometimes, he plants cover crops, and then kills them by running them over with a crimper mounted on the back of a tractor, or using his favorite method, he grazes the cover crops with cattle. These cattle go in an take 1/2 of the cover crop as food, and trample or leave the other 1/2 to feed the soil life and keep the bare dirt covered. This does many things for the soil. It feeds soil life, it prevents erosion and evaporation, and finally, it provides the soil with organic matter.
Gabe discovered (not originally, as this has been know for a while) that when you plow/till soil, you destroy the soil life. By not tilling the soil, Gabe is achieving his goal of increasing the amount of life in his soils.
Another benefit of No Till farming is fuel consumption. He said once he started using No Till, his fuel bill dropped considerably. It makes sense when you think about. All he does is drive his tractor over any given piece of ground a few times a year. Instead of the conventional route of plowing, discing, harrowing, planting/seeding, spraying, spraying, spraying, harvesting and repeating the cycle. On the other hand, Gabe’s process may look something like this:
- Plant a cover crop “cocktail”
- Let the cover crop grow
- Bring in cows to harvest the cover crop, leaving 1/2 for the soil life
- Plant his cash crop
- Harvest his cash crop
- Replant another set of cover crops and let the cycle repeat
While this style of farming might not be truly “sustainable”, it’s given me hope. What is truly sustainable? Living like our hunter-gather ancestors? Yes, it probably is, but I’m sure as hell not going to put on a loin cloth and live in the jungle with a spear.
You can find out more about Gabe’s operation here.
Have any of you run across someone who is doing something revolutionary like Gabe? Please let me know in the comments section below!