North Dakota farmer and cover crop and soil health expert Gabe Brown says if farmers give the techniques he advocates an honest try they’ll be hooked.
“Take one field and promise yourself that for five years you will focus on the principles of soil health,” said Brown. If you stick with it for those five years, you will be so amazed at the change in that soil. You’ll become sold on these techniques.”
Brown spoke to a full house at a Ducks Unlimited grazing club event at the Lenore community hall April 6. He said soil health is the top priority on his farm east of Bismarck, North Dakota. He practises holistic management, no till, diverse cropping strategies and rotational grazing.
“Farming is so much more enjoyable when we can solve problems for good as opposed to Band-Aid solutions that cost us money and don’t last,” said Brown.
Over the past 20 years on 5,000 acres of leased and owned land, Brown has transformed what he describes as severely degraded soil into soil that is organically dense and full of microbial activity.
This transformation has reduced his dependence on chemicals, reduced erosion and compaction issues and increased water absorption.
“I have completely eliminated the use of synthetic fertilizers, fungicides, and pesticides and do not use GMO or glyphosate. I prefer signing the back of the cheque instead of the front,” Brown said.
He began exploring holistic management and soil health as a way to financially survive after four dismal crop years.
“We went through four years of hail and drought and I lost four crops in a row. The bank wouldn’t lend me money to buy any inputs. At the time, I was also doing some rotational grazing and seeing some benefits to my native rangeland. I really just started observing that system and it all came about from that.”
Look to nature
Brown explains that the premise of his practices are simply mimicking nature and looking at how the soil was created and maintained before it became degraded by conventional agriculture.
“Think of how our soils were developed over eons of time. In the central plains that Manitoba is a part of, there were large herds of bison and elk that wolves were moving,” he said. “They would graze an area and then they wouldn’t come back for a long time. In essence it was high-density grazing, followed by long periods of recovery.”
He described how the plant community on those prairie soils had tremendous amounts of diversity that continually collected sunlight.
“That sunlight collection pumped carbon down into the soil to create this healthy soil ecosystem that was sustainable. What we have done is come in and destroyed that,” Brown said. “All I am doing now is trying to mimic nature and return our soils to a less degraded state.”
For those starting out with new management practices, Brown says the most important this is to keep an open mind and don’t be afraid of trial and error.
“People just need to be open minded and they will find things that work. The best place to start is to just look at nature,” he said. “Study how soil functions, mimic nature and then try and fit aspects of that into your operation.”
In terms of his own success, he says attending field tours and learning from those who are having success with desired production methods has made all the difference.
“We are all busy but I am never too busy to stop and go on a tour because I know I am going to pick something up,” he said.
Brown told attendees the DU grazing club events and grazing clubs co-ordinator Michael Thiele’s work promoting the concept and organizing events was especially praiseworthy.