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While walking a piece of North Dakota landscape under a withering summer sun, one’s thoughts turn to moisture—or rather, the lack of it. So when I and other participants in a soil health tour kicked up signs of cool, shady places while traipsing across a hay field, it seemed like a mirage. Green-and-black leopard frogs were zigzagging out of our way, adding life to a field that had not gotten a decent rain in eight weeks. This part of south-central North Dakota is prairie pothole country, but no wetlands were in sight as wheat and corn stretched to the horizon.
“I’ve never seen so many frogs so far from a slough,” said Douglas Miller of the Minnesota Natural Resources Conservation Service. “What’s going on there that would bring them so far from cattails?”
When we reached the edge of the field where the couple who farms this land, Todd McPeak and Penny Meeker, were standing, they made it clear we weren’t imagining things. “I hope you didn’t step on any of my leopard frogs,” Meeker said, smiling. We smiled too, and were especially concerned that we hadn’t hurt any frogs after she related a childhood story of using a stripped horse weed to “whip the crap” out of her brother and a cousin when she caught them shooting birds on their family’s dairy farm.
Meeker and McPeak enjoy seeing birds, mammals, and yes, frogs, on the acres they produce grass, hay, cover crops, and beef cattle on. But these critters are also barometers of how the sustainable farming methods the couple use are affecting their business enterprise. As McPeak explains it, more frogs in a field connotes a healthier landscape that retains moisture in the soil more efficiently, which in turn translates into better quality hay and grass that’s drought tolerant. That’s money in the bank when you’re farming in a place that gets only 16 inches of precipitation a year.
Conventional production systems that cover the land with monocultures of corn and soybeans have been a disaster for everything from grassland birds and waterfowl to amphibians and pollinating bees. In Apocalyptic Planet, Craig Childs describes being hard put to find even a couple of spiders and a toad while “camping” in an Iowa cornfield.
But innovators like McPeak and Meeker are proving that productive agriculture and wildlife can occupy the same piece of ground, and in some cases aren’t just tolerating each other, but are mutually beneficial. In this case, the farmers are part of the Burleigh County Soil Health Team, a collaboration of farmers, government conservationists and scientists. Using rotational grazing, diverse plantings of cover crops between the regular cash crop seasons, as well as tillage systems that disturb the soil little, this team is building soil’s biological health. The result has been less erosion and more farm profitability. It turns out healthy soil is also good for wildlife.
“There is no comparison,” said team member Darrell Oswald in reference to how much wildlife is present on his farm since he started building his soil’s microbial universe.
An increasing number of environmentalists are seeing that working farmland can be an ecological positive. I’ve been on farms in northeast Iowa that had, to the delight of an ornithologist with the Audubon Society, developed grazing systems where bobolinks and other troubled grassland species were thriving. Just this summer, I visited a gorgeous stream in southeast Minnesota that was being managed using “flash grazing” of cattle to control invasive plants and establish the kind of deep-rooted grasses that stabilize riparian areas while filtering out contaminants.
“It’s a great relationship—livestock and streams,” said Jeff Hastings, a Trout Unlimited project manager. On cue, a bluebird swooped over the bubbling waterway while a trout grabbed some air. So much for the old saw that cattle and creeks never, ever are a good mix ecologically.
In 2012 researchers reported that bumblebees, which are key pollinators, preferred visiting cucumbers raised with compost as opposed to those fertilized with petroleum-based fertilizers, even though both soils contained the same amount of basic plant nutrients. The study concluded that non-nutritional factors such as microbial interactions might be making the composted cucumbers more bee-friendly.
Wildlife friendly farming practices are not the norm, and producers who strive to diversify their landscape—above and below the surface—don’t get much support from the market or public policy. On the latter front, one bright spot has been the Conservation Stewardship Program, a federal initiative that rewards farmers for producing environmental benefits on working farmland. It has been extremely popular in states like Iowa and Minnesota the past few years. But as Congress begins finalizing a new five-year Farm Bill this fall, the program faces significant budget cuts: 21 percent and 14 percent in the House and Senate respectively.
If these cuts go though, it will be a shame. They would come at a time when innovative farmers are linking healthy soil, healthy land and healthy bottom lines, and CSP adds that extra nudge their neighbors need to make key agro-ecological transitions. Too bad Congress can’t connect the dots as well as Todd McPeak does.
“From bees to badgers to beef, I see it all working together,” he said as herds of frogs swarmed across his land.
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By Jim VanDerPol
In October, I told the Minnesota House Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture Finance Committee that we had begun to listen to our farm, an assertion lawmakers heard with some surprise. The occasion was testimony around the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency’s presentation of its “Nitrogen in Minnesota Surface Waters” report, which showed among other things that 73 percent of the nitrogen escaping into the state’s rivers is coming from cropland. My statement was a plea, really, the expression of a hope that Minnesota’s farmers would begin farming again.
When the last of the commodity hog market melted away in the fall of 1998 and we essentially lost the income support for this farm, we did several things. We resolved never to produce hogs for the conventional markets again. We slammed the brakes down hard on outside input purchases. And we took whatever outside work we could for a few years to survive.
As the initial shock wore off, we began to look around and notice what happened easily on the farm, what grew well and didn’t need much help, and what required large investments of inputs and was not dependable in production. We very nearly ceased with corn production for a few years, planting more small grains instead. Because we saw how much the farm wanted to grow grass in some of our lower and wetter areas we started establishing permanent pastures mostly by building fence and getting some animals out there to graze. The process continued until today; we have about 30 percent of our 320 acres in permanent grass, harvested by planned grazing of cattle and sows.
Soon after making changes, we noted that the runoff and ponding so typical of the farm in a heavy rainfall wasn’t happening anymore in the pasture. Unless the rainfall was six inches or more within 24 hours, the water just didn’t move much. We wondered about our cropping acres and spent hours walking around in chore boots at the end of thunderstorms and in the spring to see what the water was doing. Seeing still too many ponds, which are caused by water running off the land too fast and overloading the tile outlet to the river, we thought about change.
We needed hay, since the dairy heifer replacement service we had started to use the pasture grass needed to run over winters as well. We planted an alfalfa grass mix on a few of our acres, and that planting grew to the point where today it uses three years of our six-year rotation to produce enough hay to feed the cattle in winter, plus provide a forage supplement for the sow herd.
Today, our core crop rotation is three years of hay, followed by corn, then grain and then corn again. This is varied some, since every field cannot be treated in the same way, and because we must continue to experiment. We are now doing much thinking about and experimenting with grazeable cover crops, especially after the small grain is harvested. Cattle are expected to maintain themselves in late fall for a month or more each year on grazed crop residues. What they leave is baled and brought to the yard for bedding the hogs.
Cropland treated this way is beginning to show the same results as pasture did earlier. Rainfall does not pond unless the amount of rain is very large and the soil also does not dry out so quickly in late summer. Our corn often does not show drought stress in a hot, dry August as others around us do. When we do till, which is not as often, the field equipment pulls easier.
Our corn yields the past four or five years hover around 130 to 160 bushels per acre, compared to 100 to 110 bushels in the 1990s. It should be noted that we are now certified organic, and have been since 2004. These higher yields, in contrast to those in the 1990s, are not supported by crop chemicals, or fertilizers, or GMO seed. Crops get rain, sun, soil and manure from the hog operation.
In conventional agriculture, global positioning systems steer the tractor. Monsanto solves the production problems with GMO seed and crop chemicals. Livestock operations are huge, centralized and separate from the “farms.”
There are problems with the conventional system. Too much manure is a problem for the livestock centers—too little manure is a problem for the crop farms. There is too much work and not enough pay on the livestock factories. There is too much technology and not enough human care everywhere. The community deteriorates.
But now society has gone as far as it can with specialization and simplification. It is impoverishing us and the land. We must think again, and think carefully. We will not keep the nitrogen out of the river until we get more people on the land. These must be people with their minds engaged and their hearts open. Government can have a role here—it is difficult to see how any of this could happen unless it at least gets out of the way.
Livestock, land and people must be brought back together and for the good of all three. There are no shortcuts.
Land Stewardship Project member Jim VanDerPol, along with his wife LeeAnn, son Josh and daughter-in-law Cindy, owns and operates Pastures A Plenty Farm near Kerkhoven, in western Minnesota. Jim is also the author of the 2012 book, Conversations With the Land.
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