“The nation that destroys its soil destroys itself.” -President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Most everyone in America knows about the Dust Bowl era of the 1930s. The Dust Bowl resulted in billions of tons of topsoil blowing away due both to over-tilling practices and horrible drought. Luckily for us, the secondary results included changing farming practices and a country focused on grassland conservation inspired by the decade-long disaster.
Ninety years later, it seems like we’ve forgotten a lot of the hard lessons we learned in the Dust Bowl. Tree belts, grasslands, and wetlands are being destroyed. Wind and floods are eroding soil because fields are left bare for the majority of the year. Perhaps worst of all, much of our soil is dead. The biological matter having been decimated through overuse of fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, and tillage.
But many ranchers and farmers, as well as conservation groups including Ducks Unlimited and Pheasants Forever, see the writing on the wall. If we don’t restore the natural functions of the soil and land, both wildlife and agriculture will suffer. That’s why Ducks Unlimited has started a soil health program that uses regenerative agriculture as a tool to bring back healthy topsoil.
The Crop and Livestock Cycle of Regenerative Ag The goal of regenerative agriculture as a whole is simple: repair and build healthy soil through biomimicry. The core tenets used to achieve this goal include little to no tillage, constant coverage of the soil with crop residue, crop diversity and rotation, maintaining living roots, and purposeful livestock grazing. But how does the farming process actually work and what makes it different from conventional crop agriculture? Ducks Unlimited agronomist Brian Chatham walked me through a four-year crop rotation.
In May of the first year, farmers use a no-till planter to plant 30-inch row corn. Once the corn is up, they use an inter-seeder to plant a cover crop between the corn rows. That cover crop is a mixture of different plants including oats, clovers, legumes, flax, and others. When they harvest corn in October, there’s a flush of growth in the cover crop, enough for them to turn out grazing cattle. The cows are there to eat the cover crop and corn residue. Ruminant livestock cycle those nutrients and increase the organic matter of the soil (yes, by dropping pies on it), while keeping the ground covered. They mimic what bison would’ve done on these grasslands in generations before.
In May of the second year, the farmers plant beans with the no-till planter. They harvest the beans in September. Ideally, they’d plant winter wheat right after the soybeans. Before it goes dormant for the winter, that winter wheat grows roots and hopefully gets to tillering stage.
In spring of year three, the winter wheat is green before anything else and provides both nesting habitat and ground cover. Harvesters cut the wheat in July, hopefully around the 10th. When harvest is over, they plant a full-season cover crop for the 90-ish days of growth season still to come. That cover crop is different and has even bigger diversity. Brassicas, sunflowers, collards, chicory, kale, oats, all sorts of crops get drilled in and the cattle graze on that cover crop over the winter.
In the fourth spring, there’s great ground cover, nitrogen and phosphorus available back in the soil, and it’s time to go back to corn.
This cycle is a much different process than that of conventional agriculture. While conventional farming practices degrade the soil and rely almost entirely on application of nutrients for growth, regenerative programs use biomimicry and the biological process of the prairies to add those nutrients back into the soil.
What Regenerative Agriculture Isn’t Make no mistake about it, regenerative agriculture doesn’t automatically translate to USDA organic or grass-fed beef. These farmers are still in the commodity system and need to keep their bottom line low and their yields up to sustain their livelihoods. There is still use of GMOs, fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides, but their use can be drastically reduced. They use these chemicals sparingly, not as the basis of the entire system.
The cattle spend a lot more time in pastures and fields, but many are still finished in a feedlot. To feed the world and keep food prices low, commodity agriculture and livestock must exist. Regenerative agriculture is the best of both worlds; it restores natural processes in the soil and ecosystem by using modern technologies that have allowed us to understand the roots, soil, bugs, microbes, and more.
Real-World Implementation Speaking in broad strokes about soil health and biomimicry doesn’t get to the real meat and potatoes of finances, fertilizers, herbicides, and productivity of the land. To get a real producer’s perspective on real-world implementation, I spoke to Nick Jorgensen from Jorgensen Land and Cattle.
The Jorgensens farm in southern South Dakota west of the Missouri River, which is more upland habitat than waterfowl habitat, but few places can show the benefits of long-term no-till and and rotational grazing like Jorgensen Land and Cattle. Their cropland was completely no-till by 1991, and diverse cover cropping began in 2009. As far as the renaissance of regenerative agriculture in commodity farming goes, that’s on the cutting edge.
“The original goal for us was water management,” Jorgensen said. “It can get so dry here that every ounce of water we get we need to keep. For every 1% increase in organic matter in the soil, we gain another inch of water storage. So we focused on increasing that organic matter. The byproduct, honestly, was seeing how it helped soil health. We started seeing not just water-related yield gains, but soil-related yield gains.”
But, what exactly are soil-related gains?
“For example, on every 1% increase in organic matter in the soil, we see anywhere from 20 to 40 pounds of nitrogen per acre back in the ground,” Jorgensen said. “We’re naturally producing nitrogen in our soil and can reduce the amount of nitrogen we put down on an acre of corn. We put down 70 units of nitrogen on an acre of corn. That’s almost a third of what a university would recommend.”
Jorgensen said this means he has to use a lot less chemicals that other farmers.
“With regards to pesticides, we apply almost none," he said. "Occasionally if we have an aphid infestation in our alfalfa, we will. That’s a nuclear option. In our cover crop there’s all kinds of bugs and a lot of them are good bugs eating the bad bugs.”
Cover crops to do a big chunk of an herbicide’s job, too.
“And as far as herbicides go, we still use them, they’re an important part of our strategy and management," he said. "But cover crops drown out the weed pressure, and we’ve drastically reduced the amount of herbicide passes we have to do when the cover crops help compete with the weeds. On a field of corn, we might only go across that field four times in a year, and that includes planting and harvest.”
What does that signify to the producer in the end?
“All that means lower inputs. Less man hours, less fuel, less money spent on fertilizer, herbicides, and pesticides,” Jorgensen said. “Across the board we’re reducing our costs but we’re also keeping our soil and animals healthy. If our acres and animals go bad, I’m screwed. But, as it turns out, it helps more than just our bottom line. The wildlife benefits are unbelievable.”
How This Benefits Wildlife and Outdoorsman Beyond bugs and cows, why is this something outdoorsmen should care about? The value of regenerative agriculture to hunters and anglers can’t be understated.
For duck hunters, the benefits are many. Perhaps most noteworthy is the value of holding water on the landscape. Seasonal spring wetlands are imperative to duck populations because they provide vital nesting grounds. Often, when those seasonal wetlands go dry, conventional farming would till them up. When spring returns, the water that would fill those wetlands in a natural environment ends up ponding on bare dirt, providing no nesting opportunity. With no-till practices, that wetland, even if farmed with winter wheat or cover crop, provides nesting cover. While it isn’t as productive as grassland habitat, it’s better than bare dirt.
Yes, ducks will nest in fall rye and winter wheat, crops that are a staple of regenerative agriculture. If the land is going to be cropland, it’s a net benefit to duck hunters that those crops sometimes include nesting possibilities.
For anglers, reducing the amount of nitrogen and phosphorus entering our waterways should be of the utmost importance. Excess runoff of nitrates and phosphates is a major contributor to the fish-killing red algal blooms in the Gulf of Mexico, and these regenerative programs drastically reduce the amount of nitrates and phosphates being used. In addition to reducing the amount of nitrates, the cover captures and cycles what nitrogen could potentially be lost downriver to leaching.
For deer hunters, more pounds of food per acre for longer periods of time should be a no-brainer. Perhaps more importantly, many of these cover crops mixes are favorites of deer including brassicas, clover, millet, sunflowers, oats, and more.
For upland hunters, winter wheat’s involvement in commodity crop rotations should be as exciting as it gets. According to this study from South Dakota State University, winter wheat is an important nesting habitat for pheasants and has just as high a nest-success rate as CRP grasslands. With approximately 175 million acres of cropland planted to corn and beans every year in the United States, what would be the impact on bird populations if one third of that was in its winter wheat portion of the rotation? Can you imagine 55 million more acres of nesting habitat on the landscape every year? Or even 20 million?
Mike Blaalid, a wildlife and fisheries graduate-turned-rancher and part of the Ducks Unlimited soil sampling research program, does it for the wildlife.
“I just had a frustration with the conventional way of doing things and I didn’t want to fall into that rut,” Blaalid said. “I want to see what positive changes we can make to the land, to see the critters come back along with healthy soil. I want to enjoy being on the land, moving the cattle, doing the fencing and the work, being aware of what’s going on in the land around me. I’m passionate about this because this is the way. It’s how we’re going to keep our environment and our wildlife.”
Not only should outdoorsmen care, but this should be a monumental goal for conservation organizations and what we want from our food supply. Landowners and outdoorsmen can be, and should be, on the same side.
“Land, then, is not merely soil; it is a fountain of energy flowing through a circuit of soils, plants, and animals” Aldo Leopold wrote in "A Sand County Almanac," 1949.