I attended the No-till On the Plains Winter Conference last week in Salina, KS. I went in the hopes of learning more about Best Management Practices for No-Till producers and also thinking I might hear real-life success stories from farmers in Kansas to spotlight for On Farm Water and Energy Progress. I got way more than I expected! If you have any interest in agriculture practices and are unfamiliar with this organization, I suggest you look them up at http://www.notill.org/
No-till On the Plains is a Kansas-based 501c3 whose reach extends far beyond the Heartland region. The mission of the organization is “to provide education and networking on agricultural production systems that model nature.” Conference organizers spoke passionately about the commitment of farmers to be good stewards of the land and the importance of following the roadmap nature provided us long ago. A focus on soil health, biodiversity in soil systems and building strong communities guided the conference.
The keynote speaker, Ray Archuleta – NRCS Agronomist and Soil Health Specialist, captivated us all with proof-is-in-the-pudding soil tests comparing conventional tillage to high quality no-till Kansas soil. You could have heard a pin drop throughout Archuleta’s presentation. This soil guru drove the points home over and over again: cover the soil, never till, manage more, disturb less. With the current drought heavy on everyone’s minds, his presentation demonstrating the amount of water that infiltrates no-till soil vs. the almost complete loss of water in conventionally-tilled soils sure made a believer out of me! Explaining terms like biomimicry, Archuleta urged the audience to think about farming the “creator’s way” vs. “our way.” Our soils are naked, hungry, thirsty and running a fever…and no-till offers the solution!
Well…yes and no. Presenters explained over and over that no-till is a tool — it is just a part of the equation. Archuleta explained that the best tool you can have is a shovel — to go out and test your soil. Conference Organizer, Brian Lindley, explained that there are farmers who say they’ve been doing no-till for 30 years…and he says, “Yeah, well I’ve been dieting for that long, too and it’s not working either!” Lindley affably explained that you can use no-till practices but if all you do is use the drills to plant, you’re missing the most important part of the practice.
I went to the conference with the understanding that “a commitment to no-till means a commitment to chemicals” as a colleague in Western, KS, had explained to me. Well, I quickly learned that it does not have to be this way. Archuleta and others talked about focusing on INPUTS rather than YIELD. Be free — reduce inputs, focus on energy use and become independent. As Archuleta said, “You don’t have to put diesel in worms.” Maintain diversity in soils and feed the whole system, it’s the best weed control around.
Presentation after presentation demonstrated how conventional tillage yields insurmountable problems from massive soil erosion to “frankenweeds” to water pollution. Again, invoking the values of the Heartland, Archuleta stated, “The creator did a perfect job, he showed us what to do.”
There were too many presentations to cover in what was intended to be a short blog, but within a few weeks all presentations will be available for sale on the No-till On the Plains website. I highly recommend Archuleta’s presentation if you want to get up to speed on soil health while David Montgomery’s presentation definitively placed the extreme erosion problem on my radar. These nationally recognized speakers offered amazing presentations, but the producer panels and presentations by farmers really brought it home.
A father-son farming duo from Jewell, KS, won me over with their presentation on Companion Crops. They minced no words when stating that the primary purpose of double cropping was to make a profit. The second was to improve the soil and the third was to improve the following crop — which was something they did not anticipate. Their honest account, complete with setbacks, surprises, and humility, provided some hard and fast evidence that you could easily wrap your brain around. Pictures of healthy, beautiful companion crops requiring minimal inputs, drawing beneficial insects and increasing profit drove home their conclusions: Take care of your cash crop, be careful as you experiment, you can use some herbicides, however they also limit diversity, and, finally, that companion planting could replace herbicides.
I left the conference with my mind in a whirl, racing from point to point and trying to process the immense amounts of information I gained…and promising myself that I’d call my local NRCS agent to figure out how to start implementing cover crop forage on my farm. No-till on the Plains provides information on economically sound, agronomically superior and environmentally safer agricultural systems of producing food, fiber and fuels. They’re an amazing resource and absolutely worth checking out. We’ve got a few of the No-Till superstars in Kansas on our list of nominees for the On Farm Water and Energy Progress Awards –— stay tuned for more on the great innovations happening in Kansas!