The Thompson Farm and Ranch straddles the Kansas-Nebraska line. The Thompson family uses no-till practices to grow dryland wheat and corn and also run cows. They went no-till in 2000 and several years ago started using cover crops, instead of continuing to leave a field fallow. The first cover crop surpassed their expectations — providing forage for cattle and improving the soil.
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Our current series concerns the practice of cover-cropping to rebuild soil health while providing livestock forage, and safeguarding topsoil. On today’s episode, we’re talking specifically about cover-cropping in times of drought. The Thompson Farm and Ranch straddles the Kansas-Nebraska line, and Norton County, Kansas, is the fourth county east of Colorado. Drought in this region was entering its fourth year when I talked to Michael Thompson, who farms with his brother and dad.
“We’re entering year number four of below-average rainfall. The last couple years have been pretty tough.”
The Thompsons farm 2,300 acres no-till, and grow dryland wheat and corn. They run cow-calf on another 2,300 acres of grassland. They went no-till in 2000. Several years ago, Michael got interested in cover-cropping, instead of continuing to leave a field fallow.
“Dad gave me the poorest 25 acres on the farm — some eroded side hill that had been constantly in hay. I started with 12 heifers and 25 acres of farm ground, and another 40-acre pasture. Both were in pretty bad shape. Dad kind of gave me the worst and said ‘let’s see what you can do with this.’ After toying with it for about a year and a half, he liked what he saw and I liked what I saw, so we expanded it.”
The second year, they went to 120 acres of a diverse planting of cover crops, and have expanded cover-cropping each year. About 95 percent of their land is highly-erodible.
“It’s rather hilly, most of it, terrace land. Where it has been highly erodible land and has been tilled in the past, we have a lot of lower organic matter, side hills. That’s how we kind of got into no-till, and then eventually got into cover cropping. We’re trying to build our soils up to have a little more organic matter and be a little more productive.”
The drought was just getting its legs when Michael planted that first cover crop — hoping to provide some forage for the herd.
“Do we leave fallow and go buy a bunch of expensive hay? Or do we try to plant a cover crop and hope we get at least the ground covered, and maybe even grow some forage? I went out with the drill; it basically was drilling into dust. I mean, it literally was. There was very little moisture. I didn’t have any hopes for it. We did it just because I kept my costs low. It was $15 an acre, and that was pretty much what we’d spend on chemical fallow expense anyway.”
That first cover crop surpassed his expectations. It yielded 3.2 tons per acre. Even the worst of it produced a ton per acre, so even in drought it provided forage. And, says Michael Thompson, that one summer’s planting of cover crop changed the soil.
“We had places that would always pond. Last fall we happened to get a three and a half inch rain event, and we didn’t get ponding in the channels of the terraces anymore. I felt like it started infiltrating. The ground was mellow. It was way better seed bed than if we would have just chemically fallowed.”
Still. As dry as it is? As dry as it’s been?
“So many people you hear… ‘Oh, it’s so dry; we can’t take away from our cash crop. We need to keep it in fallow.’ This year, especially, a lot of the people who were fallowing… we saw so much dirt blowing in our area, and tons and tons of topsoil were lost to the wind. So many people don’t figure what’s the cost of losing your nutrients and losing your topsoil.”
And Michael Thompson, at Almena Kansas, where, in an average year, they get maybe 18 inches of rain, says from his own experience, he just hasn’t taken very much of a yield hit, when he’s replaced a fallow field with a cover crop.
“We, personally, have never cost ourselves more than 10 bushels, on wheat yield, from what we were raising before to what we’re raising now. We’ve never really cost ourselves much of a yield penalty for raising cover crops. If we did cost ourselves, those 10 bushels have easily been made up with forage for our cattle.”
Your local NRCS office can help you develop a soil-health management plan and find conservation programs that work for you.
Playa Country, a weekly show about the wildlife, people and landscapes of the western Great Plains. Made possible by the Playa Lakes and Rainwater Basin Joint Ventures, and the Natural Resources Conservation Service.
Original broadcast: July 2014