Diversified North Dakotan Works With Mother Nature

Diversified North Dakotan Works With Mother Nature

Diversified North Dakotan Works With Mother Nature

Diversified North Dakotan Works With Mother Nature

producer Vern Mayer observing plant health
Photo by Ken Schneider

In 1976, when Vern Mayer began farming his 4,000 acres in southwestern North Dakota, he used the same wheat-fallow rotation that had become the area’s agricultural two-step. “We’d plant only half the land every year,” he said. “We were storing moisture in the fallow, but we were burning organic matter.”

As the economics of farming tightened, Mayer and his neighbors began planting wheat – and the occasional field of oats or barley – two years out of three. As profits became rarer, most growers eliminated fallow years entirely because it failed to produce sorely needed income.

Mayer didn’t simplify his rotation, however; he expanded it. In addition to spring and durum wheats, he now grows corn, flax, buckwheat, sunflowers, Austrian winter peas, crambe and either canola or mustard. With the “minimum-disturbance” tillage system he adopted a decade ago, his soils are never bare – even though his region’s brief frost-free periods put the chill on double- and cover-cropping.

“Caramel popcorn” soil conserves critical moisture
Mayer’s soil-friendly seeding operation moves his soil just 3/4-inch to the side, drops in seed and closes the slot behind it with nary a trace. “To the untrained eye, you can hardly tell the soil has been disturbed, and you haven’t destroyed the networks the microorganisms have developed,” he said.

Instead, his soil structure is like caramel popcorn: secretions released by the soil microorganisms bind the soil particles together, but the matrix remains so porous that the soil soaks up even heavy thunderstorms. With no streams or even aquifers to tap, Mayer is dependent for moisture on whatever falls from the sky. “In this semi-arid climate, we cannot afford to squander any of it,” he said.

Nor does water still run wasted off Mayer’s rolling fields, taking precious soil particles with it. “Water erosion used to be a regular fact of life on my farm,” he said. “Now it’s essentially a non-issue.” His healthy soils conserve enough moisture so that he can grow corn for local livestock feeders; after harvest, his corn stalks – like all of his other crop residues – capture rains and snows and hang onto soil.

To reduce pest problems, be unpredictable
Mayer’s diverse, minimum-disturbance system also stands up well to potential pest pressures. He “cheaply and easily” controls grassy weeds like wild oats in his grains by switching to broadleaf crops. He treats seed for insects and soil-borne diseases but rarely battles pests after planting, except for cyclical grasshoppers. “That’s another reason why crop rotation is really important,” he said: “The leaf diseases that attack the wheat are not a problem with some of the broadleaf crops, and vice versa, so by rotating those crops we minimize those problems.”

Mayer likes to plant wheat two years in a row. He also likes to rotate out of wheat for at least two years, but his crops don’t follow one another in any pre-established pattern. Mayer aims to be unpredictable, so that Mother Nature can’t define – and then defeat – his system. “If you’re very predictable in what you do, Mother Nature will find a combination of pests that fit that particular pattern to plague you.”

When it comes to markets, it’s human nature that makes it hard for Mayer to predict what will happen next. His planting decisions are consequently straightforward: If he can’t identify a market for a crop, he doesn’t plant it. When he knows he can get an acceptable price for a niche crop like crambe, Mayer gladly grows it. As a rule, though, he focuses on larger markets.

Mayer’s Austrian winter peas go to a local buyer of bird feed ingredients, who markets them as homing pigeon food. “It is hard to believe that this industry is large enough to have this kind of demand,” he said. Some of Mayer’s mustard seed goes to flour millers and some to sausage manufacturers.

More profits lie ahead
While prairie soils contained 6 to 8 percent organic matter before white settlers began farming North Dakota, the region’s wheat-fallow rotations stripped organic matter down to 2 percent or less. Mayer estimates that he has rebuilt his soil organic matter to about 3 percent and that this enrichment has not come at the expense of his farm’s bottom line. He clears as much profit now as conventional farmers do, he said, and he’ll soon clear even more. “After 10 years, we’ve kind of turned the corner in our productivity; in the next 10 years, the changes will be even more pronounced.”

“I would never, never go back – absolutely never,” Mayer said. “When you see the benefits, I just quite frankly don’t understand why everybody doesn’t do this.”

You are reading the SARE bulletin Diversifying Cropping Systems.

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