Profile: Jess Alger
Black Medic Diversifies, Adds Profit to Montana Wheat Farm
|Jess Alger’s cover crop experiment proved black medic saved money: $43 less in weed management costs per acre. |
– Photo courtesy of Jess Alger
After two years of a SARE-funded research experiment, Montana rancher Jess Alger found that planting a legume cover crop provided a way to grow grains organically — and at the same time provide a nutritious feed for his cattle that could stand up to the area’s dry conditions. Since then, Alger has transitioned his Stanford, Mont., ranch to organic production.
In 1999, Alger received a SARE grant and designed an experiment comparing his conventional small grains rotation to a rotation incorporating black medic in place of fallow. In the black medic trial, he eliminated agri-chemicals and included 30 head of cattle. Dry weather hampered grain yields in both rotations, yet the black medic plot cost substantially less thanks to fewer inputs of fertilizers and herbicides.
In one year, for example, Alger spent $48 per acre to fertilize and manage weeds on the conventional field compared to $5 per acre on the black medic plot.
Medic reseeds itself, reducing planting and plowing costs while maintaining a ground cover. Alger’s stand helped reduce weed pressure, especially broadleaves.
Not only drought challenged Alger during the experiment. A herd of deer grazed his medic, leaving less for his herd. Yet, Alger – factoring expenses – found the medic system a clear winner. “This grant allowed us to see the differences in cost between organic and conventional farming,” said Alger. “The bottom line is better; I’m not spending as much money.”
Alger’s cattle performed well on black medic, which provided 450 pounds of grazing per acre. The medic Alger seeded – developed by a Montana State University agronomist from native seed — grows taller than conventional range species, establishes well and stays green longer.
“Medic comes later in the year and lasts longer,” Alger said. “It prolongs the season by a week or two, and can stay green into the fall if we don’t have 100-degree weather without rain.”
But perhaps the most eye-opening aspect of his medic trials was discovering how introducing the legume to his wheat/barley rotation improved soil quality. Over 10 years of testing black medic, Alger noted an increase in organic matter from 2.8 percent to 4.6 percent.
“I didn’t anticipate the soil would improve so much,” Alger said. “That’s almost off the chart.”
The medic grant spearheaded a 180-degree change for Alger. “My farm is totally organic on account of this grant,” he said. “It’s a little more labor-intensive because of increased mechanical weed control. But I have better records, my bottom line is better and the chemical companies are missing my business.”
A researcher at heart, Alger continually seeks ways to improve his operation. Receiving a grant merely forces him to take careful measurements, a crucial step.
“The grant helps me document my findings better than I would otherwise,” he said. “By putting it on paper, I can look back and see where we were and how far we have come.”