Field days and field trips. Always learning and always growing.
With the rain and the delayed harvest of grain crops and our animals getting closer to harvest, we have a little down time to check out other farms and attend field days. It's important that we take the time to learn from other farms and farmers, meet new people in the regenerative ag movement and stay abreast of better ways to grow and raise food.
We attended a field day on relay cropping. Have you ever heard of it? It is a method of growing two crops at once. The purpose is for better soil health, less erosion and having a synergy between multiple crops in one field at one time versus mono-cropping. There is always something growing and living in the field all year round. We attended a field day near West Union that is trying a few different and unique things that we might try on our farm one day. Relay cropping and 60" corn.
In this instance, a winter wheat crop is planted in the fall with a winter-kill cover crop, then soybeans are no-till planted in the following spring. The wheat matures in late June and is harvested direct. The combine broadcasts clover seed as it harvests the wheat. The soybeans then begin to bush out and are harvested in the fall. The clover grows in the early fall and early spring, then corn is no-till planted into the clover the following spring. We see it as a win-win. Three crops in two years and the soil is covered 100% of the time and no-tillage or chemicals are necessary. The one klinker and question is, will winter wheat do well here in northern Iowa? Straight east of us in Wisconsin, it seems so, and they get more rain than we do! It's a practice that looks hopeful as we consider water quality, climate change and farming without chemicals on a large scale.
This photo doesn't really do this practice justice because it is the outside end rows. If you were to walk a little further into this field between the corn rows, you will see a beautiful and lush mat of squash, flax, clover, rye and more growing between the rows. This is 60" corn rows. The idea is that you grow more corn in the row and leave a wider area between the rows to allow sunlight to grow the cover crop below. Again, a great practice in reducing soil erosion and nutrient run-off, feeding the livestock in the soil with plant diversity, increasing soil health, all while capturing the power and energy of the sun. Research shows that yields are not any different than conventional 30" rows of corn. It gets us jazzed to learn about these methods because if we continue on this path of corn as king, we have to find alternatives to planting this heavy feeding plant. Our water quality is declining because of our past and current practices. The added bonus to this system is graze-able forage after the corn is harvested! It's a delicatessen for animals!
Meet Fred Martz, Professor Emeritus at the University of Missouri in the Sustainable Agriculture program. He actually was one of the founders of the program at the university. He's 84 years old, retired but still active, working with his son on their 450 acre cattle ranch outside of Columbia, Missouri. We received a welcome tour by him on his ranch and talked in depth about regenerative management intensive grazing, calving ease, genetics, carbon sequestration, plant health and growing some damn-good forage. His ranch is being smothered by urban sprawl and electric companies knocking on his door to sell out so they can place solar fields on his property, but he and his son are happy where they are and what they are doing, grazing cattle humanely and respectfully. If only there was a bigger grass-fed market, their cattle would never have to see the inside of an auction barn or cattle feed lot.
Fred provided handouts with a map of his ranch, just like we were in his classroom. The ranch is split into 60 or so paddocks, cows and calves move every 2-3 days from paddock to paddock, retained in only by a single strand of electric wire. They've never had to fertilize and their cattle grow to an astounding weight in a short amount of time. It's beautiful to see.
There's a whole world out there of people trying new and different things to grow food in an environmental and sustainable manner. What you see around you is not always the only answer or the best way. Without innovators seeking alternatives to the current practices and looking for better ways to solve problems, we would be in big trouble. Just like any industry, agriculture has to evolve if we want cleaner water, healthier food, cleaner air, and active soil. Our planet depends on it.