The Path from Tillage to Perennials on the Plains

Feb 12, 2017

By Julie Mettenburg, Leader, Tallgrass Network Savory Hub

No-Till, a conference more than 20 years running, brings some 1,000 farmers from across the U.S. and Canadian Great Plains together each January to learn from each other and advance farming technology toward more ecologically sound and profitable methods. This January, Abbey Smith and I represented the Savory Institute and the Tallgrass Network at the 2017 conference, making valuable long-term contacts and learning more about the challenges of our farmers. I had asked Abbey, leader of the Jefferson Center Hub in Northern California and coordinator for the Savory Global Network, to join me at the conference and recruit potential educators and additional Hub sites in the northern plains states and Canada.

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It has become clear to me, as we have established our Hub in the middle of this region, that for us to have fast and vital impact, covering the soils across the vast territory of the North American prairies -- up to 99 percent of which have been functionally eliminated since the mid-1800‘s by cultivation agriculture (source link: https://www.fws.gov/midwest/ecosystemconservation/tallgrass_prairie.html) -- will require a lot of boots on the ground. We need accredited Savory educators and field professionals, as well as more Hubs, across this vast landscape. As a region, the plains states -- from Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, north into the Dakotas and Canada, and also east into Minnesota, Iowa, and Illinois -- are known as the “breadbasket” of North America, if not the world. Once the American Serengeti, cloaked with Tallgrass, Mixed Grass, and Shortgrass native prairies and huge mixed herds of ungulates, this region is now almost entirely under cultivation of both dryland and irrigated grain crops, including cereal grains like wheat and rye, and the ubiquitous corn and beans.

Before irrigation arrived in the mid-20th century, thanks in large part to the Ogalallah Aquifer under Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado, and Nebraska, this region was also known as the Great American Desert, with Southwest Kansas and Northwest Oklahoma serving as ground zero of the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. When this land lies fallow in the off-season, bare soil is exposed across millions of acres for months at a time. Rainfall ranges from as much as 40 inches a year where our Hub is based in Eastern Kansas, to less than 20 inches a year at the western Kansas border, which is not atypical along the longitudes throughout the plains states. With commodity and land prices falling, and the Ogallalah projected to be significantly depleted (source link: http://www.k-state.edu/media/newsreleases/nov15/aquifer111615.html) in the coming years, farmers are feeling the pressure to find a new way.

Knowing you need to change, and actually doing so, however, are two different things. That’s where No Till on the Plains -- and our Hub with the powerful tools of Holistic Management -- come in. No-Till on the Plains is a conference of the most forward-thinking, innovative farmers in the business, who are actively pushing this front edge. At the average farm size across these states at roughly 1,000 acres according to USDA statistics, the farmers at this conference represented the potential to impact some 1 million acres. Already, they are leading major, positive shifts in farming practices.

No-Till does not look like your grandpa’s farming. You won’t find these farmers’ sheds full of discs, plows and other implements that break the soil. There is an understanding that turning the soil is a disruption perhaps even worse than the use of chemicals, in terms of damage to soil life, and that coverage by residues and year-round living root systems is vital to retaining moisture, cycling nutrients, building healthy soil structures, encouraging biodiversity, and more. But current No Till practices still tend to rely heavily on chemical technologies, such as cover crop “burn downs” before next plantings. Annuals are still the king of the paradigm. Transitioning soil biology with adequate cash flows back to perennials represents a significant learning curve. Fencing and water infrastructure has disappeared across the region, making it difficult to re-incorporate livestock to advance soil regeneration, and farmers seek more knowledge about properly integrating livestock. These are next-steps that our Hub and the powerful processes of Holistic Management can help our region’s farmers achieve and accelerate.

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Visitors to our booth shared that when the conference began, it was essentially an equipment show, as getting into no-till farming requires a complete mindset and equipment shift to new drills and other technologies. This year, our booth was one of the few promoters of livestock and perennials, amidst a sea of cover crop seed company booths. But, as Abbey said, it seemed the group was ready for us: “we weren’t the crazy kids in the corner”! The executive director, Steve Swaffer, explained to me over lunch last fall that No Till on the Plains’ interest in Allan Savory and our work is a reflection of the organization’s understanding that they are farming what is essentially a grasslands ecology, and that continued learning and understanding is needed.

We are excited to announce that January 30 and 31, 2018, Allan Savory will come to Wichita, Kansas, as keynote speaker for the No Till on the Plains conference.

For the Tallgrass Network Hub, this budding relationship with No Till on the Plains has opened the door to a valuable audience for fast and lasting impact. It is an example of the value of Allan’s continued leadership, along with the vision of the Savory Institute in how it has structured not only our Hub Network to serve our regions, but also, how SI can provide us with the curriculum, tools and support we need to have impact. This is an example of the kind of win-win-win that the Savory strategy is empowering us to achieve.

Register for this conference by Feb. 27 for the lowest prices, and receive a special discount for a Tallgrass Network workshop, at http://www.notill.org/events/22nd-annual-winter-conference.

To learn more about the challenges of this region, check out this new film by Peter Byck, “During the Drought” featuring farmers at Norton, Kansas: https://vimeo.com/200109813

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Happy cows on the Tallgrass Network Savory Hub