To know where we're going,
we must first know where we've come from.
The History of Farming
Wheat was big business across the center of the country in the early 1900s. People were encouraged to clear the land and plant to feed those in cities. This was relatively fine in the more northern areas of the country-- The Nation’s Bread basket, but Oklahoma was different. The soil allowed for good crops for a while, then, the rain stopped, the wind started, and the grasshoppers came. Suddenly, farmers weren’t able to grow a wheat crop. Some kept hoping for rain, some gave up their land and moved to California, and some tried to work with the ground.
Worked soil allows a way for moisture under the crust to escape when it’s hot, but it also provides more surface area to catch moisture should it rain-- not too hard a rain (that creates significant erosion). However, soil that isn’t disrupted holds water longer as the root systems of plants covering the soil work as sieves to move moisture further into the ground and slow the evaporation at surface. While this seems fairly intuitive, making the change from crops such as wheat that bring in planned income to grasses and/or making the investment in different equipment hasn’t strongly caught on in this area of the country. There is still a strong belief in working the ground, fertilizing the ground, and praying the rain will come.
Why We Started Doing Things Differently...
Drastic changes in weather are expected in Western Oklahoma. As my dad has said many times, “It’s always rained before.” It just doesn’t necessarily rain enough on a planned schedule! We stopped growing crops for sale a few years ago. We grew only to feed our animals. But, we still tilled the ground like we always had until I took over the farm in 2022. Change is tough and scary, but I could no longer accept that we were making any progress (we weren’t) by going through the motions.
Putting fuel between an animal and its food should be minimized. Fuel is expensive. Consider this-- to till the ground and plant a simple wheat crop that is used for cattle hay, there are easily NINE different passes of diesel-fueled equipment. For a grass hay crop or a no-till crop, that drops to five. If one creates small pastures and moves animals from pasture to pasture instead of bringing the food to the animals, this could drop even further, generally. Some baled hay as back-up is still very important in most of this area due to things such as wintry weather and/or the threat of wildfire.
The Next Step
For our farm, we took a big leap by starting to plant a fall cover crop in all the tilled land in fall of 2022. The mix included wheat, oats, haygrazer, turnips, and radish. We were late to plant and it was really dry through the winter and spring of 2023. But, we still managed to pull some hay off some of these fields and turned cattle in on other sections. While many others in the area, and across Oklahoma, were nervous about having enough hay, we were able not only to maintain our herd numbers, but we also we purchased some great cattle that would have otherwise entered the food production chain. This was a HUGE first step for us. While vegetables like turnips and radish may initially seem like strange additions, they will help us break the hardened ground that comes from plowing for years and years-- the plow pan.
Now, we’re on to experimenting with additional cover crops on some small acreages. Pictured is a spring mixture of Red Ripper cowpeas, millet, mungbeans. sorghum, sunflowers, and buckwheat. The cowpeas are well-known for their soil-improving qualities. This seed, in combination with the millet and sorghum are used in their native Africa to revive and replenish soils. George Washington Carver spoke of the usefulness of these peas. Sunflowers tend to be mixed into many cover mixes because they have a very deep tap root that can help break the hard plow pan created by many years of tilling the ground and they attract pollinators necessary.
This fall, we will use the same mix we tried last year with the benefit of some much needed rain, an earlier planting time, and our newest investment-- a no-till drill. We’ll follow this with planting grasses in March of 2024.
Getting the soil back to health is more than transitioning from tillage to no-till. We must also work on the ground my grandparents and parents previously put in improved and native grasses. As you move across the ground, you will see that there are gaps in the grasses. This can happen because the soil isn’t quite healthy enough-- it too needs more work on breaking that plow pan!
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