‘We are caretakers of the soil’ is a slogan of an American farmer

Rick Bieber is a farmer from South Dakota, who implements No-Till for 26 years. He farms 15,000 hectares where he and his team of 6 people grow soybeans, corn and cereals.

Rick Bieber Rick says about himself: «I was born a farmer. As long as I remember myself, I was always planting something both in the backyard and in a field, even though sometimes this didn’t match the plans of my parents. Then I understood that I am not just a farmer, I am a caretaker of the soil. I am very similar to my my grand-father and my great-grand-father. My father was different and now we have to solve a lot of issues, since one generation was not paying enough attention to the soil. We’ve been using No-Till as long as my son lives, i.e. for 26 years. My son doesn’t know another technology and I am sure that our methods of farming will remain the same in the next generation also.

My philosophy is: I am a Christian, and I believe that the Earth was created in 7 days. That’s why the age of the soil is similar in every corner of the world, though different soils appeared at the Earth’s surface at different times. All soils work and fulfill the assignment that the Lord gave to them. But when a human came to these soils and started manipulating with them, this is when problems started to appear resulting in the fact that many regions cannot feed themselves. People ruined their soils. That’s why farmers that have more or less good soils have to restore them to the condition, when the Lord was managing this big farm. There should be live roots in the soil and its surface should be covered with crop residues. We should be caretakers of our soils».

Below is the interview with Rick Bieber.

-  What made you convert to No-Till?

- Economics!

- Which results did you manage to achieve during this time?

- Three years after we started using No-Till, our yields doubled and they tripled after we started using cover crops. My neighbors that are still conventional farmers have the yield that I harvested 20 years ago.

- Do you think that cover crops played the major role in increasing your yields?

- Our cover crops allowed us to improve the soil health. Our soils are similar to natural, and we do not have problems that we had to tackle before.

Rick Bieber - Which cover crops do you grow on your farm?

- Every time we look at the soil and determine what it needs to solve our problem. We noticed that monoculture is not as much beneficial as a cover crop cocktail, consisting of a mixture of crops. Today, we’ll plant a mixture of 7 crops at Agro-Soyuz. We took seeds that were available and we’ll plant this cocktail immediately after winter wheat harvest (on the same day) into wheat stubble.

When making a cocktail a farmer should consider several factors, e.g. he/she needs to understand that in order to improve soil health, the cocktail should include all four types of crops:

1. Cold season grass (volunteer winter wheat, barley).

2. Warm season grass (corn and sorghum).

3. Cold season broadleaf (field peas, radish).

4. Warm season broadleaf (sunflower, chick-peas).

Crops used in this specific cocktail are indicated in parenthesis.

Farmers are often concerned that large and small seeds will separate and there will be no mixture any more. It is groundless, because experience shows that this is not a concern. All the seeds will be planted homogeneously. All seeds will be planted to a pre-set soil depth.

-  What is the main mission of cover crops?

- It is important to feed soil biology, which lives in our soils. Continuous monoculture is harmful for the soil. If we use a crop rotation, e.g. wheat – millet – chick-peas – soybeans, this will work much better. The experience shows that yields will increase in this situation. Different organisms prefer different crops. We should consider this, when making a cocktail to feed all the soil inhabitants. Planting cover crops in the window between commercial crops will make our soils healthier and more alive during the period when commercial crops are not growing. Yields will increase; and more importantly is that dependence on different agricultural inputs will decrease. Another important thing is that yields will become more consistent at a profitable level. Cover crops let us sleep better at nights.

-  Were there any changes in the soil after introduction of cover crops?

- The soil changed drastically! I am just a farmer and cannot explain which changes happened in the soil from chemical or biological stand point. But I see that the changes have happened. Our soils starve for carbon molecules. Soil organisms live at the expense of these molecules. When we stop soil disturbance and let our soils restore by themselves, when we maintain live roots in the soil, we create benefits. Crops should be able to sequester carbon through leaves and deposit it into the soil through roots. As a result, we obtain food for microorganisms. At the same time microorganisms are food for each other. This system will work very well if we take only grain from the field, leaving crop residues on the soil surface. If we use high-disturbance openers, this system will not work adequately. If we remove crop residues, the system won’t work adequately as well. If we combine both factors (high-disturbance openers and incorporation of crop residues) the system will not work at all. If you do not have soil cover, cover it with your money.

-  Does it mean that soil cover is more expensive than money?

- Yes, grass is more valuable. It costs more.

- Many farmers are facing a choice: No-Till or conventional tillage. Do you want to wish something to them? What should they start with?

- The seeding operation starts at… harvest. Crop residues need to be uniformly spread all over the field. It is especially important to spread small parts uniformly. This will drastically increase your chances for success. I travel all over the world and tell the stories about my farm. I always stress that farmers are caretakers of the soil. We take care of our children; we should take care of our soils the same way. Each soil requires individual approach. That’s why it is difficult to give recommendations and recipes. Each farmer should know and understand what his/her soil requires. If we learn to look at the soil functionality and not at the crop, our crops will become healthier.

I would like to wish to Ukrainian farmers to care about their soils with the same love as they care for their grand-children. In America we also have problems with No-Till adoption. Many American farmers do not use this technology. There are many people and their number is rather high that used this technology formerly, but now they don’t. Economics often suggests that you can earn more even without No-Till. People prefer to take the path of least resistance. Conventional tillage still allows us to make money, but this quick money. The problems of tomorrow will not be late in arriving. Soil systems require multiple years for healing. We’ve been ruining our soils for multiple centuries, that’s why they will not recover overnight. So, do not wait to reap all the benefits immediately. Seek for advice from those who cares for their soils. If you visit a farmer and he takes you to his machinery and tells you about his profits, leave immediately, do not waste your time.  However, if a farmer takes you to his fields, listen carefully.

Prepared by Mikhail Draganchuk, 21.06.2013

Cover crops increase yields – research findings

The results of cover crops producers’ survey analysis are provided  by regional director of extension programs for North Central Region SARE Dr. Rob Myers.

The survey was conducted by SARE and CTIC in 2012-2013. The survey was distributed at several farmer conferences in the Midwest over the winter, and was also sent out in an online format to individuals across the U.S. The survey analysis and preparation of reports were done by CTIC under the contract with SARE representative office in the North-Central region. The report can be found at: http://www.northcentralsare.org/CoverCropsSurvey 

Key findings included the following: 

  • During the fall of 2012, corn planted after cover crops had a 9.6% increase in yield compared to side-by-side fields with no cover crops.  Likewise, soybean yields were improved 11.6% following cover crops. 
  • In the hardest hit drought areas of the Corn Belt, yield differences were even larger, with an 11.0% yield increase for corn and a 14.3% increase for soybeans. 
  • Surveyed farmers are rapidly increasing acreage of cover crops used, with an average of 120 hectares of cover crops per farm planted in 2012 and farmers intending to plant an average of 170 hectares of cover crops in 2013.  Total acreage of cover crops among farmers surveyed increased 350% from 2008 to 2012. 
  • Farmers identified improved soil health as a key overall benefit from cover crops.  Reduction in soil compaction, improved nutrient management, and reduced soil erosion were other key benefits cited for cover crops.  As one of the surveyed farmers commented, “Cover crops are just part of a systems approach that builds a healthy soil, higher yields, and cleaner water.” 
  • Farmers are willing to pay an average (median) amount of $25 per acre for cover crop seed and an additional $15 per acre for establishment costs (either for their own cost of planting or to hire a contractor to do the seeding of the cover crop).