Welcome to 2019! I hope this message finds you and yours in health, wealth and happiness.
This is going to be a year of major growth for me. I will have to manage my time and priorities exquisitely, as I am beginning a Master’s in Land Rehabilitation at Montana State University. My goal is to roll it into a PhD in short order but there is much to learn before that can happen. This blog is a way for me to refine my writing skills and share with you my findings along the way.
Since autumn of 2016 I have been working on The Sandy Arrow Ranch (SAR), outside of Geraldine, Montana. This region, known as The Golden Triangle, is primarily dryland wheat and cattle country. Pulses such as chickpea, lentil, pea and bean are making their debut. A common farming practice in this region is to grow wheat, and either leave or till the stubble in after harvest and apply herbicide to keep weeds back. The rotation being: one year wheat, one year “chemfallow”. There are many reasons for this type of practice, one being to recharge the ground water for growing wheat. The Golden Triangle receives about 13 – 16 inches (33- 41 cm) of precipitation annually. In 2017, the SAR received roughly 5 inches (13 cm) of precipitation! That was a tough year indeed.
So, how does one produce organic winter wheat in dryland country while building a healthy soil? How do we nourish the world, not feed the world? Can we enhance the system to be productive for those drought and deluge years? Well, that’s what we’ve been exploring at the SAR. We have had, what I would consider to be some hardcore failures, which is to say, we have been learning.
The mission of SAR is to establish soil health while growing the highest quality annual grains and pulses. Our goal is to establish regenerative farming techniques that are effective, affordable and streamlined for the greater farming community in the Golden Triangle of Montana. The integration of Compost and Compost derivatives (Compost tea & Compost extract), mineral balancing of soils, annual cover cropping systems, tillage and mob grazing constitute the regenerative agriculture approaches that have been taking place on eleven test sites since 2016.
The SAR dove into no-till organic production using a multi-specie, low-growing perennial understory plant mix in 2016 (alsiki clover, ladino white clover, cicer milkvetch, norcen trefoil, small burnet and fringed sage). The idea was to no-till drill our crop of choice into the understory. The instruction was that this would be fine to do because, when the biology is balanced there is a sharing of nutrients and water, not competition. Maybe this can be true, eventually. But our compost production was new and we had many challenges with water and management in the compost yard, our field organic matter averaged 1- 2%. This method, in conjunction with the 5 inches (13 cm) total precip drought in 2017 resulted in poor understory establishment and SEVERE weed competition. From 2016- 2018, our various Compost applications were not effective in reducing weed populations at the SAR. I look forward to an in-depth discussion of that in a future post.
While tillage has become part of the weed control management strategy again, no-till organic crop production remains a high bar the SAR has every intention of reaching. A strategic approach in that direction is to employ intensive cool season and warm season cover cropping, tillage and mob grazing techniques to increase soil organic matter, feed the nutrient cyclers (micro and macrobial creatures), develop aggregate stability and provide plant available nitrogen for the 2019 planting of winter wheat. Below is a table describing the 2019 proposed various field management strategies where we will be using differing rates and combinations of Compost, Compost tea and Compost extract.
The windrow Compost production at the SAR has stopped due to limited access of quality water. To continue the field tests that will require 500 tons of solid Compost input, the SAR will need to purchase Compost from offsite, those sources are being confirmed for quality and compliance with the organic certifying agency. The low-cost, low-energy input production of vermicast and BEAM compost methods are continuing to produce a high quality biological inoculate (more on that in a later post). These methods will be refined and expanded on in 2019.
Calculations for applications of Compost tea and Compost extract show that a total 35,200 gallons of water will be needed and a plan for accessing water in a cost-effective way will need to be determined. We do have rain catchment that allows us access to good water, all dependent on what falls from the sky and lands on our shop roof. Since 2016, Haviland Earth Regeneration (HER) has tested the fields of focus twice annually. Extensive data has been accumulated and deserves to be beautifully archived in a database that is meant to house and relay scientific findings. Come spring, that data will be in a format that will tell the story of these fields through numbers and can be called upon by the scientific community for future research. Field health test methods have not changed since 2017 and will be described in future posts as well. A new test field is being added into the SAR fields of focus, this is where my master’s research will be taking place. That information will become available to you all in a matter of months.
When it comes to exploring the efficacy of Compost and Compost derivatives in dryland wheat production, the United States has released few publications. Furthermore, the published research exploring the uses of these products that contains data regarding the microbial communities in the product and how it impacts the plant or soil ecology should be expanded upon. Together, the SAR, HER and MSU will contribute valuable information to the agricultural and scientific community regarding the transformation of “waste” into a Compost resource, how that Compost grows nutrient dense winter wheat and pulses and how the soil health is enhanced in Montana’s dryland farming systems.
***Compost is capitalized in these documents to refer to a product that contains a diverse microbial community beyond the standard bacterial dominated compost products.