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Caretaker of the Soil

Monday, April 1, 2013
filed under: Planting Systems

Every wise farmer knows the foundation of his success lies within the soil. But few if any farmers imprint that fact upon their own consciousness and methodology with more conviction than Rick Bieber.

Bieber, who along with his son, Ben, farms near the north central South Dakota community of Trail City, has become a popular national and even international speaker on the subjects of no-till crop production and soil health. He is a fervent believer in both — and crop yields on their Corson County farm confirm the validity of his approach. Yet Bieber simultaneously waves off any suggestion that he’s an expert in these areas. “The hero is the crops — their roots and their ability to gather carbon so the soil biota can live in a healthy environment,” he emphasizes. “And the hero becomes the soil itself. I didn’t have anything to do with it other than leaving it alone; I didn’t contribute anything by using a ‘piece of green or red paint.’ ”

The core of the Bieber farm is comprised of side-by-side acreage homesteaded by his two sets of grandparents. “One of my grandfathers was very conservation minded; the other one was very much ‘let’s see what we can get off the land’ ” he relates. The locale’s light soils have been prone to wind-driven erosion for generations, and the differences in the two sets of land — one that blew heavily during the ’30s and ’40s and one that did not — are still manifested today in their respective productivity levels, he says.

Bieber and his father farmed very conventionally during the 1970s, tilling extensively. “The county average spring wheat yield was 17 bu/ac; our proven yield was 21 bu. So we were good — or so we thought,” he recounts. During the ’80s, the Bieber operation was under extreme financial stress of the degree that forced numerous Upper Midwest farmers out of business. The turnaround began in the late ’80s, about the time Rick started no-tilling. “Through a complete change in farming style, our farm survived and thrived in the ’90s,” he says. “The decade of the 2000s put our farm through some of the most extreme conditions, from the lowest rainfall ever recorded to some of the highest temperatures in several decades. And yet our soils continued to perform. This was achieved through no-till, rotations and downright stubbornness.”

Long-term rainfall in the Trail City area averages less than 17 inches per year. While 2011 brought above-average precipitation, 2012 was just the opposite. Still, crop yields on the Bieber farm have, for years, been far above the county average. “It’s not about how much moisture one receives; but rather, how efficiently you manage what you receive,” Rick states. “We judge our management skills by ‘pounds of harvestable material per inch of water fallen.’ And our soil health has allowed that number to keep rising. It’s about the soils taking care of themselves and taking care of the crops planted there.

“Our ‘bucket’ becomes larger and larger every year if we cause less soil disturbance, through increased organic matter,” he adds. The typical tilled field in Bieber’s area has around 2% organic matter. His own longtime no-till fields run around 5%. “So if my soils would typically hold three or four inches of water with 2% OM, now they hold six inches of moisture at the root zone.”

Rotation & Cover Cropping

The Bieber crop rotation has evolved a long way since the straight wheat-fallow days of the ’60s, ’70s and early ’80s. “We start off with a four- or five-year rotation that includes cool-season grasses (wheat and oats); then go to a warm-season grass (corn, millet, forages). From there, we go to a broadleaf (sunflower, flax, peas, alfalfa) and anything else that we feel may improve our soils and reduce our inputs in the following wheat crops,” Rick observes. He admits to occasionally deviating from his planned rotation because of the temptation to “chase a market,” but feels doing so extracts a definite price from the next year’s crop.

Bieber’s intense interest in improving his fields’ soil health led him into seeding cover crops the past several years. He has experimented with various types: warm-season, cool-season, broadleaves and grasses. In some instances, the cover crop has thrived; in others, it has not. In 2012, for instance, the extreme drought resulted in poor germination and minimal growth. Overall, however, Bieber says cover cropping has definitely benefited yield in the succeeding cash crop. Cover crops also provide forage for their expanding cattle numbers — and, of course, contribute to improved soil structure.

South Dakota State University agronomist Cheryl Reese has been testing cover crops on the Bieber farm the past three years as part of a multi-site research project partially funded through the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). Her focus has been on the impact that cover crops have on soil quality, corn yield and soil nitrogen.

In this NRCS study, cover crops were seeded in August 2010 into wheat stubble. To compare the fall cover crop effect, control plots were established in August 2010 where a fall cover crop was not planted. The following spring, 2011, Bieber planted corn into the test plot area. A third cover crop treatment was added in June of that year when cover crops were drilled into the growing corn.

(The August 2010-seeded cover was a mixture of purple top turnips, diakon radish, lentils, peas, proso millet, german millet and volunteer spring wheat. The June 2011 mixture consisted of crimson clover, winter wheat and lentils.)

In 2012, Bieber planted sunflower across Reese’s cover crop plots on the Bieber farm. In the fall, Reese sampled sunflower from the cover crop plots seeded in August 2010; those seeded in June 2011; and from the plots that did not have cover crops. In this single-year, single-site study, sunflower yield was greater in the plots where cover crops were planted in August 2010 as compared to the other two treatments. “Basically, what we saw at Rick’s farm was that an in-season cover crop did not benefit sunflower production the following year, but a fall cover crop did,” Reese says. “The ‘fall cover crop 2010 plots’ sunflower yields were statistically significantly greater than those of the sunflower planted into the cover crops planted into corn in June 2011, or where there were no cover crops.”

Why did those cover crop trials produce those results? “While I am still working on the data to support my idea, it goes along with Rick’s,” Reese says by way of explanation. “When wheat is harvested in mid-July or around August 1, the living root mass is gone. That leaves August, September, October and maybe even some of November with soil that does not have a living root mass.

“If we think about soils at Trail City, these soils supported mid to short native prairie grasses where a living root provided carbon, as well as other nutrient sources for the soil microorganisms, from April to November. By adding this fall cover crop following a short-season crop such as wheat, we assist maintaining a healthy population of soil biota.

“In 2011, corn yield was better where we had a fall cover crop as well. We are reaping the rewards in corn yield (2011) and sunflower yield (2012) of maintaining a living soil for those three to four months after spring wheat was harvested.”

What Sunflower Brings

Ironically, both Rick Bieber and son Ben are allergic to sunflower. During the crop’s bloom period, “I look like I’ve been run through a washing machine — red and rashy all over,” he quips. But he’s also allergic to cattle . . . cats . . . kochia . . . and tomatoes, among other things. So that in-season allergy is not about to stop him from growing this crop — especially when yields on the Bieber farm averaged in the neighborhood of 2,400 to 2,600 lbs/ac in 2010 (with one field hitting nearly 3,500 lbs). During the very dry 2012 season, yields varied from 1,500 to 2,500 lbs/ac across their 2,000 acres of oil-type sunflower.

The Biebers actually didn’t start growing sunflower until 2002. “We needed a broadleaf in our rotation,” Rick recalls. “A lot of broadleaves just don’t sustain under high temperatures and low moisture; but sunflower will.

“We manage intensely for high-quality, high-yield wheat. We fertilize with the drill, we top dress — and we’ll even fertilize the wheat a third time, because we’re going for high-quality spring wheat.”

Corn typically follows wheat on the Bieber farm, “and we manage the corn for some high yields also.” Then comes sunflower the following year, planted between the standing corn stalks. Because it’s the deepest-rooting crop in the rotation, “we do fertilize — but we fertilize extremely early, because we want the nitrogen to go down deep,” Bieber says. “We don’t want a lot of vegetative growth on that sunflower plant.

“When it hits the nitrogen, the sunflower has some ‘age’ on it already. We want it to be taking full advantage of that nitrogen during seed fill. We wind up with tremendous oil — and that oil gives you tremendous weight at the elevator.”

Weed control has proven very manageable in the Bieber sunflower fields. “Our weed control is close to maximum in all the other crops, so there’s not much of a weed seed bank there when the sunflower goes in,” Rick observes. “We do put down Spartan; but it’s more of a preventative measure.” He also counts on the sunflower plant canopy to aid with suppression of any late-emerging weeds.

Another benefit to sunflower’s deep taproot, Bieber says, comes a year or two after a field of ’flowers has been harvested. “When the sunflower plant decomposes, you have that channel that is now devoid of the old root,” he points out. “If you never go through there with a seeding apparatus or tillage tool that closes the channel, it then becomes a capillary to let moisture migrate back and forth. The moisture percolates down quickly if we get a big rain event; but [the channel] also lets deeper soil moisture move upward in a dry spell.”

Bieber says one downside with sunflower to date has been “we have a hard time keeping the sunflower residue stable after [seeding spring wheat] and prior to the wheat’s emergence.” That’s especially true if early spring brings high winds — which is not at all uncommon. He is experimenting with flying on a cover crop in the sunflower at about the V5-V6 stage (as he did on 100% of this past season’s corn acreage); “but 2012 wasn’t a good year to experiment with that, because we got virtually no rain during July and August.”

Again, It’s the Soil!

When you have the Risk Management Agency auditing you because they have a hard time believing how high your yields were, you must have been doing something right. But again, Rick Bieber shines the spotlight on his soils.

“It’s come to where our soils are so willing to give back and produce on so little moisture,” he reiterates. “If you pay attention to your soils, they just come alive! If you recognize the wealth that God has given you in the soil, and you look at it as a resource that you must protect — rather than just protecting your bank account — the soils respond unbelievably, including in very adverse weather years.

“Take care of your soil, and it will take care of you.”

— Don Lilleboe
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