Montana Producer Promotes Change for Soil Health
Twenty miles straight west of the Montana/South Dakota border lies the Sikorski ranch and farm in Ekalaka, Montana. Jerry Sikorski’s grandfather homesteaded there in 1911, and the tradition has continued for over a century. But not exactly. Sikorski is anything but old-fashioned, and the tradition of tilling and fallow farming ended in the mid-90s on the 102-year-old homestead.
An Army veteran who spent 10 years flying a transport plane and 22 years flying a helicopter, Sikorski had a bird’s eye view of farming across the globe. While in Vietnam in the late 60s he remembers flying at 27,000 feet and seeing farmers burning fields, and years later he saw the same antiquated process happening stateside. He knew then that it wasn’t the right way to treat the land, which prompted the beginnings of change for the Sikorskis.
The Sikorskis raised solely wheat and cattle until the 1990s. Sikorski knew people were changing to no-till in other parts of the country and saw no reason why he couldn’t do it in eastern Montana. From his experience, he says you can adopt no-till anywhere, “You can even do it in Canada.” Sikorski listened to Dr. Dwayne Beck, manager, Dakota Lakes Research Farm, Pierre, SD, and Dr. Jill Clapperton, rhizosphere ecologist, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada Lethbridge Research Centre, Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada, about the benefits of changing the microbiology in the soil. He wholeheartedly agrees with these experts and promotes both no-till and cover crop farming.
Sikorski is a man of passion, and he talks about no-till farming and cover crops with a zeal that borders on the spiritual, singing praises of change, progression and sustainability. “Keep that disc out of the field and quit destroying Mother Nature,” he says “If you till it, you kill it.” Sikorski doesn’t choose crops to plant for money, instead he plants what he believes will be good for the soil. He says the land on his farm has been mistreated for decades, so it’s up to him to repair the damage and make it healthy again.
On the 102-year-old homestead, the Sikorskis have made changes to their management practices in the last two decades, which include planting cover crops and using no-till farming practices.
On the Sikorski land, peas grow in a field that is no longer tilled with a disc, but is planted with a no-till drill instead.
In a field of lentils on the Sikorski land, an ear of corn and corn stalks left from the previous year's crop protect the soil while also adding organic matter.
He bought no-till drills in 1995 and went completely no-till in 1999. In addition, Sikorski has been planting cover crops for the last five years. He says, “Cover it up, give something to the bugs to eat.” His crop rotation started with lentils and flax in 1998, and now he plants spring and winter wheat, corn, lentils, safflower, and alfalfa. He says, “You always plant, if you don’t plant, it won’t grow—fallow is bad; it’s the worst thing you can do to the land.” He also grazes cover crops as part of his management system, stating that it adds a lot back to the soil for the microorganisms.
Sikorski says the benefits of change are a no-brainer. His corn planter cost him $3,000, and he plants 500 acres per year with it. He is able to seed with it in a week and a half. He also has a no-till drill and has been using it on his 3,000 acres every year since 1995. Sikorski says his fuel costs have actually gone down, despite the fact that fuel prices have nearly doubled since he switched to sustainable farming in the 90s. In addition, he has decreased his labor force to four people, making it a family operation. Sikorski said planting cover crops like radishes and turnips puts new biology in the soils, like angle worms and other microorganisms.
Sikorski promotes stewardship of the land and knows he is part of something that is making a difference. His goal is to cut out the use of chemicals completely on his land and to stop using fertilizer. When asked what to tell someone who wants to make the change, he says, “Start soon. It takes a while to get into a no-till regimen and be patient. It takes time to cure the soil.”
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