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ND Profile in Soil Health

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The Power of Diversity

The more diverse the crops and pastures become on Gabe and Shelly Brown's ranch, the more successful they become. The Browns rotate more than 50 crops and cover crops -- all no-tilled -- in various mixtures, and rotationally graze both cover crops and pastures to imitate the soil-building processes of natural prairies on their 5,000-acre family operation near Bismarck, North Dakota.

"Where do you find a monoculture in nature?" Gabe Brown asks. "You need a polyculture to feed the life in the soil below. The life in the soil need a balanced diet, just like we do, and you only get that with a diversity of species -- plants, animals, and insects -- and plant roots. So that's what we're trying to do."

When Gage and Shelly bought the 629-acre ranch from her parents in 1991, like most of the native rangeland in the area, it had little plant diversity and was in poor health. Organic matter levels were low on cropland soils. "We just wanted to raise a family on the ranch," Brown says.

"Soil health wasn't on my radar screen, and I didn't understand holistic management. But I was reading about people who grew their own nitrogen, the benefits of cross-fencing, and other resource management ideas, and I wanted to make some changes."

No-till not enough

In 1993, Brown bought a no-till drill and converted all of his cropland to no-till. "We were saving fuel, moisture, and time." Brown says. The next year he added peas to the rotation, to fix nitrogen. "In the crop following peas, in 1995, is where I first noticed the soil felt different and the crop looked healthier," he says.

But a hailstorm destroyed their entire wheat and corn crop later that year. The following year, after seeing positive results from his first try at crop diversity, Brown added winter triticale and hair vetch, along with companion crops barley and red clover. But, as bad luck would have it, another major hail storm hit. "Even though I got hailed out, I saw a slow improvement in organic matter in the soil and how the plants responded to more diversity," Brown says. Afterwards, he seeded a cover crop combination of cowpeas and sudan grass as forage for his cattle.

Extreme weather hit yet again in 1997, when a drought prevented Brown from harvesting any crops. But his land produced enough feed for his livestock, and he could see his soil was still improving. His run of bad luck continued in 1998 when he lost 80 percent of his crop to a hailstorm.

A silver lining emerges

"Those were really tough years financially," Brown says. "But Shelly and I say that was probably the best thing that ever happened to us. I didn't have the money for commercial inputs to farm traditionally; I was really forced to change the way I farmed. I learned everything the hard way back then, just trying to survive."

No set rotation

"Corn, wheat, sunflowers, alfalfa, oats, triticale, hairy vetch and peas are our main cash crops," states Brown.

Brown doesn't have a set rotation. "What I try to do is to have a cover crop on every acre every year. In four years, I'd like to have at least three or the four crop types -- warm season grass, cool season grass, warm season broadleaf, and cool season broadleaf -- included as cash crops," he says. "With the exception of our alfalfa/grass fields, we'll have all four crop types as cover crops in that time."

"I keep experimenting," Brown says. "I also jumped right in when I learned how well cocktail mixes were working in South America. I'm willing to fail. If I don't fail at something, how do I know I can't do better?" he asks.

His son Paul, who is a partner in the operation, has been involved in soil health practices with Gabe from the beginning. "It will be an easy transition to Paul taking over the operation," Brown says. "I feel very comfortable with what's going to happen in the future."

Have fun learning, teaching others

"There are time now that I probably plant more cover crops than I need to," Brown says. "But it's so much fun to plant them, and watch my cattle graze them. It's improved my quality of life, because I'm having fun while I regenerate the landscape."

He feels strongly about the need for sustainable practices across the country. Brown feels so strongly, in fact, that he spends much of his time volunteering to help others with resource management. He became a soil and water district supervisor about 15 years ago, when he began talking to Jay Fuhrer, the district conservationist in Bismarck with the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Interest in soil health has been grown, but he says it exploded in the past year. In just three months in 2012, from July through September, he had 62 groups tour his ranch. He averages about 10 to 25 calls received a day from strangers, and recalls one day he had 53 calls.

"It's catching on," he says. "The interest is overwhelming."

Soil health, and what comes with it

Gabe Brown says too many people have accepted the degraded state of soils that comes with today's model of monoculture production agriculture. He also says there's no place for tillage in production agriculture today.

His 20-year transition to using a wide diversity of crops, cover crops and companion crops with no-till farming, along with integrating crop and livestock operation, have shown him his first priority in a sustainable operation is to feed the soil.

What many farmers view as challenges to farming (such as compaction, erosion, weed pressure, and low yields), he views as symptoms of poor soil health. His system, which imitates nature, focuses on regenerating resources, and continuously enhances the living biology in the soil, has produced results that should be the envy of every farmer or rancher:

  • Organic matter levels have been build back, from less than 2 percent to more than 5 percent on some fields.
  • The living biota in the soil has increased to the point that no synthetic fertilizer is now used.
  • No fungicides or insecticides have been used on the ranch for over 10 years.
  • Herbicide use has been cut by over 75 percent.
  • Water infiltration and water holding capacity are at their highest levels.
  • A one-year drought is not worrisome -- the strong ecosystem adapts.
  • Corn yields average 20 percent higher than the county average, with strong net profits for years.
  • Wildlife populations and species diversity have increased exponentially.

For more information, see the Brown Ranch website at www.browsranch.us.