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Success Story

Linker Farms: Generations of Land Conservation

Linker Farms, Judith Basin County, Montana

The Linker family has practiced conservation over the generations. Now, they are working to improve soil health.

Watch their story in Conservation for the Future: Linker Family, Coffee Creek, MT

High resolution photos of Linker Farm.

“We weren’t the typical wheat fallow farmers,” states fourth generation farmer Brock Linker. “My dad was one of the first guys in the area to buy an air drill, then a disk drill and start doing no-till. Growing up, we were the only ones in the area growing peas or mustard, and lentils.”

Across four generations, the Linker family has been committed to conservation, unafraid to try new and better ways to preserve the land. In the early 1900’s, the family homesteaded what is now Linker Farms in central Montana. “My parents took over the farm in the late 40’s and then me and my husband took over in the early 90’s, and now our son Brock,” states Pam Linker.

“Conservation has always been a part of the farms,” continues Pam. “The first conservation project my parents took on was planting trees and through the years Dad moved into conservation tillage and tried different crops.”

One of the first projects Pam and husband Dave worked on through NRCS EQIP dealt with a land erosion issue. “We had a piece of ground that kept sloughing off and falling into the Badlands,” states Pam. “We seeded it back with deep root, native grasses to stop the sloughing. My husband planted a lot of trees for the wildlife and through the years we had CSP contracts for more tree planting, variable rate nutrient application, GPS technology and expanded crop diversity.”

Brock acquired his own farm lease a decade ago and his parents have given him the freedom to incorporate even more ideas as he carries on the family’s conservation commitment. “Pretty much anything anybody tells me you can’t do, I want to do,” states Brock. “Because we have, and it’s worked and that motivates me. Dad’s still the real boss, but they definitely give me plenty of freedom to do my own thing.”

Two additions Brock made included adding more cover crops and incorporating cattle to enhance and enrich the soil. “We grow and graze some acres of cover crops and get the cows over a few farm fields every year,” states Brock. “The cows are a nice ‘tool’ to have and they help mitigate some risk,” he continues. “Worst case scenario, crop goes bad, you can always graze it. So, if one of our crazy experiments doesn’t work, it’s feed for the cows and you get all of the natural benefits they bring to it. We also moved to using a stripper header.”

NRCS worked with the Linkers on a recent cover crop study. “We helped them with the cover crop species, conducted infiltration tests, and provided technical assistance,” states NRCS Area Resource Conservationist Marni Thompson.

“The first time we grew cover crops it was a real “aha” moment for us,” states Pam. “They really do work. The roots went down and made a 90-degree angle when they hit a compaction layer. So over time they can get deeper and deeper and you can get further down on the compaction layer.”

Dave Linker agrees, “We needed a deep-rooted plant to break up that plow layer, adding things like sunflower and canola every once in a while, in the rotation.”

Soil aggregate stability proves that large, deep rooting plants do break up the plow pan and soil compaction. “Things like turnips and radishes, large rooting plants grow and expand and as they decompose,” states Brock “worms will come in, feed off of them, turning dirt back into soil as much as possible, feeding the biology, letting nature do its thing.”

Brock is excited to see how well the water infiltrates after incorporating some of his new soil health practices. NRCS’s Thompson conducted water infiltration tests to see how long it took both 1 and 2 inches of water to infiltrate the soil. On Brock’s land, it took thirteen seconds and one minute thirty-two seconds respectively. “These were good numbers,” states NRCS’s Thompson. “Many times, we see where 2 inches of water may take longer than five minutes to infiltrate.” “When you have poor soil structure and it rains hard, fertilizer can run off, it runs into waterways, creeks and ponds. One of the worst things that we can do.” say Brock.

Brock is also working toward the elimination of insecticides. Around his canola fields, Brock has seeded “beetle bait” trap crops. “Flea beetles will attack the mustard and other plants similar to canola, and leave the canola,” Brock states. “I think herbicides are going to be a way of the past at some point. We’re trying to stay ahead of that, balance the biology and the fungi in our fields to prevent weeds from growing. For every bug or pest you kill, you kill a thousand beneficial species. That doesn’t seem to me a very good long-term plan.”

 “I rely on the Linkers for information that they have learned on their soil health journey,” states NRCS’s Thompson, “and that helps me talk to other producers about what is working. The Linkers are the example for soil health practices and they have been doing it the longest in this area.”

The Linkers are incorporating all five soil health principles on their farms – soil armor, minimizing soil disturbance, plant diversity, continual live plant/root, and livestock integration. “It’s awesome and it’s so encouraging to see the results they are getting,” continues NRCS’s Thompson. “It helps me to help other producers and encourage them as well because we can actually see the results. Last year, we asked Brock to be one of our speakers at our annual soil health workshop,” says Thompson. “We wanted him to talk about what he’s doing on his land to help other producers.”

Brock just applied for his first CSP contract and is working with NRCS to raise awareness and spread the word on the importance of good soil health practices. “I want to prove to guys around here what can be done, and show them what good soil looks like,” says Brock.

“Our big next step,” states Brock, “is to reduce our synthetic fertilizer to zero. By diverse crop rotation, cover crops, free manure from the cows, and weaning our soil off some of the input practices we’ve been using. It’s a slow process but it can be done I believe.”

“You don’t see results instantly,” states Pam. “But as I have grown up here, I see how much better our infiltration is, everything looks healthier and produces consistently, and I like to think that Brock will continue what we’ve started and leave it in better shape for the next generation.”