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Success Story

Taking No-Till to the Next Level

Jason Brewer

For 23 years Jason Brewer thought he was a no-till farmer until he met other no-till farmers.

Jason Brewer thought he was a no-till farmer until he learned he wasn’t.

In 2014, Brewer went with a group of Montana farmers to North Dakota with the Rosebud Conservation District to see what farmers had been doing there since the 1990s to improve soil health.

“It was a shock to think you were a no-till farmer for that long (23 years) and then have somebody tell you really weren’t no-till farming,” said Brewer, who has farmed in Rosebud County, Mont., his whole life.

He had been using a hoe drill for 20 years and thought that he was a no-till farmer, but quickly learned that there was more to it than that. “When I came back, I bought a drill like they were using and started planting cover crops and continued no-till farming with a disc drill, which saves moisture and disturbs the soil less.”

More No-Till

Convinced by what he had seen in North Dakota, Brewer jumped in with both feet. He planted 750 acres with his new no-till disc drill, an acreage number that scared Rocky Schwagler, then district conservationist for the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service in Forsyth, Mont. “When Jason told me he bought a no-till drill and was going to plant 750 acres of cover crops, I was afraid if it didn’t work, no one would try it for another 10 years.”

It’s a fear that Brewer understood as he said his father told him that no-till means no crop. But the changes he made were a success and he hasn’t looked back since.

Holistic Farming

Today, Brewer takes a holistic approach to farming. That was another nugget he picked up in North Dakota. “I must have heard the word holistic four or five times the first evening we were in North Dakota,” Brewer said. “I had never even heard the word, so of course I had to look it up because it was bugging me. Now I take a holistic approach to what I do.”

As Brewer puts it, it’s simply how everything works together.

By definition, holistic management is a process of decision-making and planning that gives people the insights and management tools needed to understand nature, resulting in better, more informed decisions that balance key social, environmental, and financial considerations.

Brewer just knows it makes sense, both economically and for the soil.

It’s About the Soil

“We are seeing a change in the soil,” Brewer said. “It’s just getting healthier.”

Brewer has always no-tilled his dryland acres, but he switched to no-till on his irrigated acres four or five years ago. He said they would farm it five or six times a year, using his most aggressive tool to rip it up and make large clods that he would disk back down to make a smooth seedbed.

“It just didn’t make any sense to go through there and rip it all up and then disk is several times to make it look like it did when we started,” Brewer said.

He said you simply don’t have to till the soil; you are doing more harm than good.

But Brewer would be the first to tell you that his initial interest in no-till was to cut labor and inputs. And he has accomplished both.

In addition to no-till, Brewer plants cover crops. Since he already had cattle and wanted to get them off pasture earlier, grazing cover crops was “no brainer,” he said.

Schwagler said other farmers in the county are using cover crops as well. Like Brewer, they are reaping the benefits cover crops provide to the soil like increasing soil organic matter but are also benefitting the rangeland by moving cattle off earlier which leaves more residual cover on the ground over winter.

Converting Cropland

Brewer also took part in an NRCS program (Environmental Quality Incentives Program) to seed cropland back to permanent vegetative cover. Funded through the Sage Grouse Initiative, NRCS works with landowners to convert cropland to a permanent cover of grasses and forbs that provide habitat for sage grouse.

“A planting like this one, next to prime sage grouse habitat, is key to sage grouse chick survival,” Schwagler said. “While adults rely on sagebrush leaves for much of their diet, chicks need insects for protein, and you need grasses and forbs to draw them in.”

In addition to sage grouse habitat, the permanent grasses and forbs allow him to graze the area instead of cropping it. “My goal is to never take a tractor back up there,” Brewer said. “There is cost in cropping and this area just wasn’t worth it.”

Schwagler says it’s a perfect example of meeting landowner goals and wildlife habitat needs at the same time.

Sage grouse isn’t the only species benefitting from the permanent cover. “Seems like we have pulled the deer in from all over,” Brewer said. “We’ve got elk that have moved in. We just have far more wildlife than we used to.”

What’s the icing on the cake for Brewer? Soil conservation and soil health.
“The great part of no-till is that you get all of the soil conservation and soil health for free without me working so hard and spending so much money,” Brewer said. “It all works hand in hand.”

For More Information

For more information about NRCS conservation technical assistance, contact your local USDA Service Center.