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Cover Crops on Dryland Wheat? Challenge Accepted.

Soil Health Profile - Noah Williams

Producer Profile

Name: Noah Williams
Location: The Dalles, Oregon
NRCS Programs: Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP)

Noah Williams loves it when people tell him he can’t do something.

Like when people say there’s no way he can make cover crops work in a dryland wheat cropping system.

“It’s my motivation to find a way to do it,” he says. “I like the challenge.”

Noah is working with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and the Wasco Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) to try some new, innovative approaches to build healthier soil on his farm.

“I’ve been told that cover cropping can’t work in our area, but I believe it can—we just have to change our mindset,” Noah says.

“It’s not going to look the way it does in the Midwest; we’re in a different rainfall area and we get our rains in the wintertime,” he adds. “It’s just a matter of trying things out and tweaking the formula to make it work for us.”

Born and raised in Sherman County, Noah joined the U.S. Coast Guard straight out of high school. After a few years of military service, he came back to the family farm in 1997 and became the primary operator in 2001. He now owns 900 acres of farmland and rents about 1,900 acres spanning portions of Wasco and Sherman counties. His primary cash crop is winter wheat with a rotation of spring barley.

GETTING STARTED

In the last few years, Noah has cultivated a passion for regenerative agriculture, an organic-based farming method that renews and revives unhealthy soils. He went to conferences about it, he read about it, and he talked to other farmers who were doing it. So last year, he decided to give it a try, leveraging financial assistance from the NRCS Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP).

“I considered seeding cover crops on 5-acre plots, but something that small isn’t going to teach me what I need to know,” he says. “I had to play with something bigger.”

So last year he planted 30 acres of cover crop in a strategic location—his field closest to the road.

“I wanted to plant them where people will see them,” Noah says. “You will always have naysayers, so I want people to see what I’m doing and see that it can work.”

In the spirit of experimentation, he divided the field into four sections of cover crops: a winter cover crop, a warm-season cover crop, a spring cool-season cover crop, and a fallow section with no cover crop to be used as a control.

As the months went by, the cover crops took root and flourished. When it came time to terminate them, he used a combination of spraying and mowing. Then came the true test. It was time to plant the cash crop.

Without applying any synthetic fertilizers (though he did apply biosolids), Noah seeded the winter wheat and eagerly awaited the results.

In just a few months, he could already see a difference.

“The wheat where we had the cover crop is staying greener longer, which indicates its retaining more moisture,” he says. “I’m really amazed at how green it is. That wheat looks healthier than what I’ve seen in this field before.”

“But in the control area, you could see the stress more,” he adds. “The wheat in that area started turning yellow before anything else.”

"I've been told that cover cropping can't work in our area, but I believe it can. We just have to change our mindset."

-- Noah Williams

So what was his yield like? Noah reported similar yields on the cover crop compared to the fallow, though he wants to experiment with eliminating or reducing the biosolids to see if it increases nutrient cycling in the cover crop, which may improve his yield.

“Either way, I didn’t lose money because I didn’t put any synthetic fertilizer down,” he says. “So the way I see it, it’s still a win. By doing this, I’m learning something new, and I have numbers and data I can look at to tweak it and keep building on it.”

Noah also shares the data with his wife, Tawnya, who works with the Sherman SWCD. They want to explain what they are doing to other farmers and share information with people interested in regenerative agriculture.

SOIL SENSORS

In a separate field on the farm, Noah installed six soil sensors last year with financial assistance from the Wasco SWCD. These sensors measure the soil moisture at three depths: 6 inches, 1 feet and 2 feet. The sensors are divided into two neighboring wheat fields: one with cover crops and one without.

With funding from the SWCD, he planted 60 acres of cover crops on that field last fall. The cover crops grew lush and tall—so much so, that it was challenging to terminate them using only 60 head of cattle from his neighbor.

“In the spring, we have to graze the cover crop off in such a short window,” he says. “I’ll need more cattle up here to achieve the desired result.”

Thanks to sensor data, Noah could see exactly how much moisture was being used by the cover crops and determine the best time to terminate them.

“Every hour, these sensors measure the soil water content in real-time,” says Garrett Duyck, an NRCS soil conservationist who helps Noah track the data on a computer and interpret the results. “This data is a lot more thorough than other manual measuring methods.”

Though Duyck has made a few preliminary conclusions based on the first few months of data, he acknowledges it’s still early in the experiment, and the next 12 months will likely make a difference. As the data continues to trickle in, Noah is seeing changes on-the-ground—results he hopes the data will support.

“Every time we got a rain event, the cover crops picked up moisture in the deep root zone, where the control does not,” he says. “The control never picked up moisture in the 2-foot zone. And at 2-feet, that’s your battery. That’s where you’re storing water for later in the season.”

In the meantime, Noah is already tweaking his formulas for cover cropping next season with the understanding that it’s not a sprint, but a marathon. He also wants to try new crop rotations and enhance his existing cover crops to add diversity to his soil. He’s already doing some of those enhancements through the NRCS Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP).

“To me, it’s not about the short-term gain, but it’s about the long-term benefit,” he says. “I know I’m not going to have an instant return. If it takes 10 years of cover crops so I can farm for 20 years longer without depleting my soils, that’s a benefit to me.”

“In the end, I believe we’ll have a longer run than the guys who are just pumping dollars into their ground with synthetic fertilizers,” he adds. “I think it’s going to be a lot healthier for our ground, so the next generation will have something there that’s sustainable. I know it can be done.”

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Published September 2016 by NRCS Oregon
Story and photos by Tracy Robillard