Norton County Conservation District
Michael Thompson, a sixth-generation farmer, wanted to come back to the family farm right out of high school, but his father told him the farm wasn’t profitable enough to support him. They did not have the acres or the income needed. So instead, Thompson went on to college and to teach kindergarten for 12 years while farming some acreage of his own at nights and on weekends. If he was going to be able to come back to work full time on the family farm, they had to make it more productive. It was on his acreage that Thompson started experimenting with some regenerative agriculture practices such as the diversification of crops and root systems and the adoption of cover crops.
Thompson has no formal education in agriculture. Instead, he learned through online resources, attending conferences, and reading books and agricultural publications. He has studied alternatives to conventional farming and learned how to successfully farm in their climate – with high summer temperatures and infrequent rains, severe winter conditions and light soils that blow or wash away easily.
“Learning is addictive once you get started,” Thompson said. “I used to view soil as just a medium you plant into. Once I started learning and thinking about the life and health of the soil, it brought a change of mind.”
In 2000, Thompson made the transition to no-till to work towards the goal of mimicking the native prairie culture which built the soil he was trying to farm. While no-till was successful in combating erosion, he soon developed a weed problem, and continued experiencing issues with runoff. So, beginning on 50 acres of his farmland in 2008, Thompson started planting cover crops.
Thompson was eventually able to quit his teaching job and farm fulltime with his father, Richard. His brother Brian, a CPA, did the bookkeeping and helped on the farm as needed. As Thompson tried different cover crop mixes, he expanded them beyond his initial acreage and soon realized he could incorporate them into the family operation for soil health benefits and additional forage for their cattle. Initially, it took his brother some convincing that this investment was going to have a positive effect on both their bottom line as well as the soil.
Today, the Thompsons’ farming operation grows winter wheat, triticale, corn, soybeans, oats, barley, sorghum, and a diverse range of cover crop mixes on approximately 2,000 acres. They also have a 200 cow/calf ranching operation that grazes on about 1,000 acres of pasture as well as cover crop farmland acres.
The Thompson farm had always been conventionally farmed, but in trying to turn things around to make it a more financially sustainable operation, they looked to various regenerative practices to directly address the depleted soil. All the issues the Thompsons faced were interconnected. The farmland had been tilled, which meant the surface was uncovered, unprotected and dry. This left the soil vulnerable to erosion from wind and rain. Hills on the fields exacerbated the erosion concerns. Compaction and low water infiltration were also problems. And in some places, the soil had less than 1 percent organic matter.
But through transitioning to no-till, Thompson was taking steps to keep the ground covered with the crop residue it left behind. That protected the soil from direct sunlight and helped with reducing erosion from wind and rain. The residue also helped to build organic matter in the soil. This practice, however, required additional equipment, so he had to invest in a sprayer and a drill.
When weeds started emerging and the erosion was still a problem, Thompson felt the next step was to consider incorporating cover crops. Through his experimentation with the various cover crops, he looked to create a diverse mix that would address the various issues on the farm. He suggested starting with examination of the soil through soil testing and by digging down to see where the hardpan or hard layers of soil were. Soil examination can help determine what kind of root system will help the soil structure and which plants will help feed the soil. A lot of grasses and cereal grains have a fibrous root system that takes care of a lot of compaction on the top of the soil. Plants that have taproots or tuber such as daikon radish, rapeseed, and sunflowers have aggressive root systems that break up the deeper hardpan layers.
These root systems not only breakup the compaction, but they also chart new channels for the rainfall to infiltrate deep into the soil. The soil can then store it for the crops rather than remain on the surface to evaporate or erode the land. Thompson says the most important thing he considers when deciding on a cover crop is which plants use as little moisture as possible while also assisting in soil remediation.
The diversity of cover crops and the density of root systems has also helped Thompson with weed control. He has found that he has to spray less, and when he does, the chemicals are a lot more effective. He has found savings in using less chemicals and fewer trips across the fields.
Thompson also provides value to the cover crop production and his bottom line by grazing his cattle on the cover crops. He created a rotational grazing system that allows him to rest his pastures and graze his covers when needed. The farm no longer purchases supplemental hay or rents extra pasture for the cattle. And by grazing the cover crops, the cattle are adding nutrients to the soil through their manure. Thompson uses a high-density stock form of rotational grazing system called strip grazing. This system is designed to achieve soil health goals quicker than if the cattle were allowed to roam freely.
Through his efforts, not only has Thompson experienced savings with his grazing system and decreased inputs, but his yields have increased as well. In 2019, his dryland corn yields have averaged 170 bushels compared to the county average of 70 bushels. In that year he also did not buy any herbicides, phosphorus, or potassium. Overall, he estimates his crops bring in about $216,000 more than the county average. Thompson shares this financial impact not to boast, but to give testament to how changing the soil for the better can also boost yields. The improvements in soil not only increase yields, but they create consistent yields across his fields.
Through all the improvements, Thompson says the best return on investment is the extra time he now has with his family. He is no longer captive to the cab of his sprayer or tractor.
Posted June 2022