Rocklin “Rocky” Bateman
Morton County Soil Conservation District
New Salem, N.D.
Bateman is married to Nancy Jo, his wife of over 30 years. They have three daughters: Jessie (son-in-law John) Bateman-Pfaff, Ashley, and Libby. The Bateman Farm was homesteaded in 1897 and has been in continuous family ownership ever since. Bateman’s daughters represent the sixth generation to be involved in the operation. Bateman has been a supervisor on the Morton County Soil Conservation District since March of 2006.
Soil Health Practices
The Bateman Farm sits just on the edge of the Heart River Watershed in south central North Dakota. The land is very marginal with rolling to very rugged terrain. Rain is one of the more limiting factors in the region – on the Bateman Farm, the average rainfall is 14 to 16 inches annually. Over time, and across generations, the farm has supported crops and livestock.
But challenges always make you look for better options, and in 1998 we found our best option. We began no-till farming that year and it has been the best thing we have ever done on this farm. We have increased our organic matter levels from a low of 1 percent up to the current 4 to 4.5 percent. Our water and mineral cycles are functioning again. Our proven yields from the 1970’s have tripled for both spring wheat and corn. We have also incorporated sunflower, soybeans, cover crops, and hay into the crop rotation. Wind and water erosion, which were constant problems on our very marginal ground, have almost disappeared.
No-till was the first step in our soil health journey. Crop diversity and the incorporation of cover crops were our second step. We continue to work on additional steps to improve the soil as we move into the future. Our long term goal is to return the overall healthfulness of the soil to the level it was when it was native prairie sod. I truly believe that the ideal soil profile is demonstrated by native prairie sod and requires no tillage.
Severe financial stress and the challenge to stay in business were the primary motivating factors when we began looking at no-till farming. We were at the point of needing to make a drastic change – or quit! The crop yields didn’t change the first few years, but cash inputs were down significantly. We found no-till reduced fuel costs and led to fewer repairs and less machinery overhead – all positive improvements to the farm’s bottom line.
What happened next, however, was totally unexpected. We never dreamed we would see the yield increases that resulted. Our crop yields today, after 18 years, are still trending upward. Financial stress motivated us to change to a better way of farming. For my family, as well as the overall health of the land, it was the best move we have ever made.
In our region and across the country I see farmers that are wary of implementing good soil health practices because they have been looking to commercial inputs and bigger equipment to solve their problems. They rely on retail agronomists (those making their living selling costly inputs) and equipment salesmen (those selling equipment and tillage implements) for answers. These practices are built on conventional farming. This is where a fortune is spent by farmers trying to put a bandage on a problem, that in reality, is tillage. Our challenge is getting people to understand that soil health drives everything.
The fruits of a good soil health program, adopted on a farm-wide basis, are undeniable. One program that I am very pleased to have had a hand in developing is a soil health mentoring program offered through our local soil conservation district. By connecting producers with Dr. Don Tanaka, a retired USDA ARS soil scientist in our area, these producers now have a valuable team member they can work with as they develop soil health plans for their own farms. We also are conducting what we call “Shop Talks” where one farmer invites neighbors and friends to their shop to talk about soil health with Morton County SCD staff, NRCS personnel, and those involved with the mentoring program. These are working extremely well and as success stories are shared, the interest in learning more about soil health is increasing.
Challenging times, reduced prices and increased costs in farming may sound like bad news for farmers. However, I think this presents one of the best opportunities we’ve had in a long time to take the message of soil health to those in agriculture. In my opinion, soil health is the answer everyone is looking for and drives everything.