Dewey County Conservation District
Jimmy Emmons and his wife Ginger farm 2,000 acres in Leedey, Okla., and have one son, Beau. Jimmy’s family has farmed for over a century, and he joined the fray in 1980. His third-generation operation includes a rotation of wheat, canola, rye, sunflowers, peas, soybeans, milo, sesame and alfalfa, as well as a cow-calf operation. Emmons also serves on the board of the Dewey County Conservation District and is the current president of the Oklahoma Association of Conservation Districts.
Emmons has built his operation into a soil health system with many parts contributing to the rehabilitation of his land. Over twenty years ago, Emmons started no-tilling his fields, leaving crop residue on the land to help control wind and water erosion, improve nutrient-use efficiency, and increase the level of organic matter.
In the past few years, Emmons has been incorporating cover crops into the system and has increased his cocktail mix from a 6-way mix to a 14-way seed mix. By increasing the diversity of his cover crops, he has increased the soil’s organic matter, attracted pollinators, created channels for water infiltration with deep roots, and naturally added nutrients back into the soil.
The use of cover crops in the semi-arid Great Plains can be a controversial topic, as cover crops could use up the limited available moisture needed for cash crops. When Emmons heard that cover crops are considered a moisture-neutral practice, he had to see for himself. With the technical assistance from his NRCS state conservationist, his local NRCS service center and his local conservation district, he installed moisture sensors and planted a test plot to compare the results with cropland without covers. He discovered that although cover crops do utilize some soil moisture, more of that moisture would be lost through evaporation from bare, uncovered soil. Emmons’ long-term goal is to continue to reduce his use of irrigation to the point that it is utilized only during times of short rainfalls. In addition to the retained moisture through cover crops, the temperature of the covered soil held at about 90 degrees in summer, while the bare ground reached 120 – 125 degrees.
Emmons implements a diverse crop rotation, but the weather in Oklahoma dictates what he decides to do. While he’s always under the threat of a drought – typically, he sees a 22 – 25 inch annual rainfall -the precipitation he does see usually comes in the form of intense rainstorms. By implementing his crop rotation and not committing himself to just one or two crops, he is spreading the market risk and capitalizing on the changing weather patterns.
Emmons has incorporated his 220-head cow-calf operation in his soil health system through rotational grazing on his cover crops during the winter. For technical assistance, Emmons consulted his NRCS grazing specialist and the district conservationist who helped get him started. After conducting some trials in his grazing system, he found he can make more money on the beef he’s raising than the cost of seeding the covers, and it’s a great way to cycle the nutrients back into the soil.
While Emmons has been open to trying new ways to farm and rehabilitate the land, he has not been shy about sharing his experiences. In his outreach efforts, Emmons confronts and challenges the perception “this won’t work here.” He’s passionate about sharing what he’s learned through his trials and errors. Every year, in addition to managing his operation with Ginger, Emmons travels across the country speaking about soil health from a producer’s point of view. He and Ginger open their operation up for many field days and tours throughout the year, with attendees coming from as far as Australia, France and Bulgaria – all to see for themselves how he is managing his operation for soil health.
In 2017, the Emmons were awarded the first Oklahoma Leopold Conservation Award for the outstanding work they’ve done for conservation on their operation. “To be successful, you need to surround yourself with very knowledgeable people, and I think we’ve been able to do that here,” Emmons said. “I think that’s why we’ve been able to do what we could do as fast as we could.”
Updated May 2018