Welcome to The Playbook, a blog series from Sound Agriculture highlighting the strategies and successes growers are achieving on their farms. In each blog, real growers will share the experience and insight they’ve gained in the field.
In a sometimes windy state like Kansas, drought can be particularly devastating for growers as dry topsoil is blown off fields. Nearly two decades ago, Ryan Speer introduced cover crops on his farm outside Wichita in an effort to combat wind and water erosion. Thanks in part to the success of cover cropping, today the operation uses a variety of practices in pursuit of greater efficiency.
With expertise provided by Ryan Speer of Jacob Farms and Cattle.
“Cover crops were the beginning of getting into regenerative agriculture for us,” says Ryan Speer of Jacob Farms and Cattle. “When we started cover cropping, the main thing we wanted to address was wind and water erosion; I just didn’t want to see soil blowing away.”
Kansas is so well known for wind and dust that the Kansas Department of Agriculture’s conservation division maintains a page of information and resources to help growers preserve their topsoil and reduce wind erosion. According to Kansas State’s Department of Agronomy, vegetative cover like cover crops or pasture planting are among the most effective ways to control erosion. Vegetation not only acts as a windbreak or screen, reducing the velocity and power of the wind to move soil, but live roots physically hold soil in place.
“Water and wind erosion were big issues for us before cover cropping, and they’re still big issues in Kansas right now,” Ryan says. “We’ve been in a drought for the last year and a half, with tremendous winds and dirt storms in the spring; there have been days when the sun disappears with all the dirt in the air.”
On Jacob Farms, however, cover crops are helping keep topsoil where it belongs. “While we might get some erosion at the edge of the field here and there, we really don’t have much any more,” says Ryan. “On an industry level, the problem hasn’t gone away; it’s not like it was in the 1930s but we still have a lot of room for improvement and we can do better as an industry.”
By creating root channels in the soil, cover crops help water infiltrate and improve the soil’s water-holding capacity.
While erosion might be why Jacob Farms got into cover cropping, it wasn’t long before they started seeing other benefits.
By increasing soil organic matter and improving soil texture and structure, cover crops help support a healthy soil microbiome; in fact, research has linked cover crops to increased soil microbial activity, abundance and diversity. A robust soil microbiome then helps plants access nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus that may otherwise be unavailable to the plants, which often allows growers to cut back on their fertilizer costs.
“When we started incorporating cover crops, it increased the soil biology and got that system kick started. We started using less nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizer and still our yields just kept going up,” says Ryan.
He says the first year, they planted cowpeas after a wheat crop before planting corn the following year. The results were impressive: Jacob Farms grew 200 bushels of corn on only 80 pounds of nitrogen. That success started the operation on a larger journey.
“We started asking why that happened and how we could do this in the future,” Ryan says. “Wind and water erosion is why we started, but it snowballed into a lot of other things like evaporation control and reducing irrigation water. How the benefits compound and stack on top of each other are really amazing.”
Ryan does what he can to keep water from leaving his soil, especially during a drought.
In addition to increasing wind erosion, Kansas’ long drought also means capturing and holding water is hugely important to growers. Much of western Kansas and other parts of the Great Plains rely on the Ogallala Aquifer for irrigation water, and unfortunately, the aquifer is in decline; growers throughout the region are looking for ways to reduce their reliance on irrigation to prolong the life of the aquifer and give it a chance to recharge. But even in areas where underground aquifers aren’t in decline, drought makes water precious. Ryan says his area doesn’t have the same issues as western Kansas, but capturing and keeping water is still important.
“When we do get big rain events, we have to be able to capture that water,” he says. “It seems like our rains are bigger and less frequent, so we need to take advantage of it.”
By creating root channels in the soil, cover crops help water infiltrate rather than run off and improve the soil’s water-holding capacity. Roots also support a healthy soil microbiome and stimulate the growth of mycorrhizal fungi, both of which create spongy, absorbent soil. Ryan says Jacob Farms also doesn’t remove any part of any of their crops or residue, since keeping the soil covered helps reduce water evaporation from the surface of the soil.
Of course, the full name of the operation is Jacob Farms and Cattle: that’s because they also do custom grazing and run a small butcher operation.
“We started doing livestock integration and thinking about the nitrogen cycle to try to increase carbon in the soil and build the soil’s water holding capacity and it just evolved from there,” says Ryan. Their cattle operation is small, which is why they do custom grazing.
“There’s definite value to grazing the cover crops and having nutrients returned with the cattle, so to get that interaction between the land and the cattle, we bring in other people’s cattle to graze our cover crops,” he says. “But since we can’t get enough cattle around all our acres, we do it on a smaller scale.”
And, of course, there’s water quality to think about. Jacob Farms is about a mile from the Arkansas River and protecting its water quality is important to Ryan.
“We want to keep the water on the fields and keep the soil from washing into the river and ending up in the ocean,” says Ryan. “If there is water leaving our farms, we want it to be clear, not brown. I’m not saying we don’t have any water leaving our fields after a huge rain event, but when it does, it’s going to be clean.”
Planting into a cover crop can have many benefits, including increased soil organic matter and reduced erosion.
In Pursuit of Efficiency
Cover crops may have been the first step on the path towards regenerative agriculture, but Ryan says Jacob Farms is always willing to look into new practices and innovations to incorporate.
“We’re always looking into new things that can make us more sustainable and profitable in the future,” he says.
One of those is SOURCEⓇ, Sound Agriculture’s microbiome activator. By stimulating the microbes already present in the soil, SOURCE can help increase crops’ access to these key nutrients and reduce growers’ reliance on synthetic fertilizer inputs.
“At first, the main thing that interested me about SOURCE was whether it could provide a safety net so we felt comfortable reducing our nitrogen inputs even further,” says Ryan. “We were interested in the microbiome and looking at different products and practices that could boost our biology,”
The first year they used SOURCE on test fields, Ryan says they had a good yield response and have run trials every year since. “This year, we applied SOURCE to most of our fields, although we’re still running a few trial acres,” he adds.
Wind and drought bring significant challenges for the operation.
Ryan continues to evaluate other products like biologicals that can benefit the operation, but SOURCE’s simple application has helped make it a staple on the operation. SOURCE can be added to a grower’s tank mix for easy application with no extra passes or added fuel costs. It also has a very low use rate and is shelf stable for over two years.
“SOURCE’s ease of use and the low use-rate really attracted us to the product,” says Ryan. “Some other products require a separate pass and that starts adding to the cost.”
It’s easy for costs to add up, and like any grower, Ryan is always considering his ROI. And although practices like cover cropping have some up front investment, he recommends taking the long view. Planting cover crops costs money in seeds, machinery and labor, but there are also payoffs in both the short and long term.
“With cover crops, I’ve eliminated some herbicide applications the following year, increased water infiltration, reduced summer evaporation loss,” he says. “You have to look at what it does for this crop and the crops down the road; it’s not a one year deal. Look at it on the whole system level.”
This whole system perspective is partly why Ryan says they’re always looking for ways to improve nutrient use efficiency on the operation, regardless of fertilizer prices.
“Fertilizer is expensive; it’s less than last year, but it’s still a lot,” he says. “We’re always trying to be as efficient as we can with our fertilizer.”
Ryan approaches farming as an eternal student and with an eye to collaboration. “We’re always trying to learn from mother nature and biology,” he says. “To me that’s new and exciting. It just keeps evolving — we’re still evolving even today.”