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 share the experiences and insights they’ve gained in the field.
“I like to try new things and to be on the leading edge,” says Mike Dick of North Dakota-based Dicks’ Seed. “I guess I’m a chip off the old block.”
Mike is a third-generation grower who grew up on the farm run by his dad, uncle and grandfather. After returning from college to join the operation, Mike’s uncle and two cousins split away from the operation to farm separately, leaving Mike, his dad and grandfather to farm together. Today, Mike farms with his nephew, growing a variety of crops including spring wheat, barley, canola, soybeans, field peas, and sometimes durum wheat. They also grow and sell seed and have a seed cleaning facility to process seed for other growers.
Mike’s father, who retired from farming just last year at the age of 84, started the operation on the track to sustainability and innovation that it’s still on today. Back in 1978, before Mike was old enough to help run the farm, his dad transitioned all the land he was farming to no-till, becoming one of the first no-till operations in North Dakota.
“Even today, switching to no-till is kind of a big deal if a grower doesn’t know anything different,” says Mike. “Back then, there really wasn’t a lot of great equipment to do what my dad was wanting to do, so there’s been a lot of trial and error on this farm, trying to find a system that really works the way we want it to.”
Still, even after decades running a no-till operation, Mike isn’t a zealot; he knows not every practice will work for every operation.
“I don’t preach no-till,” he says. “Change is hard, in both life and farming. It isn’t my goal to convince everyone that my way is the best way to do it.”
Instead, Mike focuses on finding what works for his operation.
“I’m interested in soil health and saving my soil — not giving it away to wind or water — and having a system that’s sustainable. That means trying to reduce my fertilizer requirements, using crop rotation to reduce disease cycles, and using prescription mapping and zone soil testing. At the end of the day, it’s all about return on investment. Is what I’m doing building a stronger farm or taking away from it?”
Breaking the disease cycle with crop rotation
It’s an ongoing learning process for Mike, though. In the 1990s, he says they had seven years of crop disaster in a row.
“We had super excessive amounts of rainfall, and that set us up for a tremendous amount of disease in our wheat,” he explains. “At that time, we were heavy into wheat, durum and barley but not much else.”
This started the operation on the path to crop rotation. Planting the same crop in the same place year after year, or even crops within the same family, can leave the plants vulnerable to disease and pathogens. Each season, the crop offers the same opportunity for pests and disease to thrive on their preferred food source, while also removing the same nutrients from the soil. Rotating through which crops grow in a field can break disease cycles, leaving fewer opportunities for pathogens and pests to become established.
Mike says they tried at least nine different crops, and have learned a lot about crop rotation in the decades since then.
“Crop rotation helps us avoid excessive application of chemicals like fungicides, but you can also bring other diseases into the rotation,” he explains. “Through the 1990s and 2000s, we learned that you can’t push your pea rotations too close together. During the 20 years where our operation was overly wet, we found that if we pushed our pea rotations too close, we started developing heavy disease.”
Mike is quick to acknowledge that each grower has to make decisions based on their own operation. Last winter, Mike attended a workshop with other North Dakota farms discussing which practices they use and why. While growers farther south in the state can use cover crops to bring more diversity into their operations, Mike says their harvests are generally too late to get a cover crop established, so he relies on crop rotation instead.
For Mike, sharing this kind of farm-specific reasoning just reinforces why he’d rather share experiences with other growers than preach specific practices.
“I don’t know what their farm situation is, I don’t know what their soil types are,” he says. “My practices may or may not work on their farm. If I’m asked, I can share what I’ve found, but I’m not telling anyone this is the only way to do it.”
While all of Mike’s advice comes with the caveat that growers should look at their own farm to find what will work there, he does have some general recommendations for growers interested in no-till or other regenerative practices. The most important one is don’t rush.
“You cannot go from a full-on conventional system to reaping the benefits of a no-till cropping system in one year,” he says. “You also need to factor in that you might have some issues during the conversion process, especially if you switch over in a wet year.”
Mike says it takes 5 years when converting soils from a conventional to a no-till system to start seeing benefits. When growers come to him with an interest in no-till, he always asks that they don’t judge what happens after just one year.
“Even if you just try it out in a small area, give it more than one year before you decide it didn’t work,” he says. “And this applies to so many different practices.”
He also recommends growers take a calculated approach to change. If a new piece of equipment or practice isn’t working, it might be tempting to change multiple things about the new process to try and fix it, but not only will it not fix anything, we won’t learn anything either.
“How do you know what was working and what wasn’t if you changed five things?” explains Mike. “Change one thing at a time and see how that works first.”
Today, Mike and his nephew are always working on finding better ways to manage their land and improve their ROI.
“I built a spreadsheet that tracks everything,” says Mike. “I can plug in things like equipment and purchases to see what I can afford. I can check different yields and prices, and every fertility application that I do, I can plug it into the spreadsheet too.”
That data is how Mike evaluates new practices or inputs each year and it gives him a certain amount of security when it comes to trying new things; whether the results are good or not, the information is good to have.
“Some of my close friends might say I’m a little obsessive, that I track more things than most people,” says Mike. “I just really enjoy digging into the numbers and tracking things.”
Although the farm is too far north to successfully utilize cover crops, the soil is rarely left bare. Without tillage, crop residue is left on the ground over the winter, and decades of no-till have fostered a soil biology that can quickly incorporate that plant matter into the soil. Mike also noticed the kind of nitrogen fertilizer they use impacts their soil.
“When we switched from anhydrous ammonia to urea, our earthworm populations went through the roof,” he says. “I see earthworm populations as a very good indicator of soil health; they do a lot of work for us that we don’t even realize.”
Mike has been trialling SOURCEⓇ, Sound’s microbiome activator, for two years. SOURCE is a chemistry that works with the microbes already in a growers field to provide in-season access to nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus and it can be used to boost yield or reduce nitrogen application.
Of course, Mike is still gathering data and dialing in exactly how he wants to use it on his operation.
“We want to see how it works with different applications and timings,” he says. “We want to see if we should focus more on fertility rather than boosting yield. This year, we’re looking at reducing our fertility even more to see if we can maintain yield using SOURCE.”
Like his dad, Mike likes trying new things and being at the leading edge, but he also wants to know what works on his operation and why.
“We focus on how we can do things better, save money on our inputs or our equipment, and find the best practices for us,” he says. “There are pros and cons to whatever you do; everybody has to do what is going to work for them and accept the consequences.”