A strong statement — yet a common comment — of the 34 participants attending the Aug. 13-15 Soil Health Academy hosted by Dawn and Grant Breitkreutz’s Redwood County, Minn. farm. Grant emphazied this was not just a farm changing event, but a “life changing event.”
Why? “Because you are taught how to work and function back with nature. And if you watch nature, you have to believe there is a God.”
Grant said his new mind frame about soil health started kicking in about 11 or 12 years ago. “We just didn’t know what we were doing to soil health,” he admitted. “The grazing habits of our cattle were showing us some things. Because of intensive grazing, moisture was being held on our hill tops rather than rushing downhill. We really increased production on our grass land. So if we fixed those issues by better pasture management, why aren’t we doing this on our cropland?
So is this the first chapter in how we remake American agriculture? “I firmly believe it is,” Grant responded.
If you look at the whole of regenerative agriculture, the starting point is putting carbon back into our soils. Grant explained when the bison where roaming these prairie lands, organic content was about 12 percent. “Yet when we started, our soils were under 2 percent,” he said. “Our soils were dying as we farmed them. Yet carbon is the heart of everything. So putting the tools to work to rebuild carbon levels quickly became top priority. Now we’re back to 5 percent organic content.”
Soil testing tells you the organic matter content of your soils. “The Hainey Test takes into account a lot of the biological activities of our soils which even accounts for nitrogen portions that don’t show in other tests. This year, for example, our test on fields planted to corn showed we had about $80 worth of nitrogen content. And that let us reduce our starter fertilizer levels accordingly,” noted Grant.
Stoney Creek is a 1,400-acre farming operation including about 400 acres of corn, soybeans, oats, wheat and cereal rye — plus a bunch of native pastures which have never seen a plow; plus significant acres of grassland pastures for the 180 mama cow herd which even involves grass finishing of some of these critters (Red Angus breeding progeny). Cattle get new pasture every day thanks to electric fencing.
“We use quick ‘step in’ posts and a single strand of poly wire. It’s key to have good energizers; but once they are trained, they don’t push because they know they are being moved every day. We calculate how much forage the will need. They are never short of feed. When they hear our Kumota side-by-side, they know they’re going to move. So no fencing issues — simply because the cows and calves are full. Huge used industrial tires sourced through a Montana company provide a water trough in each pasture.”
But get this: total fertilizer costs for their corn production is about $48 per acre! Yes, Grant admits to sacrificing some yield, but look at that fertilizer expense. “We have not applied potassium or phosphorous for eight years except for the minor amount in our starter fertilizer. We use a three-gallon product, a 10-20-10 in the furrow at planting time. We’ve cut back on corn populations too. Used to be 34,000-36,000. Now we’re interseeding cover crops into our corn at V2 to V4 so we’re at 30,000. We use flex-eared hybrids which can make up some yield loss of the lower populations.”
Grant admits his Stoney Creek Farm won’t be producing yield records. “But our cost per bushel is so much lower and we’re still producing respectable yields. I give credit to the tremendous soil health we have regenerated because of no-till, our multi-species cover crops, our cattle grazing much of our crop lands and the incredible biological activity going on in our soils.”
Breitkreutz’s machinery inventory is minimal. With his brother, some custom haying also fits into their schedule. “We don’t have much tillage equipment left. We’ve got a 12-row planter, two 20-foot grain drills (one with 10-inch spacing; the other 8-inch) that are always on the move. As we harvest a crop, those drills are out seeding a cover crop. Power is a couple of well-used rigs: a 200-horsepower front-wheel assist and a 140-horse two-wheel drive. Yes, our tractors are old, but they’re something I can fix. I enjoy fixing stuff so our aging machinery isn’t an issue.”
“Our machinery costs are minor,” Grant continued. “I think we can do better if we get a successful cereal rye interseeding. Mother Nature has been a little tough on that particular detail. But I firmly believe we’ll soon be producing soybeans with no chemicals. We’ve got an agreement with a neighbor to use his roller-crimper. We’ll fall seed the cereal rye. It comes back next spring. When it starts flowering, we’ll plant the beans, then roller crimp them and that’s our weed suppression.”
“Two years ago we did not post-apply any herbicides on much of our soybeans because we had such good weed suppression from this matted cereal rye.”
So after eight years of regenerative farming for Grant and Dawn, is there anything left to learn? Grant’s an amiable guy. He grinned, “The farther I get into regenerative agriculture, the less I know. It’s just amazing to me what you see. I say to myself, ‘wow, we’ve been missing this all this time!’ It’s amazing how little we know about nature. We sent a man to the moon, yet we know so little about the soil — that amazing body of microorganisms beneath our feet that feeds us. We should be learning everything we can about how that soil is supposed to function in a healthy environment.”
These Soil Health Academys are expanding in popularity. Gabe Brown, Ray Archuleta and Dr. Allen Williams are hiring more soil scientists to accommodate the growing demand. “These guys love doing these three-day events. They are genuinely great guys and tremendously dedicated to teaching the many intricacies of making our earth healthy again. And with increasing hunger issues around the world, healthy soils are an absolute must.”
A coalition ‘kickoff’ meeting on Aug. 16 at Stoney Creek Farm was a preliminary schedule for the 2020 Soil Health Academys across America. “Eight area farmers — after hearing comments by Gabe and Ray — told me they should have been here all week,” Grant said. “Yes, admittedly I’m biased because I know what better soil health is doing for our farming. But often some of our 34 ‘students’ were saying, ‘this was the most productive week of my life!’ Tuning in to Mother Nature is indeed an addictive happening. Dawn and I both agree … there couldn’t be a better addiction for our planet.”
“Yes, saving the earth has become a political platform for many. ‘Sounds great!’ we are tempted to say; but until, unless there is a regeneration of sol health around the world, we’ll mostly just be dealing with endless chatter. It starts with rebuilding the chemistry of their soils. And practicing just six principles of soil health tells us how.”
For more information on the Soil Health Academy, visit the website www.soilhealthacademy.org.