GARVIN, Minn. — Pastured chickens and turkeys are part of the big regenerative picture at Heartland Heritage Farms, a multi-generation crop and livestock farm near this southwestern Minnesota town.
“We’ve taken all tillage out of our practices,” Chris Schmidt, who farms with his son and his father Dale, said. “We stopped doing tillage in 2012 and are doing no-till and incorporating cover crops at that time.”
Chris says that his father, who had always farmed with conventional tillage practices, was open to change; but when he saw the initial results of those early no-till experiments he was doubtful.
“We twisted his arm a little bit and he finally said you guys can take that ten acres and see how it turns out,” Chris, who had no land at the time, said. “We took the tillage out of the equation and added cover crops immediately. That first year we did some cereal rye — maybe some radishes and turnips. Part way through the year we were walking through the field with Dad and he was upset. He said I should charge you guys for every bushel of corn I’m not going to get off that field. I felt bad. I thought we had screwed this up and it’s his livelihood.”
Chris’ dad told him the average corn yield for that field was 175 bushels per acre. Chris told his dad he’d pay for the missing corn if the field came in below average; but he asked his dad to pay him for any corn above average.
“He said, let’s just see how it does,” Chris recalls. “That field went over 200 bushels per acre that year.”
Dale had pretty much the same yield; so, although Chris feels he and his son Brad may have been lucky, they showed themselves that no-till can compete with conventional tillage.
Once Chris and Brad understood that yields from no-till were competitive, they decided to stack their enterprises. That is to say, they would take two different crops from the same ten acres: corn and forage.
“We started fencing off the fields and letting the cattle graze the cover crops,” Chris said. “We saw a huge response any place where we put the cattle out to graze the cover crops and the corn stalks when we put beans on those fields next year. The difference in yield was very noticeable.”
The Schmidts had only intended to use those cover crops to supplement their forage supply for their cattle. But when they saw their bean yields increase, they changed their thinking about how they farm.
“We realized that we needed to get animals on this land scape as much as possible,” Chris said. “We decided to mimic Mother Nature back when this all was tall grass prairie.”
That’s where the chickens and turkeys come in.
In 2019 the Schmidts started having poultry follow behind grazing livestock. The chickens are kept in portable pens, usually referred to as chicken tractors.
“We fabricated our own chicken tractors with a roof and wheels,” Chris said. “We move them every single day. Their manure is really good fertilizer.”
For the turkeys, the Schmidts converted an old livestock trailer for night-time roosting and the daily rotation. They create a paddock for the birds with portable solar electric poultry netting.
The poultry generally follow their cross bred flock of sheep on grass paddocks as the sheep are rotated from paddock to paddock. The no-till acres with the cover crops are generally grazed by their cattle.
“We don’t get every acre every year, but we’ve developed a rotation,” Chris said about the cattle.
One result of integrating livestock into the crop land and of stacking poultry grazing onto sheep paddocks has been increased crop yields and paddock carrying capacity. But, when you mimic Mother Nature you generally receive multiple benefits.
“We’re doing a study with the DNR (Department of Natural Resources) on a field that I farm,” Chris said. “The first year it took two and a half minutes for the first inch of water to soak in and it took over ten minutes for the second inch. A lot of that would have puddled and probably run off the field. This fall — six years later on that same field — we were able to absorb three inches of rain in less than two minutes.”
That increased water percolation is the result of improved soil structure; which, in turn, counts for improved crop yields.
“The soil now gets that aggregate look,” Chris said. “It’s not silty. We have air pores going down because we’re not tilling the soil and destroying the structure so that water just disappears. We’ve pulled up corn plants that have four to five-foot-long roots. Those roots will find those worm holes and they’ll start diving deep and pulling the deep nutrients back up to the surface. There’s more drought tolerance, less runoff, and more nutrients for the plants.”
Those bigger, deeper roots — whether they are corn, bean, or grass roots — are left deep in the soil after grazing or harvest. They are decomposing, leaving behind an increased organic matter, or carbon, which is rich in microbes and nutrients. That, in turn, has allowed the Schmidts to cut back on their nitrogen application.
Lately, the Schmidts have been studying aphid predators in their fields. There are plenty of them so they’ve decided to let the predators do the work that insecticides would have done before.
It’s all part of working towards regenerating the land by mimicking Mother Nature.