When Josh Beck describes some of the practices he’s tried in a bid to incorporate regenerative agriculture practices on his southern Alberta farm, you’ll probably hear him say a few times, “Everything was looking really good early in the growing season … and then it turned dry.”
Lack of growing season moisture is not only a fact of life some years in the Hilda area of Cypress Country, northeast of Medicine Hat, but it is also a recurring condition he is trying to mitigate with regenerative agriculture practices. Some of the new seedings he hoped would protect the soil as the growing season progressed simply fizzled without moisture.
He can’t make it rain, but he’s looking at measures that will hopefully keep the ground covered most of the year so the soil doesn’t dry out. He’s trying different combinations of cover and companion crops. While those plants are shading the soil surface, he also hopes through the roots they will add carbon and organic matter to the soil and improve soil microbial activity, helping to improve soil texture so the soil is better able to process nutrients and store and retain moisture.
“Our main goal in trying these different treatments is moisture conservation and increased moisture retention,” says Beck, who along with family members crops about 6,000 acres. He also has another 1,000 acres of hay and pastureland for a small cow-calf herd. He’s hoping to expand the livestock component of the farm.
Increased moisture conservation and improved soil health through these regenerative agriculture practices may eventually lead to reduced input costs too, he hopes. “I’m not looking to go organic,” says Beck. “But I would like to use any chemical inputs as a tool rather than a crutch. I really get tired of the input cost every year. And I think about all the salt we are pumping into the ground with different products. I’d like to see if we could work our way back, so the soil is functioning like it used to before the ground was broke.”
Beck hasn’t had any real failures, everything has been a valuable learning experience. Some regen ag measures didn’t turn out at all or as well as he hoped, but at least now he knows. “I’m going to keep working on it because I believe it is the way to go,” he says. “I have neighbours — there is a community of people — that are trying these practices with varying degrees of success, so we can learn from each other.”
Beck has been trying several different treatments for the past two growing seasons, and he will continue some version of those into 2021.
From the 2019 growing season file
In 2019, the first year of regen ag practices, the first treatment involved seeding 100 acres to a blend of maple peas and brown mustard. Both were seeded together in the same row at a reduced rate of one and a half bushels or about 90 pounds per acre of pea seed, along with about three pounds of mustard. He put the two crops together, first in hopes the mustard would help support the peas, which are notorious for falling over, and, second, he hoped the peas would fix nitrogen in the soil.
It was a drier spring and seeding the peas one and a half to two inches deep meant the mustard seed was seeded too deep. Germination wasn’t great, there were also weed issues, then growing conditions turned very dry. He did get the field combined, and he bought a rotary cleaner to separate the peas and mustard — that worked really well. “But overall, it wasn’t a great experience,” says Beck.
On another 40 acres, he seeded a full-season cover crop into wheat stubble that included a seven species blend, including turnips, radish, millet and yellow peas. He was planning to use the field for fall grazing for his 30 pair cow-calf herd. The cover crop germinated and he later realized he’d put too many peas into the blend, so as conditions got dry the peas took over and some other crops in the blend disappeared. He ended up cutting and baling the field for hay, but later in the year the cowherd did graze the aftermath.
“I was fairly happy with how the cover crop started out,” says Beck. “But it is really hard to evaluate things when it is so dry.”
From the 2020 growing season file
The 2020 regen ag program saw Beck try several different seeding combinations, including revisiting the idea of seeding maple peas and mustard in the same field, but his new approach was to seed the crops in one pass, but in separate rows.
He used the same seeding rate, but with the John Deere disc drill he seeded peas in one furrow and used the midrow fertilizer banding feature to seed mustard in between the pea rows. The drill had the discs set at 10-inch spacing, so the mustard was seeded about five inches away from the peas. Peas were seeded up to two inches deep, while the mustard was shallow seeded.
“It wasn’t perfect, but it worked quite well,” says Beck. “Everything got off to a good start, good germination, both crops were looking pretty good and then it turned dry. Everything just sort of shut down.”
He did harvest a combined yield of about 22 bushels per acre. The peas were so dry he had to combine them at night. A slight improvement in nighttime humidity reduced losses.
The other lesson he learned is to put out a sign the next time he seeds a blended crop near a main road. “I need to let people know that this was planned, rather than have them think my pea crop was just a mess of volunteer mustard,” says Beck.
Again, he says it is difficult to make an evaluation when moisture shuts down in mid-July “and everything runs out of moisture.”
Late summer grazing
Also in 2020, he seeded an 80-acre field with another full-season cover crop that included a commercial blend of turnip, millet, phacelia and radish and Beck added oats. The blend was seeded in mid-May with the idea of using it later as summer pasture in a strip grazing system.
With everything seeded at once, there was poor germination of the small seed crops that were seeded too deep, and the rate at which the oats were seeded was too high as well. The oats dominated.
Although moisture was limited, the oats did grow, so part way through the summer, half of the 80 acres was cut and baled for green feed, while the 30 cow-calf pairs were turned in to graze the other 40 acres. With a portable electric fence, they were given access to a new grazing area every three to four days.
Beck says the cover crop did provide feed, but he learned not to seed the large and small seed species together. And while he didn’t have any proper research, at the end of the year, the calves that had been on the cover crop pasture weighed about 30 to 40 pounds heavier than calves that had been on pasture with native species. He suspects the cows on oats milked better which increased calf weaning weights.
Also in 2020, he seeded another 80 acres with a cover crop blend that included spring triticale to be used for swath grazing. Again, seeding fairly deep in mid-June to seed into moisture, the small-seed species had poor germination. And there was also a fair bit of volunteer mustard that grew as well.
While the growing season was dry, he did swath the stand in mid-September. He turned his cow-calf pairs onto the swath grazing in October and also brought in 25 head of neighbour’s cattle in early December. Even though it snowed 12 inches or more, the cattle were able to muzzle their way through the windrows. He figured the swaths would carry the cows into January of 2021.
Again, the triticale and mustard grew quite well, but the commercial cover crop blend just didn’t grow. It was seeded too deep and not enough moisture.
One final treatment Beck tried for 2020 was a field with interseeded crops — that involved wheat seeded on 10-inch row spacing as the main cash crop, while three types of clover were seeded in alternate rows, essentially on 20-inch row spacing.
To accomplish the two seedings, Beck built a second seeding system for the clover. He used a Morris rod weeder frame and mounted John Deere disc openers to the frame on 20-inch spacing. To handle seed distribution, he mounted a Valmar applicator on top of the seeding tool bar and built a hood that helped direct seed into the distribution tower with tubes running to the disc openers.
The wheat was seeded in early May, first with his John Deere disc drill on 10-inch row spacing. It germinated and was growing well. And following the in-crop herbicide treatment on the wheat, the clover crop was interseeded in late June, with the Valmar seeding system on 20-inch row spacing.
“It actually worked really well,” says Beck. “I just have conventional GPS for auto steer, but I was able to position the Valmar unit so it seeded between the wheat rows, there was no disturbance to the wheat, and the shallow seeded clovers germinated. It was all looking pretty good and then it turned dry.” The clover just shrivelled up and died.
Beck says he plans to keep trying various treatments, hoping to get a year when there’s enough moisture to carry the trials through to the end of the growing season. Here’s what experience has shown Beck so far:
- He wants to find a less expensive cover crop blend … it may just be cereals, but something cheaper than the $30 per acre he is spending now on seed.
- It is important to seed the small seed crops shallow and larger seed crops deeper to moisture.
- He’d like to increase the livestock component either with his own cattle or by renting pasture and swath grazing to other producers. He likes the fact that cattle do a great job of recycling nutrients back onto the land.
- It is important to keep connected with other farmers trying regenerative agriculture practices to share knowledge on what works and doesn’t work.
“There was a fire through here about three years ago that scorched about 2,000 acres of cropland and that really opened my eyes to the fact when you remove crop cover that soil just dries out to nothing,” says Beck. “I believe to conserve moisture, it is important to leave as much crop residue I can, but also to do my best to establish cover crops and keep something growing to help get that soil working again.”