“Dryland” farmers on the high plains of Colorado grow their crops with whatever falls from the sky—no irrigation, no pumped groundwater—just what Mother Nature delivers. In recent years some have been trying to innovate to protect their soils and conserve water to prepare for climate change. But they’re getting pushback—not only from their neighbors and their own families—but also from the government.
Listen to the full story, presented by H2O Radio:
The “Dirty Thirties”
Nate McCaffrey wasn’t around in a time people call the “Dirty Thirties”—the Dust Bowl era, when the drought-stricken plains lost tons of topsoil. But he can imagine it. McCaffrey is a farmer in his mid-thirties and he grew up in eastern Colorado. He’s seen that when the wind really blows, the air would turn brown, and there would be a 3-inch rain after which they would spend the next two weeks pulling dirt out of the fields that washed down to the bottom.
The eastern plains of Colorado are a world away from the Rocky Mountains for which the state is famous. It’s flat, wide-open grassland, and if there is a tree on the horizon it was probably planted there by a human to offer respite. It’s an unforgiving place to do agriculture—but many do—practicing something called “dryland farming,” in which people like McCaffrey’s family grow wheat, millet, sunflowers, and corn using only what falls from the sky.
“Mother Nature only provides a certain amount of moisture, and we have to use it to the best of our ability and be creative,” McCaffrey says. Because water is so scarce on the high plains, being “creative” means that most farmers there have adopted the practice of fallowing their fields to bank the rain that does fall to save it in the soil for the next year’s crop. After harvest, the soils are tilled and then left to “rest,” so to speak, and often sprayed with herbicides to suppress weeds. The result: for over a year the ground is virtually bare and lifeless. Fallowing was stressful. McCaffrey said, “Growing up on a farm all my life, all I ever knew was going out during that fallow period and stressing about trying to kill every weed out there and keep the ground as bare and clean as you could keep it because you were using moisture.”
Not to mention, the soil was getting hot. There was no groundcover, so every time it rained much of the water would evaporate. Research shows that fallowing land only retains about 25 percent of the moisture that falls in a given year, but to farmers in this area, it was the only realistic way to grow the next cash crop in such a water-starved region.
To Till, or Not to Till—That Is the Question
So when it was time for McCaffrey to go out on his own, he was conflicted about sticking with the so-called “conventional” way of farming, which required tilling and a fallow rotation. It got to a point after being out in his fields night and day tilling the ground, that he’d ask himself, “What good am I doing? Am I just out here trying to raise a crop? Am I just out here trying to create revenue? Or am I actually working toward something that somebody is going to care about in the future?”
The answer was metaphorically blowing in the wind—the soil that was being lost from erosion had to be protected, he determined. To accomplish that, the first thing McCaffrey decided to do was go “no-till.”
Tillage is what you picture when you imagine a farmer on a tractor pulling a plow. It’s meant to prepare the ground for the next season by burying residue from the previous crop, leveling the soil, and killing weeds by cutting them off at the knees.
However, research shows that tillage has some serious downsides. It compacts the soil, and by tearing up the ground it breaks apart soil structure, which can lead to erosion. McCaffrey says it also disrupts soil microbes and other beneficial organisms like earthworms, which he says help with water retention and water infiltration because as the creatures make their burrows, water follows them down into the root zone.
So McCaffrey jumped in with both feet. Not only did he sell his conventional machinery, (so he couldn’t waffle on his decision), he bought new no-till equipment that sows his crop by opening up a small slot in the soil and dropping in a seed. This method leaves most of the ground undisturbed, and one immediate bonus was saving money on fuel costs and labor because he would no longer need to spend endless hours on his tractor tilling.
A Refreshing Change and a Totally Different Mindset as a Farmer
But McCaffrey knew protecting his soil was going to take more than not tilling it. The next thing he did was the unthinkable in his area. Instead of fallowing, he planted something called cover crops—plants whose main purpose is to build soil health. But what about the common wisdom that he was going to use up all the moisture that was being stored for the next cash crop? McCaffrey saw it differently. He explains that when a raindrop falls on a cover crop it spreads the moisture across ground instead of bouncing and running off, carrying soils with it. Cover crops can capture springtime precipitation and retain it in the soil, so it’s there to grow the next cash crop. It’s a win-win in his mind.
Cover crops not only help with water infiltration, they shade the ground to keep it cooler, add nutrients to the soil as they break down, and attract pollinators. They also add diversity, which benefits soil microbes in an area where only a few crops have been grown historically. In the past, he says, they had a monoculture system that, in his opinion was all about killing rather than creating. “We killed everything to grow wheat. We killed everything to grow milo. Now it’s actually fun to watch a beneficial crop grow out there and you’re not stressing about trying to kill a crop, you’re actually wanting to grow a crop to benefit you.”
McCaffrey is only going into his third year using cover crops, but he says they’re already helping him with weed suppression, which saves money on herbicides. Last year he said he got a better stand of cover crops, and they outcompeted many of the noxious weeds that he had trouble with the year before. That’s a huge bonus because there are more and more herbicide-resistant plants.
“It’s a refreshing change and a totally different mindset as a farmer, and it makes it way more fun to farm,” he says. And those earthworms we mentioned earlier—McCaffrey said while he hasn’t seen his soil organic matter come up yet because it takes time with cover cropping, last fall he saw so many earthworms in his wheat field he could have “dug up an entire bucket of worms to go fishing.” In his ten years of farming he’d never seen that many worms. The only thing he could attribute it to was his cover crops, “I’ve heard others talk about it, but I figured it would take about five to seven years down the road. It happened already. I’m pretty excited to see what the next year or two brings.”
Long Ago Quit Going to the Coffee Shop
So with all his enthusiasm for soil health practices, you would think other farmers and family would applaud McCaffrey’s efforts to improve his soil, but you’d be wrong. His parents farm using mostly conventional practices, and are very successful, so it can be uncomfortable to defend his practices when the measure of success is yield, not soil health. He confesses that he’s not yielding more than they are—not yet, he adds, with a wink, it’s only a matter of time.
It wasn’t just awkwardness with family. He’d hear comments from neighbors thinking he was crazy to “waste” his moisture on cover crops. McCaffrey, like many farmers we spoke to, is committed to regenerating the soil, despite the chatter and whispers—something Curt Sayles knows all about.
Sayles is in his early sixties and has been farming no-till for over twenty years, and cover cropping for the last six, so it’s easier for him to shrug off comments. He farms about 30 miles south of McCaffrey near Seibert, Colorado, and he long ago quit going to the coffee shop where he might get pushback about his techniques. Even at family get-togethers he knows better than to talk about farming practices. He’s happy to share his successes—and his failures—but he’s certain he’s on the right path. He’s saving money on fertilizer, herbicides—and fuel to run his tractor—plus seeing his soil quality improve.
He thinks any resistance to new practices is part economics, part psychological. It’s hard to change old habits, and for older farmers, their lifestyle has met their revenue stream and they’re comfortable. “They’re on the back side of their careers,” he says, adding “They don’t need to learn anything new, they’ll just ease on out.” In Sayles’s opinion, it’s the young guys who are going to make the change to soil health practices. They’ll innovate because they’ll have to—because of rising costs of machinery, inputs, and land—the old ways just won’t work. “There’s a fork in the road. Do I go intensive with chemicals and fertilizers and get locked into that system, or do I try another system? As a young man your mind is more open.”
Don’t let him fool you. Sayles has a very open mind. He has recently added another conservation practice gaining popularity—he brought livestock in to graze his cover crops to offset the cost of growing them. He says he “may not be pulling bushels of grain off, but he’s pulling off pounds of livestock.” He’s hoping this year to have some fall grazing with the ultimate goal of having the cattle grazing all year on his cover crops so he won’t have to buy hay.
The economics of his practices are really starting to add up, but going no-till, cover cropping, abandoning fallow, and rotational grazing are not without risk, and to help farmers adopt some of these soil health practices the federal government though the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, or NRCS, offers incentives to switch systems and buy the necessary equipment.
“They’re Not Pulling in the Same Direction”
But there’s another agency under the USDA umbrella—the Risk Management Agency (RMA) that Sayles says discourages these practices—and they’re the ones who administer crop insurance, which farmers depend on not only as their safety net against weather or crop failures, but also as an important tool to get financing from a bank or an operating loan for machinery, equipment, and seed.
Crop insurance has to work with soil health practices in order for farmers to adopt them, explains Ryan Stockwell, director of sustainable agriculture with National Wildlife Federation. Stockwell works with farmers to adopt soil health practices—something he calls “regenerative agriculture”—to make their operations more sustainable in order to address climate change as well as solve wildlife habitat and water quality issues.
Stockwell says, “Unfortunately, there are a couple small, little tweaks in the crop insurance program that are causing some problems. Right now, cover crops, despite all the evidence of their benefits and risk-mitigating potential, they are treated a little differently because they are new. Farmers who want to use cover crops are looking at the potential of losing crop insurance if they do something just a little bit wrong.” He adds that since we as taxpayers pay a significant portion of the crop insurance program it would make sense to maximize its value.
Because of the way crop insurance is calculated, Sayles says he has to be really careful about integrating cover crops, and that’s frustrating. RMA is a for-profit company, and they really don’t like risk, he says, so unlike health insurance, where you might get lower premiums for exercising or not smoking, farmers don’t get credit for practices that improve soil, reduce erosion, and save water—essentially mitigating their risk of a loss. In many parts of Colorado, a farmer who fallows his land will get a better rate than a farmer who improves his soil with cover crops. Sayles says he gets less coverage for the same dollar versus someone who fallows his land.
“They’re not pulling in the same direction,” Sayles complains. He understands that the farther west you get in the U.S. there is less rainfall, less productive soils, and a shorter growing season, and that all those things factor into crop insurance rates. However, the premiums are based on yield, not soil health practices. “We’re really conscious of our soil and trying to build our soil, and we have to take more risk to do good things for the environment. That’s a paradox.”
In his opinion, RMA can find research that supports its conclusion that fallow is less risky. He says the agency only has a small amount of data that suggests that cover cropping is going to hurt the next cash crop. However, they use that data to determine that a cash crop should be insured for less—or in some cases not insurable at all after a cover crop.
RMA relies on research from universities or the USDA for their data—or by having a farmer show five years of yield history (again this is all based on yield). But since this soil health practices are relatively new on the high plains that data doesn’t exist. At least, not yet…
A Fair Assessment
Meagan Schipanski is an assistant professor of agroecology at Colorado State University who focuses on plant-soil interactions. She and her colleagues at Kansas State University are two years in to a three-year on-farm study with dryland producers in Kansas, Colorado, and Nebraska to understand whether growing cover crops in these areas can both improve soil health—and maintain profitability. A group of farmers approached her to do the study partly to help them improve their operations and partly to have data to show RMA.
The farmers understand that RMA’s goal is to sustain agriculture by managing risk, but they’d argue that they have no interest in “sustaining” the practices that have led to sick soils—soils that erode, that are dependent on inputs, that and don’t hold moisture. So they asked Schipanski to take a systems perspective and not evaluate whether cover crops work based on the next crop’s yield but look at the whole-farm operation including things like grazing that help them recoup costs—and get some return on the water the cover crops consumed.
Schipanski said her research has shown that short periods of growing cover crops does have some soil health benefits, such as higher soil aggregation—the clumping of the soil together, which is an important factor in increasing water infiltration and water holding capacity. So cover crops, even in dryland systems growing for pretty short time periods, have some soil benefits.
Schipanski says she and her colleagues have done a lot of research looking at rotation systems. Not having a fallow did reduce wheat yields; however it’s expensive to maintain fallow, and it’s increasingly expensive as herbicide costs go up and herbicide-resistant weeds become more of a problem. Her analysis found that it was more profitable to grow a crop, not necessarily a cover crop but perhaps a forage crop during that fallow period than it was to fallow, even with the impact on the next wheat crop.
So once the study is complete, will RMA be willing to listen? Schipanski hopes so. “We are going to give a really fair assessment of what the variability is and what folks can expect, and we will share that with RMA and others. The farmers are taking some risks in innovating and trying new practices, and it does make it harder for them to maintain the safety net of crop insurance in some cases.”
H2O Radio reached out to RMA for comment, but they declined an interview.
Sayles is looking forward to the results of Schipanski’s study and how it will help him fine-tune his operation. But he also hopes that eventually, one day, he’ll get to a place where is soil is healthy enough—resilient enough—that he won’t even need crop insurance.
To put it bluntly, he says, “If we start having variant climate like they say that we might with this climate change thing and we start getting extremes, we’re going to have to have resilience in our soils. That’s the only way you’re going to make it through this, or we’re gonna have another dirt bowl. We have no excuse. We’ve been there, done that. I think it’s unwise to think the government will bail us out again or that they should. We could claim ignorance in the ‘30s or maybe even the ‘50s. We didn’t have the technology, but the excuses are getting thinner and thinner.”