Taking his farm from failure due extreme climate adversity to a world leading example of soil health and profitability
After 3 crop failures in a row due to extreme climate conditions Gabe Brown was ready for finding a solution – no matter what – that would insure his farm in the future. He could not survive year after year with crop failures due to the adversaries of nature and couldn’t afford more inputs. Coming from a town background, it had never made sense to him to plough up his paddocks, so after the first failure in desperation to feed his livestock, he went against tradition and over sowed a fodder crop into the remaining cereals. And he continued to do this after successive failures finally planting more than one crop to see what would happen.. Gabe was quick to notice that he was on the right track.
Gabe says that not being from a farm or ranch, he always tended to question why we do certain things and why things were done in a certain way. He had listened and attended a class that Alan Savory put on, talking about rotational grazing and started doing some rotational grazing. Then in 1993, I had friend in the northern part of North Dakota who was a no-tiller. That friend convinced me into going no-till for as Gabe says, tillage is the act of taking either a plough, a chisel plough, a field cultivator, or any type of steel or implement and destroying the soil’s structure and turning the soil over. By reducing the tillage, he says you leave those soil aggregates, those pore spaces intact, which improve water infiltration and then also provide a home for that soil biology.
He remembers that his father-in-law had once told him “You’ll find that the more we till the soil, the better it is.” But Gabe questioned that because he was farming in an area where with only approximately 16 inches of total precipitation a year, moisture was usually a limiting factor. He couldn’t understand why they tilled it and dried it out.
So in 1993, he went 100 % no-till, sold all his tillage equipment and went no-till. Immediately, he started seeing some benefits from the fact that he didn’t till the soil. “We were conserving moisture. When I started no-tilling in 1993, I was the lone no-tiller in Burleigh County, North Dakota. Burleigh County is a million-acre county of which approximately 60 % is farmland. I was the only no-tiller. Now, today, approximately 70 % of the farm ground in this county is no-till. It’s really caught on here in the Northern Plains, especially where moisture is a limiting factor”.
When Gabe started no-tilling in 1993 he had very little diversity that when he started, he had no idea what soil health was. “But then, through the grace of God, I went through a period of four years from 1995… In 1995, the day before we were going to start combining our spring wheat crop, we lost 100% of that crop to hail. That was pretty devastating on a young family starting out. What do you do after hails? You lose your feedstock.” So that is when he started planting some cover crops just trying to provide some feed for his livestock.
Then 1996 came along and he lost 100% of his crops to hail again. So he started planting more of these cover crops and unable to borrow money anymore for synthetic inputs – fertilizers, etc. he had to figure out how to get the soil to be productive on its own. So he started planting more legumes, things like peas, and then I came across hairy vetch. He started hairy vetch as a legume and planted that with winter triticale in order to provide some great-seeding feed for the livestock. He started to diversify the crop rotation, which was really an important step in teaching him the importance of diversity.
And 1997 came along there was a devastating drought in his area, nobody combined an acre. Despite three crop failures in a row Gabe started to slowly notice that there was an improvement in his soil. It was mellower. It smelled better. He was starting to see earthworms which he never had in any of the fields because of the heavy tilling.
Ref: Regenerative Soil Management: A Special Interview with Gabe Brown By Dr. Joseph Mercola