Agricultural Sustainability

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Rebuilding Soil Organic Matter

Clint Cox bought the first homestead in his area of north central Kansas. It came with the homesteaders’ stories of plentiful wildlife, shoulder-high grasses and free-flowing streams.

The day he closed on the farm, he sampled the soil. Much had changed during a century of farming. Organic matter stood at 1%.

As he does with all the ground he farms, Cox began nourishing the soil. For the past 20 years, he has used crop rotations, cover crops, grazing practices and biologicals to push organic matter to more than 3%, a strong gain on which to build additional organic matter.

“We’re wanting to get back to a system that is using biology and is not as dependent on synthetic fertilizers and inputs to make the system go,” Cox said. “We’re cutting back each year from where we were and the ground is saying thank you. You can see it. You can pick up the soil and you can smell it. The soil is alive.”

Cox and his family use practices that restore and exploit natural systems to integrate their crops, hogs and cattle. Their focus on biodiversity begins below ground in the soil’s microbial communities and works its way above ground to support diverse plant populations through cover crops and crop rotation, grazing practices and, ultimately, wildlife that inhabit the area.

Adding Biodiversity Through Cover Crops

Much of what Cox has achieved grew out of single objectives that led to broader gains. For example, adding biodiversity above ground and in the soil through cover crops.

But adding cover crops isn’t free, so he started exploring ways to cover the cost of seeding. By utilizing a cover crop mix that was good for his soil and good for grazing his cowherd, he could make it pencil out.

And even though he originally grazed the cover crop with the intent of getting the economics to work, this action brought something else – an added layer of biodiversity. The livestock provided a natural fertilizer and their hoof action helped break down vegetation and incorporate nutrients back into the soil.

“It all turns back into biology. If you start from the beginning and move forward, it’s all about how that biology is thriving in each one of those environments,” Cox said.

Cox credits like-minded producers – friends and acquaintances across multiple states – with giving him the tools and know-how to explore different practices: “All of a sudden, we could start collaborating on the data a little bit and say, ‘Hey, you should have done this instead. I tried that and it didn’t work.’ The community was very important to my education.”

Integrating Soil Biologicals

A few years ago, Cox became a co-founder of Elevate Ag, a producer-owned company dedicated to soil health and biologicals. The founders have drawn on lessons learned on their own farms to help customers understand and integrate biologicals into their operations.

“They say a teaspoon of soil is supposed to have a billion microbes in it – bacteria, fungi, protozoa, all sorts of stuff,” Cox said. “Biologicals thrive under conditions that are right for them, so there’s always winners and losers within a biological system. When you elevate the populations of all of them, what they call a quorum, your soil starts to behave quite a bit differently … your plants will actually do things differently because of it.”

Cox has seen an increase in the protein level of his wheat and starches in his corn. And while his crop and grazing system make financial sense, he continues to look for markets that will pay a premium for his practices and their outcomes.

So far, the brewing industry has been most interested, he said. Craft brewers want to partner with producers who are working to be more sustainable. It is not a huge market and it requires Cox to share data. But, he said, it’s a starting point as he seeks additional opportunities.