Last week, the NDSU Extension Service and University of Minnesota Extension hosted the annual Conservation Tillage Conference (CTC) in Fargo, ND. The conference is organized by Jodi DeJong-Hughes from the U of M and Abbey Wick from NDSU. Jodi is a soils and reduced tillage guru. Abbey started at NDSU only four years ago and has already established herself as an expert in the continually developing field of soil health. Abbey had invited my brother, Mark, and I to share our experiences with no-till farming practices and cover crops during a roundtable discussion at the CTC.
The conference started Tuesday morning with a keynote presentation from Bryan Jorgenson (pictured above) of Jorgenson Land & Cattle Partnership in Ideal, SD. Mr. Jorgenson emphasized the importance of learning about healthy soils from native prairies. He also discussed the need to look at soil health from an entire system approach, from no-till practices to diverse crop rotations to inclusion of cover crops to utilizing livestock for grazing. The "whole system" approach is a concept that stuck with me.
After the keynote address, we had the opportunity to attend several different breakout sessions. The first one I attended had to do with residue management and decomposition. One of the greatest difficulties in our no-till operation is managing residue from the previous year's crop. It starts with making sure the combine is set properly to spread the residue when we are harvesting the crop. But the inclusion of cover crops after harvest in the fall can actually facilitate the decomposition of residue much quicker than without the cover crop. That I didn't know before this breakout session.
Then after the breakout sessions there were table talks. These 30-40 minute discussions are in smaller groups and allow the conference attendees to ask questions and share dialogue. The above picture is Mr. Jorgenson's table talk. I asked him several questions about the use of livestock to help manage residue and speed up the conversion of residue to fertilizer. Cattle are integral to the system. (Guess what we're getting for Christmas, Elizabeth!) I was also impressed with his commitment to his 100% no-till system. The soil types and average climate in Ideal, SD are much different than Aneta, ND so it's hard to share the exact same practices, but I appreciated his passion for no-till.
Wednesday morning is when Mark and I hosted our roundtable discussion. We were supposed to begin at 9:30 a.m. At 9:31 there were two other gentlemen sitting at our table. I thought, "Well, I guess nobody wants to try no-till practices in northern North Dakota." Five minutes later, there were 20 or so folks sitting around our table.
I shared experiences that we've had on our farm. I've learned a great deal about no-till from Tim, and we've learned some new things together in the last few years. Mark shared pictures comparing no-till fields and conventional fields after heavy rains. The no-till fields provide greater water infiltration so we have less run-off and water erosion. We had great interaction from the group. I firmly believe this type of conference is what is going to help farmers get better. We had great instruction from the experts, but we also had the opportunity to visit with each other and learn some things that work...and just as important...the things that don't work.
A huge thank you to Abbey Wick for the invitation and to Jodi DeJong-Hughes for all her work in hosting the conference as well. It was the best farm-oriented conference I've ever attended.
About four years ago, Elizabeth was invited to a "Women in Leadership Development (WILD)" event that was organized by the North Dakota Farmers Union (NDFU). She attended and met some new friends and made contacts at NDFU. She must've made a good first impression, because she was invited to attend the National Farmers Union Women's Conference in Clearwater Beach, FL a few months later. The two of us travelled to Florida and she attended the meetings while I enjoyed the white sands on the beach. That meeting was an energizing experience for her to get more involved in Farmers Union.
You see, my wife would tell you that she falls in the conservative side of the political spectrum. And its no secret that Farmers Union is more of a liberal-leaning organization. In fact, after the first WILD event Elizabeth stated that she didn't see herself joining Farmers Union because of her political affiliation. But after attending our first state convention and the national women's conference, Elizabeth started to see that Farmers Union was less of a political organization and moreso a large group of farmers that had the ability to debate issues, form internal policies, and provide social opportunities for young farmers like ourselves.
Since that first year, Elizabeth has become Vice President of the Griggs County chapter of Farmers Union. She then served on the Bylaws Committee at the 2015 Annual Convention. And this year, Elizabeth was the chairperson for the Credentials/Elections Committee at the Annual Convention. There she was, my Republican wife, up on stage at the 2016 NDFU Annual Convention reading the names of the election winners, from the President down to the national conference delegates. I am very proud of her ability to get involved in an organization that serves to be a strong voice for farmers in North Dakota.
One of the top priorities every fall is to make sure that existing drains or ditches are clean. That means we remove any silt that might have settled in the drain over the summer or over multiple years. Where possible, we use our scraper to clean drains. That is a tool that is pulled behind a tractor and scoops the silt from the drain and then we dump the good black dirt on hilltops to try to improve productivity there. When it's not possible for us to get our scraper into the drain, then we call in the professionals - the excavators.
We were able to do a fair amount of ditch maintenance this fall because of the mild weather for most of October and November. Our scraper ran daily. But due to wet conditions or steep banks on ditches we weren't able to get the scraper everywhere. We hired two different excavators to clean ditches that will help alleviate water problems for years to come. Below is a video of Brent cleaning a ditch that hadn't been maintained for years. You can see as he clears the silt the water begins to flow more freely. It's fun to see immediate results like that.
Farmers aren't allowed to dig drains wherever they please. In order to participate in the US Farm Program, farmers must only maintain drains that were existing prior to the Swampbuster provisions of the 1985 Farm Bill. The purpose of those provisions was to remove certain incentives to raise crops on converted wetlands. If a farmer doesn't comply with those provisions, they could be removed from the farm program and become ineligible to receive a subsidy for crop insurance. There are some farmers who have left the farm program in order to have free reign when it comes to drainage.
We work very closely with the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), county water boards, and our neighbors whenever we begin any significant drain maintenance projects. In our experience, collaboration on such projects is much more likely to result in a beneficial outcome for the long-term.
It started during spring wheat harvest. Chase checked the oil on one of our diesel triaxle grian trucks. It was gray. Water in the oil. Bad deal. I called Chad, a diesel mechanic who came highly recommended. He told me to haul the truck to his shop in East Grand Forks. Rodney and I made a midnight haul, with my dad, Don, following behind - just in case. Chad diagnosed the problem, and overhauled the truck. Expensive, but necessary. First truck.
Then, on the last day of soybean harvest, our 1998 Kenworth semi lost power while Chase was driving it. Once it died, we could not get it started. I had it towed to Chad's shop in EGF. The diagnosis - injector broke and fell into the cylinder, wrecking it. The solution - overhaul. Yikes. I started to compare cost of overhauling a nearly 20 year old truck with buying a different truck. I learned more than I ever cared to know about diesel motors, transmissions, clutches, gear ratios, etc. In the end, I found a rebuilt motor that we collectively decided that we could put into the truck ourselves. This project is still in progress. Second truck.
During corn harvest, Fred's Volvo semi lost power and had a slight knocking sound as it ran. About the same time, my Volvo fertilizer tender truck wouldn't start. Who did I call? You guessed it - Chad. He came out and looked at my tender truck. Power to the fuel pump from the engine's computer was the problem. He essentially bandaged it up so we could make it through the fall, but it would have to go in to his shop to get wiring fixed. Third truck.
Chad then went over to Fred's to look at the Volvo - the head gasket went out on the middle head. Don and I loaded the Volvo semi that night and hauled it to Chad's shop. Lo and behold, it turned out the problem was worse than originally thought. Overhaul. Fourth truck.
Both of the overhaul jobs turned out very well, and our tender is at Chad's shop getting looked at right now. Rodney and Trevor have taken the lead on the 98 Kenworth project and making good progress.
It's been an interesting and expensive summer and fall for our trucks. But at least we know we should be running in tip-top shape for next year.....I hope.