Organic No-till in Perennial Cover

Final report for FNC20-1248

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2020: $8,826.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2022
Grant Recipient: owner
Region: North Central
State: North Dakota
Project Coordinator:
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Project Information

Description of operation:

Former dairy in ND on 320 acres, organically certified, transitioning from alfalfa-hay and grain/pea rotation to reduced cultivation using a perennial cover base with taller grains for harvest.


Using a form of organic no till--the planting of annual grains in perennial cover--we wish to learn if we might achieve a “consistent and reasonable” crop yield above our break even bushels, as well as achieve additional soil and ecological benefits over a two year period.  

With the assistance of NRCS and Fish and Wildlife advisors in Spring 2019, we chose diverse species (12) on a 120 acre portion of our 260 acres in cropland, and soil samples (37 acres) were submitted to both Ward and Logan Labs to serve as a benchmark. Historic soil tests for the farm are also available.

Crops of millet and dry peas, as well as pea-pigeon grass hay were harvested in 2019, and all pea land was seeded to winter wheat and additional cover in Fall 2019, using our small Haybuster 107 no till drill.   We will incorporate additional soil tests from terminated 40 acres of alfalfa fields (5 years duration) beginning in Summer 2020 through Spring 2022, insect numbers over time, as well as complimentary carbon sequestration data on 260 acres provided by Indigo, a carbon credit aggregator with whom we are contracted.

Project Objectives:
  1. Perform ongoing assessments: water infiltration, soil testing/microbial ratios with both Ward and Logan Labs, obtain recommendations from consultants, worm counts, soil compaction levels and carbon sequestration provided by Indigo.
  2. Monitor insect and species population changes on one key 37 acre field with Minot State University instructor.
  3. Assess grain germination in perennial cover and measure crop yields on fields converted to perennial cover. 


Materials and methods:
Steps/tools Logic
Perennial cover Current research indicates a linear relationship in soil health and yield benefits as the numbers of species are increased. Eight species are considered minimum. It also allows for a longer season (earlier in Spring and later in Fall) for plants to feed the soil roots/microbes and consequently build carbon.
No-till drill for seeding This insures that crop residue remains on surface to provide soil erosion protection, increased water infiltration, insect habitat and weed control due to less soil disturbance and shading by the residue.  Grain and cover crop seed, as well as any soil amendments may be applied in a one pass operation.
Data collection Soil mineral sampling; water infiltration; microbial, insect, carbon and yield numbers demonstrate whether or not the proposal is successful in achieving its goal of an economic return over expenses.
Research results and discussion:

Results to date include:

Carried out all seedings: oats-peas, winter wheat, millet, began rye after alfalfa termination on 42 acres.

Harvested as grain or hay. Tabulated yields.

Took representative soil tests on all crop acres except for rye on cultivated ground. Sent to Lance Gunderson's Regen Lab for Haney plus soil health testing. These tests were taken in both 2020 and 2021.

After 42 years of organic cropping, soil organic matter (SOM), averages 3.5%. These tests will serve as benchmarks for additional testing done by 1000 Farms over the next ten years (one year completed with results by Lundgren and team being assembled for 500 farms in their initial year) see * below.In 2021, water infiltration readings with NRCS were conducted on home  quarter fields.  Annual representative infiltration readings will be continued to chart further improvements or declines.  With severe die-off of cover crops, a decision was made to terminate grain seeding and seed mixed native prairie species for future contract grazing.  Funding to make this change is primarily through NRCS EQIP program for seeding, fences and water on 320 acres.

Noticed declining yields and increasing weed pressure; lack of rain was severe and numerous perennial cover crops that had persisted for years died off. Yields began higher in 2020 with 25 bushels of winter wheat and rye, but declined to 8 bushels in 2021 as drought and weed pressures increased.

Indigo--carbon credit company decided to use predictive algorithms rather than boots on the ground carbon readings as originally promised. Terminating the relationship. *Our farm was accepted into the 1000 Farm regenerative farm national study for 10 years of soil and habitat testing as part of an 80 million dollar study of regenerative farms. Grantee is Ecdysis Foundation, headquartered at Blue Dasher Farm, Jonathan Lundgren, former USDA employee. This independent testing will replace that of Indigo and myself.

Although some no till will be continued, it will be done on a smaller scale, primarily within native grasses, and the farm adapted to contract grazing/hay with some initial cultivation for perennial weeds as needed. Although fencing and water infrastructure needs to be re-established, I am making arrangements with local ranchers to use their cattle for mob grazing.

Mixed species (15) native prairie seeded on 153 acres of the 259 crop acres in June 2022 by South McHenry County Conservation District.  Once prairie is established and fencing-wells completed, managed grazing will commence.  This grazing will involve high grazing pressure and long rest periods as done by a local mentor.  The remaining crop acres (106) consists of alfalfa grass, which has been terminated by light discing prior to freeze-up as of November 2022  and will be seeded to native prairie.

Rather than using herbicides to terminate the alfalfa-grass, light discing prior to freezing is being used out of concern for the possible effects of herbicide on prairie seed germination. In addition, microbial inoculant was used on the seed to encourage rooting.

Participation Summary
1 Farmers participating in research

Educational & Outreach Activities

2 Consultations
1 On-farm demonstrations
12 Tours
1 Other educational activities: Extensive contact within the agricultural community was developed using Facebook Soils Groups with approximately 100,000 members. This contact has proven especially helpful in terms of farmers' experiences with Regenerative Farming/Grazing. Multiple on site visits with NRCS during seeding period and subsequent prairie seedings illustrated the difficulty of working with drought and weed pressure. Prairie is expected to be more resilient with its regional climate strength. With the addition of managed grazing and continuous cover over longer seasonal periods, fertility is likely to increase. At the same time, input costs will decline for seed, insurance, labor, fuel and machinery maintenance.

Participation Summary:

6 Farmers participated
2 Ag professionals participated
Education/outreach description:

Extensive contact within the agricultural community was developed using Facebook Soils Groups with approximately 100,000 members. This contact has proven especially helpful in terms of farmers' experiences with Regenerative Farming/Grazing. Globally, there is extensive interest in improving perennial cover to maximize photosynthesis and improve hydrology in varied climate zones.

One of our FaceBook contacts, Jonathan Lundgren and team, has begun ten years of soil and habitat testing on the farm, as part of the 1000 Farms Regenerative study. Previous soil testing will be used as a benchmark for future soil testing. In addition, grazing days, cattle numbers per acre and any forage yields will also be tracked. Of special interest to me is the inclusion of insect numbers as an indicator of habitat health.

Learning Outcomes

2 Farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness as a result of their participation
Lessons Learned:


Global work in organic no till has expanded in various climate zones in the world: Colin Seis in AU, Marc Bonfils in France and Patrick Whitefield in the UK.  In the USA, work at Rodale has been successful in using crimper roller to prepare, for instance, a rye crop for later row crop seeding of corn and soybeans.
While more moisture challenged than Rodale in Pennsylvania and with different seasonal aspects than the countries listed above, the arid Great Plains have shown some promise for using no till seeding with herbicides and synthetic fertilizer for growing industrial crops like wheat, corn, soybeans and canola. 
We set about planting winter grains along with perennial cover with the hopes of obtaining an economic yield of grain while at the same time increasing biodiversity of flora and fauna, improving water infiltration and maintaining continuous perennial cover.
Previous plantings had been done prior to the study using a Haybuster-Vermeer 11' no till drill, and raising oats-vetch in 2019, rye-vetch in 2020 and finally winter wheat in 2021, seeded along with perennial cover crops like black medic, bur medic, birdsfoot trefoil, chicory, burnet, plantain and various clovers and prairie forms.  While covers gradually germinated and spread, so did the most prevalent weeds of Canada thistle, field bindweed and wormwood.
Yields initially were respectable, and all were sold through organic channels.  However, as the weed pressure grew, yields also continued to drop from the 25-30 bushel range to 8 bushels.  At the same time, drought pressure also grew until our county registered a drought level as one of the highest in the nation. The drought also reduced the survival of most perennials to almost zero.
Extensive contact within the agricultural community was developed using Facebook Soils Groups with approximately 100,000 members.  This contact has proven especially helpful in terms of farmers' experiences with Regenerative Farming/Grazing.
During this period, benchmark soil tests were being taken at both Ward Lab and Regen-Ag Lab, as well as water infiltration readings with the help of NRCS beginning in 2021.  However, in late 2021, the decision was made to terminate the research project and incorporate what was learned into other directions.
Instead of relying on grain for income, we decided to incorporate livestock and native prairie into the mix, still using minimal to no tillage.  During the first phase, half of the crop acres or 153 acres, were seeded to 15 species of native prairie grasses and forbs in 2022.  In May 2023, the remaining crop acres, 120 acres, will be seeded to native prairie as well, and fencing and water on two quarters will be initiated.  Once acceptable cover has been achieved, contract managed grazing will begin.
One of our FaceBook contacts, Jonathan Lundgren and team from Ecdysis Foundation, has begun ten years of soil and habitat testing on the farm, as part of the 1000 Farms Regenerative study.  Previous soil testing will be used as a benchmark for future soil testing. In addition, grazing days, cattle numbers per acre and any forage yields will also be tracked.
In addition, the prospect to occasionally broadcast small amounts of winter grains into prairie will available to us.

Project Outcomes

1 Grant received that built upon this project
2 New working collaborations
Success stories:

The EQIP cost share funding is for $138,000 over three -four years. It pays for almost all the custom seeding and water development. I may apply what I learned to my in-laws former CRP quarter that is already grass but needs water and fences. Keeping it out of industrial agriculture's hands is my goal. 

Within the global regenerative farming community, the improvement of soil health has emerged as a leading goal. Practices that reduce fertilizer costs, improve water infiltration, improve biodiversity and cool the ground are being shared.  Examples of this are continuous soil cover, diverse plant species and varied plant management, such as dual purpose perennials for both grain and forage production. One obvious benefit is the farmer's bottom line, but there are secondary benefits as well, such as the re-establishment of diverse native plants that support a healthier insect community.

Mentorships were established within the livestock community both locally and nationally that will assist me in transitioning to contract grazing.

Extensive connections were forged within public agencies--NRCS, ND Fish and Game, US Fish and Wildlife--and non-profits, such as Ducks Unlimited, National Audubon Society, Ecdysis Foundation, Rain for Climate and The Carbon Underground.


Organic no till is particularly sensitive to regional moisture patterns.  While Rodale in Pennsylvania may thrive with crimper-rollers and pasture cropping may thrive in a hot Australian climate when dormant pastures allow a pre-grazing grain harvest, the arid midwest, especially in the Northern tier states, did not support our plan to seed grains into perennial covers on a consistent basis.

An established perennial cover will support livestock and at the same time control weeds.   My recommendation would be to first establish the perennial cover and obtain income from it via managed grazing before venturing into seeding annual grains in the cover.  If the grain does not succeed, the option of forage will generally be available.  In addition, the ecosystem benefits will not disappear completely, and are likely to bounce back with new moisture.  For example, various perennials that appeared to die out during our drought, began to reappear with ample moisture. Many of these plants apparently came from the seed bank.

Besides livestock as income, field and fence border trees, such as sugar producing trees, as well as oil producing perennials such as silphium (see Land Institute), may offer income while offering ecosystem benefits not currently being offered in annual industrial agriculture.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.