Ground cover, organic matter key to no-till practices for Kansas farmer

About a dozen years ago, Ben Cramer of Healy, Kansas, came back to his family’s farm. His dad was considering retirement and some things needed to change.

“He’d been running on old equipment because he was ready to retire,” Cramer said. “We were going to have to upgrade tillage stuff, so it was a good time for us to try this.”

And by “this” Cramer meant converting from conventional till to no-till. They’ve been 100 percent no-till since about 2005, and Cramer is one of a handful in Lane County, Kansas, still using these techniques to improve production.

“It takes a little bit different mindset to make it work,” Cramer said. “I’m trying to look at the long-term benefits of it over maybe the short-term economics. Although I don’t feel like it’s hurting me economically.”

Cramer has wheat, grain sorghum, corn and soybeans on his dryland acres and has been experimenting with cover crops for the past six or seven years. He’s new to cover crops, and he’s going to start grazing more in 2018.

“We’re going to try to mob graze some cover crops with some stocker cattle to see how we get along,” he said. “If we can figure out how to make a couple of bucks at it on top of improving the soil hopefully.”

Commodity crop prices have pushed him to look for different avenues to make a profit.

“We’re going to take a look at doing a little more graze and less grain this year, and see how it goes,” he said. 

In the dozen years he’s been using no-till practices, Cramer has gained organic matter in his soil, but also a greater appreciation for conservation practices.

“We’ve degraded the resource for a hundred years out here,” Cramer said. “I’ve already seen a loss in productivity in my lifetime. I can’t imagine what it’ll look like in another 100 years if we don’t do something different.” 

He also wants his kids—ages 10 and 12—to have something to come back to if they want to farm. 

“My hope in the long term is it’s going to be an economical advantage,” Cramer said. “If we can reduce our herbicide, pesticide, chemical or fertilizer costs it’d be more productive. I think there’s an economic advantage to this down the road.” 

Cramer has been trying to do less and less fallow all the time. 

“Trying to keep something growing out there as much as we can, which isn’t the easiest thing to do in western Kansas,” he said.

He’s seen some improvements in his soil’s health, and thinks he’s headed in the right direction as earthworms have returned to his fields. But he also feels like he’s plateaued and needs to find a way to get over the “next hump.”

He’s hoping the cover crops will help push things to the next level, especially by keeping the ground covered and conserving water and keeping nutrients in the soil. 

“The big obstacle out here is always water,” Cramer said. “If it rains out here we can do some neat stuff.” 

In 10 years he’s been able to add 1 percent organic matter to his soils, and he’d like to add another percent in the next decade.

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“That’s kind of the key to the whole deal is ground cover and organic matter,” he said. “That’s kind of what makes it work.” 

Kylene Scott can be reached at 620-227-1804 or [email protected].