Finding hope in a field of green

Waverly, Kansas, farmer’s focus on regenerative agriculture has increased his profits and the health of his soils

Tired of constructing homes in Kansas City, Darin Williams wanted to get back to his roots.

Now, he is building his field of greens.

On a late July morning, he stood amid the sunflowers, cowpeas, buckwheat and a mix of other cover crops near Waverly, Kansas. Below the earth, the soil is filled with living roots and other biological activity.

However, the land didn’t look this way when Williams started farming some of his family’s ground part time a decade ago. His organic matter was low. His fields suffered from soil runoff from the years of tillage.

Within a few years, he knew if he wanted the opportunity to follow his dream of being a full-time farmer, he had to change his way of thinking.

Today, Williams says his non-GMO corn and soybeans yields performed as well if not better than the best conventional farmers. He can dig deep into the soil and find earthworms. Moreover, his profit-per-acre is higher because he has changed his ways—incorporating no-till, cover crops and livestock into his management plan. 

He and his wife, Nancy, are full time on the farm. And they are making a living.

“I didn’t want to drive three hours a day on the road building houses anymore,” Williams said. “I want to stay on the farm and be as profitable as I can.” 

Learning his lesson

Williams spoke during a No-Till on the Plains field day at his farm, which on this day was humming with beneficial insects, including honeybees. 

The couple’s 2,000-acre operation includes diverse crop rotation of non-GMO corn and soybeans, plus grain sorghum, wheat, triticale, rye, oats and barley, along with a blend of cover crops and cattle, sheep and poultry.

Williams said he took the wrong path when he started farming in 2008.

Williams had always wanted to farm after his father, Doug, purchased acreage when Williams was in high school. He and Nancy secured a loan from the local bank and purchased a John Deere 4420 combine, plus an Allis-Chalmers tractor and tillage tools.

Reality hit after heavy rain events washed out his fields. Water puddled instead of seeping into the soil. In some areas, water was standing in the tracks his farm implements made.

“The last field I tilled we had a 2-inch rain. It washed soil out of the field into the road ditch,” he said. “I tilled all the weeds again, and we would have two or three rain events in that field, and I would see dirt washing out in that ditch. It finally clicked that this wasn’t a good thing.”

Williams started going to no-till meetings where soil health veterans like farmers Gabe Brown and David Brandt told of how he could increase carbon in his soil while reducing his expenses. A No-Till on the Plains bus trip to Brown’s North Dakota farm was the selling point.

He realized by increasing organic matter, profitability would follow the upward trend and that every drop of rain is critical.

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“There was no reason I couldn’t change what I was doing to get more water in the soil,” he said. “It is not how much more rain we get, it is how much goes into the soil and how much we can retain during the growing season.” 

Saving every drop

Steve Swaffer, director of No-Till on the Plains, said some of the best no-till systems struggle if they don’t have a living root creating pathways through the soil profile.

“There is a whole system that has to be applied to get the results.”

However, unlike some veteran no-till operators, the Williamses made the switch to no-till and cover crops at the same time.

It didn’t take long to see the improvements.

Candy Thomas, regional soil health specialist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service, showed how Williams’ soil has changed in the past eight years. Using a rain simulator, she watered several pans of soil, one being Williams’ cover crop mix and another a tilled field.

Williams’ field had little soil and water runoff, unlike the tilled field. Water coming out of the bottom was clean. 

“It infiltrated the most and fastest,” Williams said. “That is critical when you get a 4- or 5-inch rain event. You want to capture as much rainfall as possible.”

The simulator showed how water didn’t infiltrate the tilled field. The bottom was dry.

“Mother Nature’s best system is with the covers,” Thomas said.

Because of farming practices, many areas of Kansas are carbon starved.

“Most of our soils have been carbon depleted, eroded and degraded,” she said. “If we think of all the different farming practices we do, this is the one farming practice that has sustained 7,000 years.”

The combination of covers and no-till together, along with incorporating livestock, has improved Williams’ soil at a quicker pace.

Most consider no-till to increase organic matter by 1 percent after seven to 10 years, he said.

Depending on the field, he has gained a half percent of organic matter in just three years and about a 1 percent increase in organic matter in five years.

“We have some fields where we have cover crops and cattle and those fields are higher,” he said.

Profit per acre

While no-till saves on fuel, planting cover crops has cut his chemical bill in half. He uses herbicides on an as-needed basis, he said.

“I don’t have a problem using starter-type fertilizer on the cover crops to give them a boost, but we don’t use a full rate of fertilizer,” Williams said. “On our cash crops, we are probably to the point where we can use 35 percent less than what we used when we started in 2010.

Brandt, who is from Ohio, spoke at the field day and he said farmers should do some fertilization when going from conventional farming to a no-till cover crop system. A soil sample from a conventional field show there is protozoa, nematodes and fungi.

If a farmer can improve his cover crop growth by 30 percent more biomass, it increases the availability of nitrogen by 45 percent, Brandt said.

But biggest impact to Williams’ bottom line might the cover crop’s ability to reduce weed pressure. Williams said he grows rye before planting soybeans, helping to eliminate post-emergence herbicide.

During the field day, Williams showed farmers his sunflower field, which had been stunted by the drought. He planted triticale for weed control, letting it grow to a hard seed. He used a roller crimper to flatten the crop and put carbons back into the soil before drilling in his sunflower and cover crop mix that includes buckwheat, tillage radish and cowpeas.

“There has been no chemical added to this,” he said.

A few inches of rain after the field day could help Williams bring the sunflower crop to harvest. However, if not, he can still graze it and get the soil health benefits, he said.

Williams continues to educate others about the benefits of no-till and covers. Farmers need to be prepared.

“We can’t wait until a drought happens and then expect to grow covers,” he said. “You have to have the water infiltration in place before the drought comes so when the rain comes, you can soak up every drop.”

Amy Bickel can be reached at 620-860-9433 or [email protected].