Traditional soil health methods weren’t right fit for northeast Colorado farmer

Soil Health

When someone asks Haxtun, Colorado, farmer Roy Pfaltzgraff how he’s transformed his family’s farm from raising two or three crops a year to 14, they might not like his answer. Especially since he’s in an area that on average only receives about 19 inches of rain a year.

Roy Pfaltzgraff
Roy Pfaltzgraff

“(When) focusing on soil health, I actually made some very specific choices that were very intentional,” he said. “One is I don’t have livestock. The second one is I don’t do cover crops.”

Pfaltzgraff was a featured speaker at Soil Health U and during his segment said when people start talking about soil health, livestock and cover crops come up. Those practices just don’t work for him.

“Don’t try to copy me because it will not work. Because my land is unique, just like your land is unique,” he said. “It has crop history, and that affects how it responds to soil health. It has a different climate. You have different soils. There are so many different variables.”

Pfaltzgraff took over the farm from his dad in 2017, before that he spent a number of years working as an accountant and kept the books for about 60 other operations.

“And if you want to talk about an insight of how other people think and seeing how the results were, it was a huge benefit,” he said.

When Pfaltzgraff came back to the farm, there was about 2,000 acres and his dad hadn’t purchased any new equipment in about 10 years. He thought that in order to grow the operation, some things would have to change. They’ve upgraded combines, air seeders and semis, they’ve added grain storage and tore out some old corrals and updated electrical systems. Their tax professional, however, was shocked about the expenditures.

“He’s like you guys recapitalized the farm in a single year?” Pfaltzgraff said. “Because you don’t see that in their culture. You don’t always see it as a business. And it’s like, well, isn’t a farm a business?”

Soil health requirements — limited disturbance, no-till, soil cover, residue, living roof, something growing and diversity — are all concepts people should know by heart. Depending on what list you look at livestock integration is optional, he said.

“The most important one is context. What you’re doing has to fit your climate, your soils, your operation, and this is the one that most of the people skip because they only can think about how they do it,” he said. “People need to be able to adapt this to their own ground.”

Pfaltzgraff said the first question to ask yourself is are you rotating? In his opinion, corn and soybeans are opposites, like a light switch. He calls it an oscillation. A wheat, corn, millet rotation isn’t good either, as you’re raising grasses.

“Then the next thing we got to look at is what’s your living root timeframe, because that’s the most important thing is feeding our soil,” he said.

He’s able to look back at data from soil test results until 1984 on their farm. When they started no-tilling in 1999, he expected their organic matter levels to be higher than they were. Instead, they’d go up two years and then drop down a year, and back up another two.

“Because we weren’t feeding that soil,” he said. “The microbes in that soil, which didn’t exist then because we didn’t know that they were out there, were consuming that organic matter to survive until the next year.”

Pfaltzgraff believes if you’re putting a crop out there, make it one that you can count on.

“Why don’t we put a cash crop out there and get something out of it, instead of creating something like fallow which is an expense with no return?” he said. “Let’s actually get something back out of this.”

Through his journey into regenerative agriculture, it’s turned into a discussion of adoption, adaptation and evolution. The first thing Pfaltzgraff did on this journey was learn. He attended the Colorado Conservation Tillage Conference and saw two presentations that answered many questions.

“We had the things that didn’t make sense,” he said. “Why are we having the production and the quality we have when we aren’t fertilizing that much? Well, it’s because our soils are creating things and we didn’t realize it at the time.”

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Since they started on this journey, their herbicide on wet years has been down about 75%. He’s had the same herbicide shuttle in storage because he hasn’t needed to apply any. They started planting field peas, and by the second or third year Pfaltzgraff’s dad came to him and asked if they were making any money on them since they struggled in the northeastern Colorado climate.

“I looked at him and said as long as we’re losing less than $75 an acre, we’re making money with the field peas because we’re not spending that keeping that living root in there,” he said. “And that starts changing because we start seeing that organic matter doing what I expected to do.”

It hasn’t been all wine and roses. His original plan with field peas after sunflowers didn’t work out a couple years ago. There just wasn’t a way to harvest the peas.

“So we punted. I’m really good at having alternate plans when something doesn’t work,” he said.

He found a local dairy and asked if they wanted to chop the field with peas and sunflowers. After discussing with their nutritionist, they came and chopped it. He later found that sunflowers have just as much energy as corn with the added benefits of sunflower oil. He was impressed with how the silage chopper cared for his field too.

“I talked with him. I said soil health is important to us. We like a little residue. Do what you can, and he actually left us four inches of residue,” he said. “When you’re doing stuff like that, I really appreciated him recognizing what we were trying to do it.”

Eventually Pfaltzgraff has found connections with different crops and how they affect the soil’s health. He’s seen differences in weed control and after digging into the data, he found in the past the farm wasn’t profitable because they only harvested about two-thirds of the farm every year with expenses for 100% of it.

“And that is why you’re not making any money. You’re spending a lot more money on stuff you’re not getting a return on,” he said. “We started looking at these companions and intercrops. We started doing some stuff like that because that adds diversity and helps increase that score without doing cover crops—these highly diverse forage blends.”

They saw an increase in their soil health scores, increases in organic matter. Two fields are at about 3% right now, and they’re starting to see increases at the bank too.

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