Digging In

Podcast: Mike Jordan - Growing Cover Crops In Difficult Places

Podcast: Mike Jordan - Growing Cover Crops In Difficult Places

By SHP Staff on Tuesday, 02 June, 2020

Mike Jordan, a wheat farmer in Kansas, joined the Soil Health Partnership to gain access to expertise and see if he could make cover crops work on his farm after a few years of trying it on his own with only minimal success.

Jordan has long been interested in conservation. During his interview with John Mesko in this podcast, he explains his dad’s interest in conservation that began when he gave up the plow in the early 1960s.  In later years, Jordan says that he was building terraces and waterways long before farm programs required him to. 

It stands to reason that he’d also be interested in increasing his soil health.

“I’d like to think that there’s more to improving yields than just waiting on a new variety or using more fertilizer and more inputs.  I’d like to find additional ways to improve things without just doing more and more of the same thing,” Jordan said.

On Jordan’s SHP wheat trial and all over his farm, moisture is the limiting factor.  He’s interested in planting cover crops to understand how they can impact moisture availability for his cash crops by shading the soil during the harsher parts of his growing year. 

Mesko is enthusiastic about the project. The two discuss that much of the published cover crop information for farmers to learn from are results from Ohio or Iowa where cover crops are working very well to capture nitrogen and reduce erosion.  Jordan’s looking to cover crops to solve different problems in different areas of the country and hopes to prove success over time.

Mesko shows his excitement when he says, “You definitely have some challenges and that’s what’s exciting about having a research site on your location. We have a lot of examples where farmers are saying, ‘Well it won’t work for me because of this or that,’ but if we can figure out how to make it work at your place, we will have a pretty compelling story to tell.”

Listen in to hear more from Mike Jordan and John Mesko below.

Episode Transcription:

Host: Senior director of the Soil Health Partnership, John Mesko

Guest: Mike Jordan

John: Welcome to the People of Soil Health podcast. I’m your host, John Mesko.  Today's guest manages one of the new wheat sites in the Soil Health Partnership network through a partnership with the National Wheat Foundation, made possible by the support of General Mills. These sites will evaluate the impact of diversified crop rotation and how wheat, specifically, can benefit the soil and other environmental indicators. Mike Jordan joins us today to talk about his soil health journey and the wheat trials he's participating in.

John: Mike, welcome to the podcast.

Mike: Glad to be here. 

John: Tell us a little bit about your farming operation, where you're located, your crops and how family members are involved. 

Mike: We farm near Beloit, Kansas, about 50 miles from Nebraska, roughly 200 miles from the Missouri border and 200 miles from the Colorado border. I farm with my son, Gregory, and my wife, Joyce. We grow wheat, milo, soybeans and a little bit of corn. It's all no till.  It's also dry land--no irrigation at all. We have no livestock. 

John: Well, with that farming setup, that’s pretty unique compared to a lot of the bulk of the growers that we work with at the Soil Health Partnership.  This is an interesting setup that you have there, and I’m curious with that kind of condition and those enterprises, how you got interested in building soil on your farm and how you got started down the road of soil health building and promotion.

Mike: I'd say this goes back to my dad. He was an early adopter of conservation practices. He gave up on plowing in the early 60s. I built waterways and terraces long before the farm program required me to, so I had a big background in looking at the soil and preserving the soil. I got my degree in agronomy, and a large part of the agronomy degree and studies was in the area of soil sciences, too. I've been interested in no-till since I first heard about it, and we are in an area with little or no rainfall for long periods of time--so rain (moisture) is typically the limiting factor in our yields. No-till shades the soil, keeps it cooler, and prevents evaporation and that's very important.There was a clear bump in my yield, in my crops, in the 90s when I switched to no-till, and I was able to abandon the practice of summer fallow at that time and grow more intensive crop rotations. In that period of time, I saw my soil organic matters increase from about 1.4% organic matter into the mid 2% range--a full percentage point and more like 70% increase in organic matter--but there's still some problems persist. When we do get rain, it's often in thunderstorms. They can wash away the residue; they can cause ditches. The cover rots away or blows away, and that's an issue too because we need the mulch and the improvements have plateaued. I'd like to get even more organic matter in my soil. I’d like to see more life in it. 

I know it was a very gratifying moment to me the first time I went out to dig up Trialin corn seeds to see if they were sprouting, and before I found my first corn seed, I found three earthworms. That was a very heartwarming event. That had to do with being in no-till, but I haven't seen improvements since then. And again, if it's a real hot summer and we're going 4 or 6 weeks without a rain, the covers on the ground tend to just blow away, disintegrate, and the soil still can bake down hard. I’d like to think there's more to improving yields than waiting for a new variety or using more fertilizer... more inputs. I’d like to find additional ways to improve things without just doing more and more of the same thing. 

John: Like I said, in such a unique situation you know you've really tested the bounds of what can be done to improve your soil and that kind of organic matter increases substantially, given what you had to start with. So, I’m curious what motivated you to get involved with the Soil Health Partnership.  I mean, I understand that we approached you, along with the National Wheat Foundation, to locate a plot there, but what was it about being involved with the Soil Health Partnership that interested you? 

Mike: I’ve done some research on my own, sporadically, with cover crops. I've grown some even back in the late 1990s. I can remember I grew a field in which I planted hairy vetch in hopes I'd have cover over the winter. This was to give me some fall and winter cover. We harvest our wheat in July and June, and there's a long period where nothing grows and where we're trying to fight weeds the whole time. Well, I thought, I'll try to get something that covers the ground and produces some kind of cover which produces some nitrogen, but what happened was, I planted in September, and we didn't get rain, and we didn't get rain and maybe 1 plant in 50 came up that fall, and it was still there in the spring. Well, I killed it, and I think each of the next 5 years only about 10 percent of what I planted came up and, what I’m saying is, it didn’t work very well.

Now, I've done cover crops on my own 5 times, counting that. Three of the times I either didn't get rain or other problems came along, like excessive heat or an early freeze, and there was little or no response and even the crops used moisture, and I didn't get a good effect from the crop because perhaps the cover crop only had 3 leaves on it or grew a foot tall, and the other two times that I did it, I had adequate rainfall and had excellent results. 

So what I want to do with the Soil Health Partnership is to enter into a long-term program and see if sliding in cover crops every chance I can will produce a long-term benefit--not just sporadically trying it on one field here or one field there. Will I get an improvement in the soil?  Will I get an improvement in the microbial activity? Will I get an improvement in the moisture retention, the animal life out there? Will that help improve my yields?  Will that make up for the cost of the crops that I've been planting for covers? Can I come out ahead even though once in a while the cover crop may be a dud?

I appreciate the expertise I've been receiving so far and hope to get a lot more of it because I'm only one full year into the program so far, and I can carry this a lot further than I might have done on my own. That’s why I appreciate the help.

John: That's good to hear, and I can certainly commend you for sticking with it, in the face of  many, many obstacles with your weather over the years.

Mike: Now, that’s something that is different from many of the examples we read in the farm publications and on the internet. It always seems like it's somebody in Ohio or Iowa that is growing these crops. I never hear them talking about losing a foot of soil moisture because they grew a cover crop. Now, I hope if I grow a cover crop, it will shade the soil and maybe save me a foot of moisture or add to it; but, I know from experience that doesn't always happen, and definitely, you have to pay for the cost of these crops which can be $20, $30 an acre plus the expense of planting them. And I'm in an area where the annual average moisture is 25 inches; but, I personally have experienced a 365-day period with 7 inches of rain, and I've seen 35 inches of rain and so if you have one of those dry years, you’re probably better off not even bothering because even the weeds won’t do too well in those years. But when you're on again and off again like that, it's hard to observe whether there's a long-term difference, or if I try it on one field this year and another field the next year, that's not the same thing as a concentrated effort to really pour time and money into one result. 

John: Yeah, I think it's great that we have some of these extreme examples out there. I agree with you there that there are a lot of examples of where everything works wonderfully, but we need more examples where it's not working so well so that we can learn how to apply changes and fixes along the way. With that in mind... I mean I'm curious... what your SHP wheat trial consists of. Tell us what you’re doing on your farm trial.

Mike: Okay, to make it clear, we grow winter wheat. We plant it in October, about a month usually before we have a hard freeze, and harvest in late June, possibly as late as the Fourth of July. Wheat is a great crop for us because the growing season is mostly in April, May, or early June and that coincides with our period of heaviest rainfall and usually somewhat milder temperatures. Also, the wheat provides a very good mulch on the soil over the summer, presuming that the wheat was good enough to produce a lot of straw which usually happens but not always. And also, because we harvest toward the end of June and don't plant the subsequent crops, which in my case, are usually the milo or corn, there is a 9 month period in there when there is nothing growing and that appears to me to be a prime period for growing cover crop... something to help smother out weeds, save chemicals and the like. So that's the easy spot to slide something like that in. Again, I just want to figure a better way of doing things than the way I am. 

So with the wheat harvest, there's typically an 8-9 month period before I would grow corn or the milo, which may even be planted as late as June... and so it's really important to get something in there if I can. The milo is harvested in November, and I follow it with soybeans and the soybeans are followed as soon as possible after harvest with wheat again. The soybean harvest is usually the last week of September or the first 2 or 3 weeks of October... and that's the basic rotation. I'm hoping to find a slot or time somewhere in there to grow something between the corn and soybeans. I'm not sure if I can slide something in after the milo in terms of cover crops because, for instance, this year we had single digit temperatures before we even harvested the milo crop and that's not conducive to getting much of a winter cover crop established. 

John: You definitely have some challenges and so that’s what is exciting about having a research site on your location there, and it's going to be really helpful as we get the results and share that with folks who are challenged by those kinds of issues... or other issues. We have a lot of things where... a lot of examples... where farmers are saying it won't work for me because of this or that. Well, if we can figure out a way to make it work at your place, I think we'll have a pretty compelling story to tell.

Mike: Well, I'm one of those farmers... I don’t know if it’s going to work or not, so I’m going to give it my best shot and see if I can make it work. 

John: I think that's a great attitude. I'm so glad to be working with you on this. I know that you have spent some time with Keith Bierley, who is the SHP field manager, there in Kansas. Tell me how Keith is assisting you with this trial. What’s the interaction been like with him?

Mike: It's been a little strange lately with this social distancing thing. Most of our association has been over the telephone, and in one case, he phoned me to tell me he was out looking at my field, and I could look down the road and see him out there but didn't get out there fast enough to actually visit him in person. So, it's been a little awkward lately; but, he’s coordinated a field day already, and he’s assisting me in getting some flags out for planting my next crop following the current cover crop which has been terminated. And he’s coordinating efforts with university personnel who are trying to provide me with some information too, and again, I’ve been a little short changed on them because they’ve been forbidden from having face-to-face meetings with people out here in the field like me. 

He’s been helpful; but, it would be even better if we could meet a little bit more often in person, and I'm sure that will happen more in the future. I know he’s going to be here to coordinate doing test strips in terms of checking yields... things like that...and he’s been working to help coordinate the soil testing work, which has already been done. It’s quite a show to see five graduate students out spending a whole day pulling soil samples, but when they come back again, I'm hoping to get some actual information from them that shows there are some changes in the soil. 

John: I know that we're all going through some changes with the restrictions from the pandemic that we're under right now, but I agree with you... once this is wrapped up and we’re able to start meeting face-to-face, I'm sure Keith is just as excited as you are to begin working more closely together and, likewise myself, hearing your story, I'd much prefer to be having this conversation face-to-face, and hopefully, we will be able to do that sometime soon. 

Mike: That would be nice.

John: One more question… about what you’re doing there on your farm. When you think about the objectives that you have, when you say I want to give it my best shot to see if I can make it work, what does that look like to you in terms of success. What, to you, would feel like a successful establishment of a cover crop or soil health management system? 

Mike: I would like to see an end to some of the erosion where the water runs down the field corners on the hillsides, in those areas that the current cover on the ground has not been adequate to control. I would like to see an improvement in the soil organic matter and enough of an improvement in yield or a decrease in cost of fertilizer or chemicals to show a net benefit. If that happens, that's very successful.  And in a perverse sort of way, if it doesn’t turn out that way, well, I’ve learned something, too.

John:  I would agree with you, and it does seem a little bit odd but sometimes a negative outcome actually teaches us some things as well...  I know I can speak for Keith as well as the rest of the SHP team that we’re grateful for having you on board, Mike, and really looking forward to continuing this work. Thank you so much, not only for joining me on the podcast today, but for the work that you're doing there in Kansas in a very, very difficult environment to help explore ways that you can improve the soil health there.

Mike:  You're very welcome, and thank you a lot for the assistance from your organization.