by Tom Parker
Shortly after the first drivers turned onto a narrow two-track leading into what appeared to be an overgrown pasture a few miles south of Courtland, the low rounded hills to the east disappeared behind a translucent veil. Within minutes, a steady cold drizzle settled in. The rutted entrance to the pasture liquified as more vehicles rolled in. Those with umbrellas deployed them, while those without donned jackets, tarps or blankets. Cautiously stepping through the deepening muck, they congregated around a short, stocky figure orbited by a video production crew.
“Had I known you’d bring rain, I would have invited you sooner,” Dale Strickler said.
Strickler, who has been called the Cover Crop Guru of Kansas, is known for renouncing conventional farming practices in favor of a more holistic approach involving intensive rotational grazing extensive use of cover crops. That unconventional mind set earned him a place on the itinerary of the Thinking Outside the Box Tour, which showcased farms in north-central Kansas and south-central Nebraska that have found success through doing things differently. The tour was sponsored by the Kansas Farmers Union with funding provided by the Kansas Center for Sustainable Agriculture and Alternative Crops, Kansas Farmers Union and a USDA NIFA Food Safety and Modernization Grant. Other destinations included the Depot Market, Courtland; C&C High Tunnels, Scandia; Polansky Seed, Belleville; and Nebraska Shrimp Company, Carleton, Neb.
Looking around the pasture, however, it was difficult for some participants to match their expectations to what they were seeing. Grasses were tall or stunted or spare or clumpy, and the patchy underlying alfalfa vied with chicory, sunflowers, wildflowers and low-spreading plantain. Other plants of indeterminate genus imparted a sense of invasion. Clearly, Strickler’s definition of pasture required revision.
Like most things in life, that revision was sparked less by desire to change than by sheer desperation.
“When I first started farming, I was going to set the world on fire,” Strickler said. “Unfortunately, I bought an irrigated farm that had been in continuous corn production for 42 years. So I started growing soybeans.”
His timing was impeccably bad. That same year Monsanto gave Round-Up Ready technology to South America, triggering a market crash. His soybean crop sold for the same price it had in 1936. His only saving grace was a small patch of corn that sold for $1.75 per bushel.
Through extensive research, Strickler designed a system of successive plantings that can be grazed year round, out compete with weeds, never need fertilizer, and produce a massive amount of tonnage.
He sat up late in the night mulling things over. If he could get three dollars per bushel corn, he thought, he’d have this farming thing made.
But, when corn finally sold for three dollars a bushel, he was still losing his shirt. The problem really wasn’t the price of corn, he realized—it was the price of inputs.
“In 2006, 2008, during that time period when crop prices took a huge jump because of the ethanol boom, input prices rose with it,” he said. “Everybody wanted a piece of that pie.” Prices for fertilizer, herbicides, seed and farm implements doubled. Repair costs doubled. “The only way I could make this thing work was to figure out a way of farming where I didn’t need all those inputs,” he said.
The idea he came up with was backwards of conventional wisdom.
“Most people have plowed up grassland as fast as they can, bulldozing out trees and scrambling to get an extra acre of farmland they can lose an extra hundred dollars on next year,” he said. “I’ve taken the opposite route. I’ve been taking crop ground and planting it back to grass, and not just any grass. You can’t make any money on pasture, so you’ll have to define pasture.”
His definition of pasture was a system where he could graze year round with vegetation that would out compete with weeds, never need fertilizer and produce excellent tonnage. It also had to be nutritious and inexpensive.
As Strickler led tour participants deeper into his fields, they crossed through a series of portable electric fences until they reached what appeared to be a virtually unbroken wall of eastern gramma grass, some of it reaching four feet high. Wading into the wild tangle—no small feat with rain pounding down—revealed layers upon layers of vegetative species, including more than 25 species of wildflowers and others that his neighbors would consider noxious weeds.
The pasture consisted of a cool-season grass mix that included alfalfa, Maximillian sunflower, chicory, birdsfoot trefoil, cowpeas, buckwheat, meadow brome, tall fescue and, surprisingly, watermelon. “Once cows figure out these green things are edible, they’ll stomp on them and eat the heck out of them,” he said. “Everything likes watermelon—cows, deer, coons, coyotes, neighbors. And if I get a few myself, that’s okay, too.”
Several species of plants are highly beneficial to cows. Plantain contains natural antibiotics that eliminate bacteria responsible for producing methane in the rumen. Incorporating about ten percent of plantain into their diet can provide an average daily gain of ten percent from the animal, he said.
Of the legumes in his pastures, alfalfa is by far the most productive. Though it offers some risk with bloat, it also doubles the tonnage of any plant out there.
Dubbed the Cover Crop Guru of Kansas, Dale Strickler’s renunciation of conventional farming practices for a more holistic approach has made his farm a model for sustainable, innovative and regenerative agriculture.
“It’s the greatest grazing plan ever except for two things: it can kill your cattle and your cattle can kill it,” Strickler said. “It takes very careful grazing management and some bloat prevention.”
One of his bloat prevention strategies is chicory. Chicory contains condensed tannins, or compounds, that bind with the bloat protein and not only neutralize the bloat but turns it into protein.
“Historically, cattle were turned out in the spring and rounded up in the fall,” he said. His method calls for very rapid rotations on small paddocks of about three acres in size, which can then be subdivided according to conditions or terrain. That way he’s able to regulate the size of the paddocks based on the amount of food the cattle need for the day as well as on the recovery period necessary for the plants. The point is to maintain an efficient photosynthetic canopy above the soil at all times. For most species, somewhere in the four to six inch range is optimal, he said.
“A lot of farmers have a hard time with that,” he said. “When you leave a paddock with a six inch layer of grass, it seems you’re wasting grass. But it’s not going anywhere. It’ll be there when you get back. By leaving it shaggy you allow it to keep building roots, to photosynthesize and to build soil organic matter. It can’t do that if sunlight hits bare ground.”
Cows are good at reproducing and finding the best feed available, he said, but not very good at doing what’s best for the plant or what’s best for your bank account.
“And yet, we allow cows to make all the decisions,” Strickler said. “Don’t try to make a cow a financial manager or a plant manager. Let cows do what cows do best.”
The farmer’s responsibility is operate the farm in the most efficient manner. And if traditional methods aren’t having any effect, he said, it might be time to consider something different.
“You can either go to the coffee shop and complain about it, or you can do something about it,” Strickler said. “You don’t have any control over the price of your inputs, but you do have control over how many of those inputs you choose to use.”
Strickler’s new book, The Drought Resilient Farm, explains in more detail his cover crop system.
The tour was sponsored by the Kansas Farmers Union with funding provided by the Kansas Center for Sustainable Agriculture and Alternative Crops, Kansas Farmers Union and a USDA NIFA Food Safety and Modernization Grant.