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Regenerative ag: No-till farming boosts soil health

Idaho rancher Pat Purdy started using methods in 2014 and has seen an impressive difference in his fields.

6 Min Read
No-till farming
No-till farming methods on Pat Purdy's ranch in Idaho resulted in nearly double the yield of conventional methods.Pat Purdy

In recent years, no-till farming has been improving soil health and reducing erosion. Idaho rancher Pat Purdy started using no-till methods in 2014 and has seen an impressive difference in his fields.

“I grew up on our family farm near Picabo, Idaho then got an engineering degree. I came back to farm with my dad (Nick Purdy) in 2008. We were a conventional farming and cow-calf operation. We had contracts with Anheuser Busch and Coors for malt barley, and produced a lot of dairy hay. Then I started listening to podcasts, reading articles, going to trade shows, and heard about no-till. People talked about soil quality. Soil health was not mentioned, and the term regenerative was not yet in our vocabulary. It was more about sustainability,” says Purdy.

“In 2013 at a Tri-State Grain Growers conference in Spokane, I met some people representing the Pacific Northwest Direct Seed Association (PNDSA). I am now a board member of that association.  At their booth at that show, I talked to farmers about what they were doing and how they were doing it. They were dry-land farming in north Idaho and eastern Washington, raising wheat, canola, garbanzo, etc. and doing it all with no-till. They had video examples, and I asked about the advantages and disadvantages,” he says.

They mentioned big reductions in erosion, significant reductions in fuel costs, equipment and labor. “They felt they were seeing improvements in soil quality though they couldn’t quantify it.  Mostly it was about the economics, eliminating all those field passes in the fall,” Purdy says.

“A local friend was also interested in experimenting with no-till. He purchased a used no-till drill from the Midwest.  In 2014 we split an 80-acre field, planting half of it conventionally and the other half with the no-till drill. We didn’t know what we were doing, but we could see improvement on the no-till side. Then we had a wet fall that decimated crops in southern Idaho. Wheat and barley had a lot of pre-harvest sprout and our experimental field took a severe hail storm,” says Purdy.

Yield double

Interestingly, yield on the no-till side was almost double the yield on the conventional side. “A high percentage of the grain was lying on the ground on both portions but for some reason the no-till side had higher yield. With all that damage, it was difficult to get a good measure, but the crop was healthy and better than the conventional side,” he says.

“We bought our own no-till drill in 2015 and started learning how to run a no-till system. It was a small box drill. We’ve since replaced it with a larger air-seeder no-till drill.  We sold our conventional drills and most of our tillage equipment. Now we no-till about 90% of our ground. We lease some to a potato farmer which does require tillage, and also have some organic acres we must till, but 100% of our conventional acres are no-till now, unless they are in potatoes,” he explains.

“We transitioned slowly, doing some conventional and some no-till farming the first few years.  It was learn as you go. There wasn’t much information available about no-till practices, but 100-plus years of information about how to farm conventionally--lessons passed from grandfathers to fathers to sons/daughters. With no-till, I didn’t have my dad or grandfather to turn to, though I did have a mentor who lived near Inkom.” 

John McNabb was an early adopter of no-till farming. “He gave me good advice. If it weren’t for him, I probably would have given up.  He kept encouraging me, telling me what I did wrong and what I needed to do differently,” says Purdy.

“Almost everything I knew about farming had to be thrown out the window; I had to learn new skills. No-till farming is not just about buying a no-till drill. Many farmers try it but do the same things they’ve always done except plant with the no-till drill. You will likely fail if that’s what you do.”

The first thing is to change your mindset. “Otherwise you’ll think it doesn’t work. It’s a whole set of practices you have to adopt--in how you harvest the crop the prior year, your crop rotation, and maybe even how you planted the crop the prior year. You need to think a year or more in advance about what you’ll do differently, to make sure you prepare for success in your no-till venture.”

Info available

Today there is a lot of information available. People talk about regenerative agriculture and you can find all kinds of things about how and why, cover crops, soil health, and different products and practices that help. “It’s a much easier transition now; the guys who did it back in the early years were pioneers and very brave,” says Purdy.

“No-till is common in dry-land farming. We see significant reductions in fuel, equipment investment, wear and tear on tractors and equipment – and most importantly improvements in soil health,” he says.

“We farm in an environmentally sensitive area along Silver Creek, a famous trout stream. The silt load in that stream over the past 100 years has been heavy—mainly from agricultural practices that led to wind erosion and water erosion. On the fields we still till, there can be terrible wind erosion problems,” Purdy says.

“There’s been slight improvement in overall yield since converting to no-till. Our input costs are down and our soil has better water infiltration, less compaction and a lot more worms than before. I’m trying to adopt more regenerative practices, beyond no-till. We’ve reduced or eliminated synthetic inputs; we don’t use insecticides or fungicides, though we continue to use herbicides and some synthetic fertilizer. All of these things today are horribly expensive and fuel costs have gone through the roof. So the changes we’ve made are significant.”

It’s a long-term investment in improving soil health. “We hope to keep turning toward a more regenerative system, and continue to reduce synthetic inputs; they have unintended consequence of damaging soil to some degree—whether herbicide, fungicide, or a salt fertilizer,” says Purdy.

Decisions for soil

Soil can tolerate a certain amount and still be OK, but at some point these things start killing the life in the soil.  We need to recognize that soil is a teeming mass of living organisms, full of life, and make every decision with that in mind. “One of the hardest things to do is realize that some of what you learned from your father and grandfather about farming is wrong,” he says.

“You also need to be willing to endure the ribbing of your neighbors, because when you farm with a no-till system, you won’t see beautiful rich, bare soil, perfectly lined up rows, etc. that you can feel good about. You’ll be planting into stubble from the prior year and it will look messy. In the spring you’ll see all your plants sprouting up from that stubble, but from the road as your neighbors drive by they’ll wonder what the heck you are doing and why you are not plowing that field.”

We like to feel good about how our fields look, and appear successful. “You need to decide whether you are more concerned about your bank account or your neighbor’s opinion. The latter doesn’t pay the bills. Our farm has been in the family since 1883, and maintaining that legacy is our top priority. As a family, we want to pass down a farm to our children and grandchildren that is healthy, thriving and teaming with life – above and below ground. We want to ensure that our operation is financially strong and sustainable for future generations.”

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