In retrospect, the summer of 2020 might not have been the best possible time to plant test plots of forage cover crops and evaluate their strip-grazing performance.
But that’s just what Kurt Dale, who farms near Protection in Comanche County, did. And in December, Kansas farmers wondering if the holistic approach that’s been dubbed “regenerative agriculture” would work on their land got a chance to see the results of the effort at a field day at Dale Family Farms.
“I got into this because I’m an independent sales representative for Green Cover Seed out of Bladen, Neb.,” Dale said. “With help from some neighbors and guidance from Dale Strickler of Green Cover, I did a 30-acre plot that was a mix of seven forages and one additional plot that I planted with my own mix of seed from Green Cover. I have it laid out for grazing in strips and the idea was to get an evaluation of how well the cattle grazed each plant species, how well the cattle performed and how much forage the plot produced.”
Dale said he planted the plot behind grazed-out wheat.
“First, I did a chemical burndown for the after-harvest weeds, then planted a week later into the stubble. It was extremely dry here in the spring and summer. That’s why I grazed out the wheat. Then, a few weeks into the project, we had a terrible grasshopper problem. They were just everywhere. This was looking pretty much like a failure,” Dale said.
Rain brings relief
Then came August rain. And a bounce-back.
“Some of the forages looked pretty good and some not so good,” he said. “I decided to go ahead with the field day anyway. I wanted folks to see some alternatives to planting wheat after wheat after wheat. And I wanted to demonstrate that even when it looks like a failure, regenerative agriculture can still make a positive contribution to soil health.”
So, he stripped the plot with movable fencing and mob grazed it into winter. The cattle thrived on both the Green Cover demonstration plot and Dale’s own spot. Despite high density, the stock stayed in good condition and only required two bales of supplemental hay, even though three snowstorms.
“With traditional practices, you’d be using a lot more supplemental feed,” he said. “Not needing that feed saves money.”
But the real reward, Dale said, was seeing the benefits the system brings to the soil.
“Even when it looked pretty ugly, it was working,” he said. “This winter, on warmer days, you could go out and dig anywhere in the field and find earthworms. My plot isn’t loaded up with earthworms like some of the fields that have been in this system for decades, but we’re getting there.”
Dale said he would never suggest that the cover mixes he plants or the system he follows is exactly right for every producer.
“There is so much variation from farm to farm that each producer has to figure out the best system for his land,” Dale said. “The good Lord gave us all different sets for resources. I like to remind people, though, that regenerative agriculture is nothing new. It’s really an old, old way of farming with some really cool new tools that weren’t available to our grandparents and great-grandparents.”
Being able to keep a living root in the ground at all time keeps the biology below the soil surface alive and active, Dale said.
Adding grazing completes the process, he said, and the work of moving cattle has its own rewards.
“Moving livestock is really quite enjoyable. When you interact with the cattle all the time, they become very easy to handle. And adding livestock brings economic value. If you look at value per hour of work, stringing hot wire is the highest paid job on the farm. Managed grazing increases forage utilization by at least 50%. That’s more dollars in your pocket.”
Dale Family Farms markets grass-fed and finished beef, pastured pork and pastured chickens direct to consumers.
They process chickens on the farm and work with processors for their cattle and hogs.
“Chickens add an incredible amount of nutrients to the soil. It doesn’t take very many acres to pasture them,” he said. “And selling the meat direct to consumers makes them one of our highest dollar-per-acre enterprises.”
He said Dale Family Farms can process about 100 birds in a few hours with their equipment on the farm.
“There is a place for everything,” he said. “Not every acre is meant for chickens or for cattle. There is also room for some specialty crops.”
Dale Family Farms has a summertime presence at the Liberal farmers market as well as making monthly delivery trips in the state of Kansas.
Deep roots for Dale Family Farms in Comanche County
The Dale family has been farming in Comanche County for more than 100 years.
Kurt grew up with his five brothers and sisters on the family farm. He left Protection for college and work, moving back home in 1995 to farm and ranch with his parents, Bill and Helen. Soon after, he met Andi, a local schoolteacher who grew up in Salina. Two years later, Kurt and Andi married. Over time, they added three daughters, Allison, Natalie and Anna, to the family and in the fall of 2006, the Dales built a house in the country.
In 2014, Kurt and Andi’s house burned to the ground.
“We were blessed beyond measure by the generosity of friends and family and were able to move back home a year later,” Kurt said. “I can’t think of anywhere else we’d rather be as we write our next chapter.”
Forage has been the greatest resource of the farm, which is located on mixed grass prairie where rainfall is scarce and soils are marginal for the production of most row crops.
About a decade ago, Kurt became more aware of regenerative agriculture as a way to increase the health of the soil and make the operation sustainable for another 100 years,
“We have come to understand that the health of our animals and the healthfulness of the food we raise and eat is directly correlated to the quality and health of the soil on which it is grown,” Kurt said. “We have realized that letting our animals remain in their natural environment, doing what they do best — grazing, will be our key to sustainability.”
Find more about how Dale Family Farms uses regenerative ag practices and direct to consumer marketing at dalefamilyfarms.com. Kurt Dale can be reached at 620-622-7008 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.