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No-till farmer lets soil biology take control

Chris Torres Rick Bieber has been no-tilling for more than 30 years on his Trail City, S.D., farm
EMBRACING BIOLOGY: Rick Bieber has been no-tilling for more than 30 years on his Trail City, S.D., farm. In that time, he’s found that listening to others and trusting his soil’s biology has meant more for his farm’s bottom line than anything else.
Rick Bieber, a South Dakota farmer, tells Pennsylvania farmers about his secrets to no-till and cover crop success.

Not everyone will agree with Rick Bieber’s concepts on soil health and crop management. But that’s OK with this South Dakota farmer.

“We learn with conversations,” he told a group of producers gathered for a Pennsylvania No-till Alliance field day in Strasburg. For Bieber, long-term no-till and cover cropping has led to better soil health and what he believes is a better farming system for his 5,000-acre, 400-head cow-calf operation in Trail City, S.D.

“Every picture of my farm, you will not see soil in any picture,” he says. “We don’t ever want soil exposed. As farmers we’ve been taught … we want everything to emerge at the same time. That’s what we’ve been taught. But we want to have things growing at every stage of life, all the time on our soils.”

What’s Bieber’s recipe for success? Letting biology take control and listening to his soils.

Bieber farms in an area where the hilltops have evergreen trees that produce pine cones, and the low ground has oak trees that produce acorns. So, why is there no mixing of evergreens in the low ground? Because this is what nature intended. It’s this kind of thinking, he says, that drives his decision-making and concepts that he’s tried implementing.

In one field on his farm, for example, he hasn’t applied an herbicide in more than 20 years. The field has been no-till for 25 years — he’s done no-till on the farm for 33 years.

Nothing has grown in that field except for wild buckwheat, an indication to him that buckwheat should naturally be growing there. He’s gotten some additional buckwheat seed and planted it there, too. But he’s also planted other legumes and grains — vetch, chickpeas, flax and radishes — to create a system that, at least biologically, will work in that field.

Learning from others

As his son is also involved in the farm, this has allowed Bieber to do lots of traveling to not only teach others his no-till experiences, but also gain knowledge from farmers around the world.

For example, he’s been to Australia 15 times over the past 10 years. On one farm in Australia, he stood in a field of 95-bushel wheat that had only 30 units of nitrogen applied, nothing else.

"That to me impressed me because I grew up as a wheat farmer,” Bieber says. “If we grow wheat without all these other things, this gets back to soil health first.”

Another farmer he visited in Australia was having problems with slugs and snails, especially in fields where there were no cover crops planted. In areas where cover crops were planted, no snails or slugs were seen, a pattern that he also saw in Ireland, Finland and some other countries.

“What happens is once you get your diversities right aboveground and you get your balances right belowground — and don't ask me what they are — but once you get it right, your protozoas and your secondary feeders come back into your soils,” with some studies showing that many of these protozoa drill holes and feed on the slug and snail eggs, he says.

“You need to go to other people's soils, and you don't even have to listen to the farmers. Just turn the soil over and listen to them," Bieber says.

In Russia, he visited with a farmer whom he thought was doing something “genius.” Wheat, a cool-season grass, was growing right alongside vetch, a cool-season broadleaf legume. The farmer, he explains, didn’t want all legumes in the field because that would have been hard on the soil. So, the farmer came up with an interesting idea.

He planted corn — which Bieber says is one of the biggest fixers of nitrogen before it gets to reproductive stage — after harvesting the wheat with the hopes that it would freeze before getting to the reproductive stage. The idea being that once the corn dies from freezing, the nitrogen in the soil would be available for next spring’s crop.

The next spring, he says, the farmer planted buckwheat since the crop can bring up phosphorus from underground to the plants. The buckwheat froze during the spring. Then the farmer planted some sunflowers. With zero inputs, the farm averaged 3,000 pounds an acre. 

"You see some of these things are happening around the world and I'm thinking, oh my goodness, this is genius. Why didn't I think of this? But it's genius to have this happening," Bieber says, adding that he can make more money grazing his cows on things such as corn and other crops than having to buy in more feed.

Bieber also plants corn after wheat. When the corn doesn’t freeze, he sends some of his mother cows in to graze the stalks, leaving the nitrogen in the soil.

Bieber calls his cows biological distributors "because everything they have in their gut the soil needs in its gut, and when it gets extremely cold out, the cow keep the biology warm within their gut.”

Embracing change

No two farmers have the same needs. Some farmers are focused on animal production, others on crops.

Good soil health, though, is something all farmers should embrace, Bieber says.

“The only constant in life is change. Success is optional,” he says. “It's how we look at the change and how we except the change that makes a difference, and the difference that has to come about in our ag systems today and our soil care systems is we have to recognize that there is a third component to our soils. We don't just have physical and chemical, that's what we've been taught forever. The system is driven by biological factors.”

Bieber wants earthworms crawling around in his soils. One thing he’s done to support them is limiting the amount of soil disturbance and vibrations, but stripping his planter to just the components needed for planting seed. His planter has no residue manager, no vertical tillage. He’s gone from tires to a tracked system.

He plants into a lot of cover crops, but much of the soil is undisturbed, something he calls “silent planting.”

“All that I have is my scalpel out there, and I cut into the trench,” Bieber says. “Why do we think we need to have something naked out there? So, we want to have it covered at all times.”

Soil testing, which he never did in the past because he was broke and couldn’t afford to do it, is now an important tool in his arsenal. A test of one field, for example, showed 64 pounds of nitrogen per acre. But a more complete analysis of the farm showed 2,700 pounds of nitrogen in the field that wasn’t accessible. Improving the soil’s biology, Bieber says, has allowed his plants to access more of those nutrients.

In fact, when he sends his soil tests in, he wants his numbers to show zero P and zero N because that shows all the available nutrients to the plant, which means it’s also subject to escaping.

“I challenge each and every one of you to run these tests and see what you have, because that's going to make you realize that I have a tremendous amount there, why do I need to buy more? How do I access it? Because once you learn how to access it, now your inputs go down," he says.

Most farmers would balk at the idea of not using an herbicide or pesticide, especially if there is a problem weed or bug, but Bieber says that too much of these chemicals can disrupt the soil’s natural carbon flow, which helps balance the carbon-to-nitrogen ratio.

Even the use of synthetic N can disrupt carbon flow.

“When you put out herbicides, pesticides, the first application will knock microbials out of balance,” Bieber says. “The second application will extend the recovery period. But the third one does a lot of damage, knocking back biological activity for the entire season, and the biology is the carbon flow.”

Finding good mixes — a recipe that matches cool- and warm-season grasses with cool- and warm-season broadleafs — is essential, he says. In some fields, he does more than a dozen mixes of cover crops, but again, not everything Bieber does will work on every farm.

"And this is what gives me the ability to know that we have all kinds of places to go yet on our farm,” he says. “I get to go see all these things. I wish I could take my eyes and have you guys see it, too. Without a word spoken, we go, wow, we need to change what we're doing. I hope I called you to think differently because you can find your own answers.”

TAGS: Cover Crops
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