Farming The Universe: Growing Feed and Building Soil
Updated: Sep 11, 2020
A quick word about what I mean when I say "Farming the Universe". Farming the Universe is about being in exposed to a bigger environment as a learning tool. I felt it when I went from 5 acres to forty; from growing alfalfa on 10,000 square feet to 6 acres. I believe in a wholistic system- where everything is interconnected and part of one big thing. I believe that when I am learning about soil I am learning about God, and as I learn about the Universe I learn about the life in the soil and everything in between. It is a vast journey of exploration and stewardship; farming the Universe. "Whatever you think, it's more than that."
On our farm are three arable fields, making up about 20 acres in total. According to NRCS data, the soil classification is primarily what is known as "Irwin silty clay loam", with a smaller portion being "Ladysmith silty clay loam". Both soils are over 80" deep formed over shale beds, and are classified as prime farmland. These fields have been in cultivation for over 150 years. Thats not very long compared to much of the worlds ancient farmland, but American farming has been more about exploiting native fertility rather than maintaining, let alone building-up. When we began farming, our desire was to both use the land and make it "better" or move it towards "wholeness". This is the classic model of stewardship. This journal/ web-log is about how I am learning how to do it on our small farm, and this particular account concerns the southernmost and smallest of the fields, 4 acres that we rent on trust from our neighbor. I've named this field "Obed".
Obed, had a fallow period of two or three years before we began farming it. I started in 2016 by discing in the 7 foot tall ragweed, Johnson grass and sunflowers that dominated the field. I did not spray herbicides- which I do not wish to use on our farm. It was slow work and took a number of passes to chop and work the organic material into the soil. After this I planted a cover crop of triticale, together with a modest amount of crushed limestone I had available and some 13-13-13 fertilizer as a starter.
The following spring of 2017 I put on 180 pounds of Urea Nitrogen on the tritcale and in May I mowed it and disced it into the field. Into this I planted a crop of sorghum, millet, cowpeas, and soybeans, and also began to establish a waterway through the field- which saw a great deal of drainage- from Northeast to Southwest.
We put a group of 10 feeder pigs on the planting of sorghum, millet, cowpeas and soybeans in July in portable electric fence. We moved them around the field all summer and pulled them out in October. We were also bringing in feed for the pigs, which in my mind also means bringing in nutrients. That fall we planted triticale, Austrian winter peas, hairy vetch, daikon radish and purple top turnip.
In March of 2018 we put 200 lbs an acre of 7-16-12, a biologically balanced fertilizer blend from Midwestern BioAg. Then in mid April we turned out the ewes and their young lambs to graze the triticale and peas. Unfortunately the spring was exceedingly dry and the crop poor. After grazing we managed to harvest 15 bushels of triticale to use as feed.
We let the Bermuda grass and Johnson grass grow and grazed that twice during the summer and fall in two day paddocks. During the winter we camped out the whole herd feeding hay on the ground letting them trample in any wasted hay with their manure as we moved them slowly across the whole field.
I left the field fallow during the summer of 2019. Resources were at a minimum and I was also caught in indecision about what I should do as a next step for the field. After three years of clumsily trying to "build biology" and put into the soil more than we were taking off, I felt I needed it to start producing more than a few mouthfuls of forage. Of course, the field would not be bare- it had all that hay on top, plus a good sod of weeds that I would mow or graze. Eventually I decided to grow a crop that we would harvest for feed. This was an important step in working to reduce our operating costs. We would be producing both feed and bedding, a portion of which result in on-farm fertility returns as well. I decided to try Austrian winter peas and Triticale again. I wanted the protein from the peas for our layers and hogs and I felt confident that they would ripen around the same time as the triticale and that they could be harvested together with our Allis Chalmers All-Crop Harvester. I hoped the intervening fallow year would be enough of a rotation to prevent trouble resulting from the return to a previously grown crop so soon.
I planted the Peas and Triticale in September with a starter fertilizer of 150 lbs of Nitrogen and 100 lbs of Phosphorous. The Fall was dry and the germination from the planting was poor enough in places that I actually replanted parts of the field in October. During the winter I would often visit the field, wondering what would come of it, and worrying at the open spots. The triticale hadn't sent out tillers very well in the dry fall and winter, but as spring neared and the rains returned, my heart rejoiced to see the overwintered plants begin to grow.
The peas came through the cold remarkably well. In the March I put on another 100 lbs of Nitrogen. With more spring rains the crop began to grow in earnest. I was unprepared for how lush and tall the two plants would grow together. The triticale was 6 feet high when it began to head and the peas climbed up the stems, eventually reaching even higher than the grain heads.
It was beautiful seeing the pea blossoms in amongst the grain. I began to feel that a good crop was growing in spite of the obvious thin spots and weedy places. Places that had grown poorly before were thick and lush and deep green. My friend Justin Knopf came down from Gypsum with his family over Memorial Day and I showed the field to him. Justin is a 5th generation wheat farmer, with keen observation, wisdom and experience. He is deeply invested in the conservation and stewardship of his land and farms with great intentionality. I always marvel that he pays any attention to the scrounging around we are doing on our 40 acre farm. He said that he had not seen peas grow like that in Kansas, and marveled at the growth in the field. Jack Armstrong, my neighbor and the land owner, said the field had never grown like that in his memory. I was relieved to have confirmation that my crop looked strong, and that the ground was beginning to show signs of returning health and productivity under my stewardship, but the actual harvest hadn't yet come.
We enjoyed eating the young pods as the peas began to produce them in abundance. As we approached harvest I began to worry about the timing of the two different crops ripening close enough together. Also I began to notice the peas starting to pull down the triticale in places where they grew thickly. Then the rain stopped just as the peas were filling their pods. I continued to remind myself that this was an experiment. It may be a failure- but even so, I would at least get something harvested.
As the crop ripened and began drying down, we started the process of preparing the harvester, an Allis Chalmers model 66 All Crop Harvester built in the middle of the last century. There is a lot of greasing and adjusting to do on this versatile piece of equipment, and I needed to build a new finishing sieve that would accommodate both the peas and the triticale.
Harvest finally came and I fought through a long week of starts and stops. I had bought the All Crop in 2018 from a farmer near Potwin for $2500. His father had bought it new in the 1950's and they had taken great care in their maintenance of it. When I drove out to look it over, I didn't need to be told that never in its life had it been left to sit outside. It was in remarkable condition for a 60 year old implement. Most of its contemporaries are rotting away in fence rows or behind barns with trees growing through the rusted out framework. He only sold it to me because he seemed confident that I would use it and on the promise that it would be stored in the barn. I have used it, but only in small 1/4 acre grain plots. This was its first real test, and I spent the week discovering all the worn out parts and replacing them as they broke. In between break downs I made adjustments as I tried to learn how to properly adjust the machine to cut, thresh and clean the heavy crop without bogging. It was exhausting and frustrating. At the same time it somehow felt an important process to be going through; almost a rite of passage as I incrementally gained the authority to use the old combine. The worst came when the grain drag came free of its cogs on one side and half the bars bent in half and the drive chain broke in multiple spots. I had to take the whole thing apart and rebuild it over the course of a day.
As I took it back out to the field on Friday, my father began to question wether I ought to try some other method, but I held out faith that it would work. Finally, it did. My son and I harvested all day, stopping only to replace a broken shear-pin and to grease the fittings at midday. Emptying the 25 bushel hopper for the first time into the trailer was a real celebration and point of demarcation. My son stayed out with me until we finished at about 10:30 pm. I was so exhausted that he was running the show at that point, telling me what to do while helping me to get everything put up and finished. My pride in him was greater than in the harvest.
We averaged about 31 bushels to an acre, but there was a significant amount of cheat grass hulls that didn't get cleaned out, not to mention the dead bodies of many hundreds of grasshoppers - fiber and protein, respectively, by my reckoning.
Unloading the trailer into the big grain bin was another day of celebration for us. My son, Obediah, Jim (my good friend, and partner in a lot of what we do on the farm), and I all took turns shoveling the grain into the auger's inlet, and my wife Amy pushed it in with her hands. Thousands of farmers do better at it year after year, but for me, I was farming the Universe. I was aware of the failures in the process- but for us, it was still an achievement and an opportunity to be grateful, and we were many steps closer to doing it better over the next years.
The Peas and Triticale were an experiment that I put together in my head, blindly in some regards. I've since noticed men like Gary Zimmer and Klaas Martens (an organic farmer in NY) speak about the benefits of the winter peas grown with rye or triticale. Klaas mentioned Austrian winter peas being of great benefit as a hog feed, due to the high levels of tannins, which have evidence of having an effect on internal parasites. As many old farmers knew and as many are now rediscovering, certain species of crops perform measurably better when growing in association in the same field. I remember coming across a passage in Louis Bromfield's Pleasant Valley, where he observes his corn plants growing better when giant ragweed was present. He also goes into great detail about the soil building potential of alfalfa and clover grown together with brome grass. There are many reasons (think root culture, microbes and fungus) why this could be, and I am still learning. The nuances of the life in the soil are infinite.
It's been months since the harvest and we've been feeding the grain to our hogs and chickens, ground and mixed with molasses and minerals. We also baled 237 bales of straw of which we sold 60 and covered our fertilizer costs. The rest will be used as bedding in the barn to catch and hold urine and manure, then composted down and be spread back on the fields. We ran the combine high, leaving still some straw-stubble and pea-vines in the field. The ratio of triticale to peas in my seed mix was exactly 50:50. I will try 60% triticale to 40% peas this fall to see if the extra stems can help to carry the load of the peas. I will be planting into the Northern most field of the three, "Ruth", which has been in alfalfa for four years, whose culture could change everything.
Obed was meant to get a planting of Buckwheat then alfalfa, that didn't come together, so I let the weeds grow, then, before they went to seed I cultivated them into the soil with the disc and planted turnips, daikon radish, rape, red and white clover, alfalfa, oats, rye and wheat. Now we are waiting for rain.
This is the account of the beginnings of my work in the field I call, Obed. There is much more to say and do- about and on the land. That will be for another time.
Father, receive my worship.