Outside the box - Vogels use novel ideas to generate more return on their farmlandWritten by Gayle Smith
Torrington – When Marc and Kate Vogel joined his family’s farming operation in Ballantine, Mont., they knew they wanted to try something different. Traditional crops were the norm in their area, and most farmers didn’t deviate from those traditional crops, like wheat and barley.
The Vogels were one of the keynote speakers during the Southeastern Wyoming Beef Production Convention in Torrington, and they shared not only how they earned more return from their cropland but also how they successfully implemented livestock grazing into their cropland rotation.
“We took a regenerative approach to agriculture,” Marc told the group of over 50 farmers and ranchers.
“Traditionally, we can’t grow dryland corn in our area because our annual moisture is only 13 inches. But by using no till and cover cropping, we have been able to successfully grow dryland corn and have it yield really well,” Marc said.
Last year, they planted spring wheat and harvested the crop with a stripper head.
“We left the standing wheat stubble, and then we received record snowfall – 100 inches. The snow fell in the field, and the stubble held it to where it melted straight down. It was amazing how that stubble was able to capture so much snow,” he said.
The family also started planting more non-traditional crops, which literally turned quite a few heads, since they farm along the interstate. Many farmers told them it wouldn’t work, but with their different cropping methods, they were up to the challenge.
“My family has a saying,” Marc told the crowd. “‘Can’t’ and ‘ain’t’ never did anything!”
While people in their area expected the Vogels to fail, they are now more open-minded after seeing the family’s successes. Vogel has planted sunflowers to help control cheatgrass and later grazed cattle on the crop.
“The protein and oils in the sunflowers really slick up the cattle and makes them look nice,” he explained. “It also helped us get control of a lot of weeds, and it breaks up the compaction layers.”
Kate, who graduated with an agronomy degree from Colorado State University, has hefty knowledge of what is needed to improve the soil. She feels it is important to decrease disturbance of the soil by integrating no-till into current farming practices.
“We do some no-till, even on our flood irrigated crop land,” she explained. “It has helped us increase diversity and build a good crop rotation. Typically, we would raise barley, but we are now trying peas and other crops.”
Keeping the soil covered is the key to preventing moisture from evaporating.
“It is important to maintain living roots because those living roots are harvesting sunlight,” she said. “They are taking free energy from the sun and putting it underground to feed the bugs and build up the soil.”
“The soil should always be covered. That residue is what feeds the soil life, reduces erosion, cools soil temperatures and manages moisture. The bugs needs carbon to live,” she explained.
The agronomist also sees the benefit of bringing livestock onto cropland to graze. The challenge is to always have something fresh for them to eat.
“They don’t want a stagnant spot that has been there. If they keep grazing the same piece of grass over and over again, it robs the roots of a chance to grow. The challenge is to provide them with something green, lush and sweet,” she said.
In fact, the couple cited a study that looked at continuous grazing versus rotational grazing of orchard grass. When the grass was continually grazed to one inch, it did not recuperate as well as the grass that was rotationally grazed to three inches.
The Vogels have shared the knowledge from their experiences through their business, North 40 Ag.
“We started the business in Montana to help farmers get the most bang for their buck out of their cover crops,” Marc explained. “We want to help them design a cover crop strategy that will fit their goals.”
The couple sees no-till farming practices becoming more prevalent in the future as improving the soil becomes more and more important.
Farmers complain about the lack of soil moisture, poor fertility, compaction, weeds, low yields and production and high input costs. Sometimes, there is also too much moisture, salinity in the soil, disease, pests and too much or too little litter, poor infiltration, erosion and undesirable grazing species also pose problems, the Vogels noted.
A different viewpoint
Studying this long list, Marc and Kate referred to their three-year-old nephews who constantly question why something happens. Our society may have become too accepting, they say, if we no longer question why these problems occur.
“Our nephews have caused us to see these problems from a different point of view,” Marc said. “It made us question why these things occur and what we could do to control or prevent it.”
Changes in their farming practices have been the answer.
Tillage is breaking down the organic matter in the soil, Kate explained. The bugs eat it, and it turns into carbon dioxide.
“Why do we till?” she asked the group, who answered with getting rid of weeds and compaction.
“The best way to alleviate compaction is to let the bugs do it for us,” she told the group.
In their area of Montana, the road department uses a disk to help compact the soil and make it hard when building roads. Farmers use a disk to loosen the soil.
“One of them has to be wrong,” Kate said.