Emmons makes a cry for cover crops

Photo by Patrick Shea Delivering the Keynote Address at the 41st Annual Southern Rocky Mountain Agricultural Conference and Trade Show in Monte Vista on Feb. 8, Jimmy Emmons presented, ‘Grazing Beyond the Yield — How we changed our soil and water efficiency to improve profitability.’

MONTE VISTA — Keynote speaker Jimmy Emmons shared his soil expertise during the second day of the 41st Annual Southern Rocky Mountain Agricultural Conference and Trade Show at the Outcalt Event and Conference at SLV Ski Hi Complex in Monte Vista on Feb. 8.

An international leader in the soil heath movement, Emmons and his wife Ginger manage 2,000 acres of cropland and 5,000 acres of rangeland in Dewey County, Okla. In 2017, they received Oklahoma’s first Leopold Conservation Award for their regenerative agriculture practices. He travels 200 days a year meeting with farmers and giving presentations while raising cattle and crops at home.

In the early 1980s, Emmons said that between Ginger, his mom, himself, and his dad, they spent at least 1,000 hours apiece in a tractor seat every year. Now his wife never runs a tractor. He said she prefers the “no-till” approach of planting cover crops for running cattle instead.

“How do we grow a cover crop with limited water,” Emmons asked, followed by, “I’m sure that’s part of the conversation here. I realize I’m in a potato region and no-till won’t work with potatoes. I understand that. You have to do what you have to do to get a potato in the ground and out of the ground.”

Emmons showed pictures of their first test in the drought year of 2011. They planted a cover crop and left a small area bare. Then they placed moisture and temperature probes to compare the areas over time.

He showed pictures of the next crop of wheat on the same ground, another Oklahoma drought year in 2012. They probed the formerly bare soil where the wheat didn’t look as good as the second-year crop next to it. They discovered a hard layer about 16 inches down. When they probed the adjacent cover crop, they didn’t hit the hard layer. So, they returned later to take detailed samples and confirmed the 16-inch layer in the small, patchy area. A few feet away, the same hard layer was 33 inches below the surface.

“Growing cover crops and building soil health is like building a retirement plan or a savings account,” Emmons said. “When it’s good, stash it back because you’re going to need it when it doesn’t rain.”

In addition to helping maximize water, cover crops cool the ground and allow the soil to mature. Emmons watched the evaporation rate fall. One day last summer when it was 113 degrees fahrenheit in Oklahoma, the temperature within the cover crop was 81 degrees. On the same day, the temperature on bare ground registered 130.

At that temperature, Emmons explained, “the biological community that we really need is fried. They’re done. They’re dormant. They’ve moved down. They’re not going to help us.”

Emmons ran his cattle on the cover crop and noted how the water use went up as the plants were chewed down. But he earned $120 to $160 an acre from the beef to offset the cost, an option not available on dirt. Spring measurements showed a rebound in water efficiency.

“We were water-ahead,” Emmons recalled. “We were starting to build soil.”

In 2010, Emmons also started measuring water infiltration rate. As the soil improved over 13 years, the rate went from a half-inch to as much as a dozen inches an hour. He said his pivots haven’t gotten stuck since his soil has improved, citing the soil structure. He wanted to see how his ground responded when he dumped more than seven inches of water on it in 100 minutes. With earthworm burrows and other open spaces in the improved biological community underground, it took in all seven-plus inches.

“If you’re an elephant or a microscopic organism,” Emmons asked the audience, “do you know the difference? There is none. We all have to have water. We all have to eat. We all have to have air. And we’ve got to get rid of CO2.”

Emmons showed multiple examples of standing water in tilled fields next door to green pastures with healthy soil following rainstorms.

“This guy never did get to plant,” Emmons noted on one side of the slide, “because it was either blowing, too wet to get in, or standing water.”

Emmons said, “We can’t continue to export 1.7 billion tons a year to the Gulf of Mexico. You heard me right. About 1.7 billion tons of erosion a year in the United States goes down the rivers.”

Emmons celebrated one field he planted in 2009 that now requires “zero inputs on this corn.” When they harvest cereal rye from the same field before planting corn on July 15, they deliberately let enough fall off the back of the combine to ensure cover crop for the calves he’ll be weaning later on the same field.

Healthy soil can increase revenue with the right balance of inputs and sales, particularly when running livestock on the same ground. Emmons compared the costs and revenue of one of his areas over the course of a year. He invested $285 and received $1,783 in return.

Emmons will begin a new job on Feb. 13 with Trust in Food, a Farm Journal Initiative. He said the organization will be putting, “about $10 million in producers’ hands across about 15 states.”

The 41st Annual Southern Rocky Mountain Agricultural Conference and Trade Show completed its three-day run on Thursday, Feb. 9.

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