Self-titled “soil health farmer” Chad Christianson is not unlike other farmers when he says soil health practices have to “pay their way.”
He realizes that rent is high and taxes are not cheap. The cost of every input matters. At the same time, it doesn’t make sense to him to focus only on corn and soybeans.
“Just planting corn and beans will be the death of some growers because we are growing way too much and some below the cost of production,” Christianson said.
He added cover crops to his Hooper, Nebraska farm. But unlike some other farmers who have tried covers, Christianson didn’t give up too soon.
“I see so many guys try cover crops for a year and they may not do what they think they are going to do and they just quit,” he said.
He urges them to plant cover crops for at least three years on the same piece of ground and do some soil testing before starting, then every year afterward.
“You will see some differences,” he said. “You will be able to cut back on a little fertilizer. You will start making your soil alive.”
The proof is in the numbers. Jody Saathoff, who works with CHS, Inc. and has served as Christianson’s cover crop seed advisor, sent out a report after researching the results of a 20-species cover crop mix that was grown on the Christianson farm. It included analysis from Ward Laboratories.
“Chad sampled this (field) mid-January when most of the (20) cover crop species winter-killed, but we hope to have eight species over-winter,” the report said. “He grew 2,962 pounds of carbon with a total of 8,280 pounds of dry matter per acre with a 20-to-one carbon to nitrogen ratio. So, he should get very good nutrient availability for the next crop.
“If you would have bought these (benefits) as a commercial fertilizer that would have ran $126 an acre and that’s not putting a price on the carbon. The cover crop mix also recovered and produced 145 pounds of nitrogen, 46 pounds of potassium, 122 pounds of calcium, 19 pounds of sulfur and other micronutrients.”
Christianson credits the open mind and kind heart of his father-in-law, John Ruwe, for giving him his break to get into farming.
“My father-in-law is the kindest man I have ever met and is so open to what I am doing,” he said. “Yes, he will question me on things, but he is never the type of mentor that will hold me back. He sees the benefits. I wouldn’t have as much today if it wasn’t for him.”
Seeing the benefits and reaping the rewards of soil health, has also come from Christianson’s own motivation to never stop learning.
“I was at an event once and the guy sitting next to me was 65 years old. He told me his dad was in his late 80s and that he had not allowed him to sell a single load of grain in his name yet because he just wouldn’t let go,” Christianson said. “In the long-term, those kind of fathers or mentors can be a hindrance to their kids because they are not allowed to learn and try to do things on their own.”
The first mentors in Christianson’s life were his parents, the late Jim Christianson and his mom, Rita, when growing up near Ames, Iowa in the small town of Zearing. His dad rented farm ground when he got out of the Air Force.
“Then the 1980s came,” Christianson said.
His dad was 17-20% interest and higher, so he decided to sell out and move to Rita’s home state of Nebraska. His dad went into trucking, and Christianson, who was 5 at the time they moved, eventually helped his uncles with harvest.
“All my uncles were great role models and a huge inspiration to me,” he said.
But Christianson didn’t plan to farm for a living when he married his high school sweetheart, Dawn Ruwe. It was after their first daughter was born that he realized he did not want to be away driving trucks. He took an office job with Fremont Contract Carriers.
The job wasn’t for him. His in-laws, John and Neat Ruwe and his wife, Dawn, noticed he was bringing home stress from work. John asked him to take a couple of weeks off in the fall and help with harvest.
“I helped them, had a blast, and loved it,” he said.
Come spring, he was itching to be in the field again. He took a few more weeks off to help with planting work. Christianson took pleasure in his work, and his father-in-law could tell. Ruwe offered him a job on the farm.
After several years working for a wage, John rented him some ground, allowed his son-in-law to use their equipment, and put a budget together. That was 2009. Today, the whole farm has been transitioned into Christianson’s hands.
“When I started, it was just 150 acres, but it was the most exciting thing in the world to me,” he said.
Ruwe is still active on the farm, but Christianson is the full-bore manager.
From the very beginning, Christianson wanted to contribute nothing but positive additions to the farm. He wanted to keep it going and thriving. One of the first changes he made was reducing tillage.
Ruwe farmed conventionally, doing fall and early spring tillage.
“To me it just destroyed things and took a lot of time, fuel and man hours,” Christianson said.
He talked him into devoting one farm to no-till for one year.
“It worked wonderfully,” he said. “He really caught on that first year.”
In three years, they transferred the entire farm to no-till.
Christianson put a lot of time into studying the practice, reading magazine articles and attending his first National No-Till and No-Till on the Plains conferences.
“My mind was blown,” he said.
Ray Archuleta was a keynote speaker. His energy and the way he explained cover crops, soil health and the biology underground caught Christianson’s attention. He also met peers who were on the same path. Scott Heineman was one friend he made by sitting next to him at one of the sessions. Then they realized they lived an hour apart. Now they collaborate regularly.
Dan Gillespie, a farmer who works with the Madison County NRCS Natural Resources Conservation Service, has become another mentor. He demonstrated a rainfall simulator at No-Till on the Plains, another eye-opening moment for Christianson.
Having a peer group and trying new things make transitioning far more enjoyable, he said. They bounce ideas off each other, learning from each other’s successes and failures.
Growing cover crops has been a learning process, but now Christianson said planting covers has turned into more fun than the conventional crops he grows.
His cover crop mixes vary from a six-species mix to 20 species. He’s also added wheat into his crop rotation. He hopes it will boost corn yields the following year. Wheat acres move to different fields on the Christianson farm in an effort to get the microbial population going after over-use of synthetic herbicides, pesticides and compaction.
Next, Christianson wants to bring livestock into the mix, but he expects a major learning curve.
“I am a city kid who does not know crap about cattle except they have four legs, a head and a tail,” he said. “But I am goal-oriented enough to make that come to life, I hope.”
He hopes to work with a cattle producer to offer custom rotational grazing while he learns more about raising cows.
“Bringing livestock back on the farm is that really important step to changing the soil for the better,” he said.
Organic farming might be in his future as well, growing oats, alfalfa and peas. He likes that the growing method can improve the soil while the crops bring a premium in the marketplace.
Not only do regenerative farming practices bring life to the soil, he’s convinced they can revive rural America.
“I truly believe the shrinking and death of many of our small rural Nebraska towns and others across the country are because of the lack of crop diversity and animals,” he said.
When farming used to have different types of livestock and grow more than just corn and soybeans, it took more people in every town to supply seed, feed, mills, grain elevators, bakeries and other services, he said.
“All those small businesses are what made each community thrive. Take away the livestock and crop diversity and many of those other things just starved and went away, unfortunately,” Christianson said. “We can bring those things back to rural America, create many more jobs and small businesses again — if we all work together.”