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“Once you change your perspective from commodities to food, it really starts driving home would I feed this to my family? Then you start looking at the different markets. What are the different things that I can raise? And it snowballs from there.”

— Roy Pfaltzgraff, Pfaltzgraff Farms, Huxton, Colo.

In this episode of the Cover Crop Strategies podcast, brought to you by Montag Mfg., Roy Pfaltzgraff of Haxtun, Colo., talks about the unique cover crop strategies that he uses in his operation at Pfaltzgraff Farms. Roy grows 14 different crops with only 16 inches of precipitation, something he calls an arid region solution to the many challenges of cover crops. 

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The Cover Crop Strategies podcast series is brought to you by Montag Manufacturing.

Montag precision metering equipment is helping producers achieve their yield goals while saving on seed and input costs. For establishing cover crops, Montag’s family of seed platform equipment adapts to a variety of major brand delivery systems that will conserve seed and nutrients along with soil and water. Explore new options for your production and conservation goals with your Montag dealer, visit or call Montag at (712) 517-2775.

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Full Transcript

Mackane Vogel:

Welcome to the Cover Crop Strategies Podcast, brought to you by Montag Manufacturing. I'm Mackane Vogel, assistant editor at Cover Crop Strategies. In this episode, Roy Pfaltzgraf of Haxtun, Colorado talks about the unique cover crop strategies that he uses in his operation at Pfaltzgraff Farms. Roy discusses how his operation has transitioned to continuous cropping with only 16 inches of average precipitation, integrating more than 14 crops, reducing herbicide and fertilizer use while increasing profitability and reducing risk.

Roy Pfaltzgraff:

I am Roy Pfaltzgraff. I farm with my folks at Pfaltzgraff Farms. We're in northeast Colorado, a little town called Haxtun. We are a 2000 acre, dry land operation, and cover crops have always been a challenge in this part of the world, how they're traditionally seen and presented back east. So I'm going to be talking about how I've adapted the system to work for us and really look at when is a cover crop not a cover crop? So we're going to talk about where we started and then the things that we're working on. And then what I'm looking at in the future.

On the screen you see the two pictures. That is the evolution of the farm in the past five years. And the last five years is when we started focusing on soil health. So it really has changed our operation. And with that, there's always the question of profitability in making changes like that. And it's pretty obvious that the things are taking care of themselves. And that's what I found, is as you take care of the soil, the soil takes care of you.

So farming in Northeast Colorado is a little bit different than what you see in a lot of the country. We have some of the same similarities. But they say we get 16 inches of rain a year, the old joke was, "And I can remember the night it came." And that was real funny until we got nine inches in seven hours this last year. And that's what the upper left-hand picture is. That's road damage from where it ran out of a field, not our field, thankfully. And you can see the tillage passes in some of the washing, which I think is really interesting because you can show that when you till it actually breaks it up down to that layer. And so moving from that, you get the idea of how damaging that is.

And then being in northeast Colorado, we do get significant winds. There's a lot of wind generation being built and part of it is, with it being either hot and dry or cold and dry, when the wind starts blowing, if you don't have good residue and you're not taking care of your ground, it starts blowing. And that's what the picture is down at the bottom. That was taken within the last year. Once again, not our field. But it doesn't take much for that soil to start going in this part of the world.

So traditional practices in this area are either wheat and then a row crop or summer crop, and then summer fallow. And the fallow period is either done with tillage or with chemicals, depending if somebody's in no-till or not, a hundred percent. And we will actually see wheat, summer fallow, as a rotation. So every other year you get a crop. Where with the row crop you'll get two crops out of three years. And the row crops that we see, there's people that raise dryland corn, proso millet, occasionally sunflowers or grain sorghum, are the three crops that are traditionally rotated out here.

The evolution of our farm, my father took over operation in 1977. But he came back in 1973. He was working with my grandfather, his father-in-law. Dad started raising sunflowers in 1975. Little did we know the impact it would have, even today, in seeing what happens with our soil health. He started no-till planting in 1984. He started soil testing in 1984, and I actually have all the test results going back that far. The funny thing is, the soil test results from back then, this is the results from the wheat stubble next to this other field. And they didn't use legals. So we actually have to go back and try to determine where those records came from.

Thankfully, our computer accounting and cropping records are accessible back to 1985. And that was a really big piece when we started looking at soil health. Having records that complete, that far back, allow us to recreate things and get a better understanding of what's happening now.

We went to continuous no-till in 1999. And when I say continuous no-till, it is no-till. Tillage is one of those things that it would have to be a meteoroid impact before I'm going to have to break out some tillage equipment. [inaudible 00:06:00] because trying to fix a little problem that I made, gives me no reason to go and destroy what nature has been working on for those years.

And we went to GPS, we got our first GPS mapping in 2001, but we actually helped the company develop their auto steer program in 2005. And with that, it's allowed us to work on our pass control and making sure we're having as little as compaction issues as we possibly can.

So the next question is why covers? And this is one of those things that, when I first started hearing about cover crops, I was trying to understand what are they? And a lot of this goes back to what are you doing with the farming method? Are you rotating or oscillating? The farmers that were raising wheat fallow, that's an oscillation. We're actually not having any rotation in there. And you see that in a lot of places. And to be honest with you, we're guilty of that and we'll see that a little bit further down the road, of when we were guilty and the response that we've seen since then.

And covers, the one thing they talk about is living roots and what kind of timeframe. And growing seasons really affect that. With winter wheat, that's about the longest timeframe that traditionally happens. It's about 10 months. But out here, our growing season, last frost is May 15th, is average, and October 15th is the other end of that. So between those two, we have about five months to work with. The problem is not all, but a majority of our precipitation, comes in March, April, May and June. This last year we ended up with 22 inches of rain. It started on April 28th and it stopped six weeks later on June 15th. And then it did not rain from then on. So that's some of the challenges that we have to deal with.

And then it comes down to what is a cover crop? People say a cover crop isn't harvested. Well, if that's the case, if you're grazing it, that's a form of harvesting. And then with that, that's what one of the arguments is, by grazing a cover crop, you're harvesting it, but where are you at in terms of residue? Residue in this part of the world is king. The picture I have here is, I'm actually drilling chickpeas with flax intercrop through stubble. And there was weather coming, and if you look on the tire on the seed cart up in the very corner, you can see the tire has mud on it. You had to be careful where you stopped in that field because it was wet underneath that. That is stripper stubble that was waist high that went down with a blizzard. So I've got good coverage and I need to keep that coverage, pretty much at all possible costs, in here.

So that's one of the other challenges when you raise a cover crop out here, is depending upon the equipment you have, is you go through and you'll actually destroy more residue than what that cover could possibly grow depending upon the year. We have neighbors that do some cover cropping, more the traditional style cover cropping, and they're actually grazing some of our stubble this year because they used that cover crop as fall forage. It literally did not come up. It did not germinate. It was that dry.

What we've seen out here is cover crops would respond how they are expected to about 40% of the time. 40% of the time, they'll germinate and they'll get about two to three inches tall, and then they'll die due to lack of rainfall. And then 20% of the time they just don't even germinate. So my challenge is how can I justify a cropping system that only really works 40% of the time? So I'm going to have to take these ideas and adapt them. And that's one thing that we look at. What's a cover crop versus a cash crop?

If I'm harvesting a cash crop, what does my residue look like compared to what happens if I have a cover crop? What are the comparison between that cash crop and cover crop situation? The big thing that people always talk about on cover crops is diversity. And that's one of the things that we had to learn how to address. Diversity is a huge thing. It helps disease, insects, weeds, all those different things really come into that.

And then the big thing for us is do you really have the moisture? And I had a conversation with a friend of mine the other day that does cover cropping down in Kansas, under irrigation because they're even drier than we are. And he just looked at me and flat out said, "Roy, if I had to choose between raising a cover crop or a cash crop, I would raise a cash crop every time." Because the thing with farming, we love to do it, but if we never make any money, we only can do it for so long.

These are some pictures that I always like to include in our presentations. For us, looking at regenerative agriculture, and to me, regenerative agriculture is soil health. It's different words that are looking at the same thing. If you have good soil health, you are regenerating soil and you're developing healthier soils and developing more soil with that. There is a website on the internet that has drawings of every single plant you can imagine, including weeds, of what the root structure's like. And I just have four crops here. Looking at the root structures, we have wheat, sunflowers, I can never remember what that short one is. And then the next one is oats.

But looking at those different root structures really start to drive home why the things that we're doing are important for that diversity. We love sunflowers. People claim sunflowers dry out the land. They don't dry out the land. What they do is they don't have a lot of residue. So if you don't raise sunflowers properly and lack that residue, in this part of the world, you'll evaporate the moisture off of there.

When people talk about rainfall amounts, I always like to ask, "What's your pan evaporation rate?" Pan evaporation is how much moisture, if you had a pan of water that sat outside for a year, how much moisture would you be able to evaporate off of it on average? Our pan evaporation rate is 72 inches a year. So we have the ability to evaporate much more moisture than what we ever receive. And so that's why residue is important. That's why sunflowers have a black eye in our part of the world, is because they don't have the residue and so that water evaporates out all winter long and they've dried out the soil, when it's actually poor farming methods.

The other two pictures, yes, we got some puncturevine, but that was out in a field about two days after a rainstorm, we had mushrooms. The interesting thing is we don't run livestock on a regular basis and people always say, "You can't get mushrooms growing in farm fields without livestock." Well, you can, you just have to handle it right.

And then the bottom picture is actually a buckwheat plant, and you can see the fungal growth on the roots. I was out, we had buckwheat that volunteered back in some pinto beans, and was out there just checking the field and I wanted to see what the root systems looked like on different ones. And I pulled up this buckwheat plant and looked in and went, "Wow, what's the chances I actually find the roots of a buckwheat plant that have been inoculated and are growing in our dry soils?" And that was a year ago, which we had six inches of precipitation on that field for the year. So we see a lot of variants, but we can see why these things are so important to look at.

So the first thing that we looked at when we looked at adopting cover crops is Randy Anderson's research. He was with NRCS, ARS. He was down here in Akron, Colorado initially, and then he went up into South Dakota. And he did a ton of research. He wrote a lot of articles for No-Till Magazine. They're out there on the internet, they're fascinating reading, he has presentations. He has since retired, which is really disappointing to me because the work that he was doing was really impactful for the arid regions.

But he had a presentation that I attended at the No-Till Conference in Burlington, Colorado, talking about using crop rotation to control weeds. And his big thing was if you follow this rotation, you can reduce your herbicide usage 75% or more. And we have seen a significant decrease in just the short four years that we've really been practicing it.

But he talks about too hots and too colds. So too cool soil crops, or the soil temperature is decreasing, followed by two warm soil crops or when soil temps are increasing. Now if you use a cover crop, you can choose the cover to fit into that rotation that you need. It allows the natural processes to destroy weed seed. Because it's going to be four years before you come back on a crop, a lot of the weeds are just going to be destroyed through natural actions, insects, predation, rotting on the surface, those kinds of things.

And then you come back, and with the cool season crop, they're usually up and growing and provide cover and they'll choke out the weeds that way. Or if they're a warm seeded crop, you have that chance in the spring to get in there and apply herbicides to control it. So with the timing, it gives you a better chance to choke out the weeds or control the weeds and with simpler methods than having to try to control a broadleaf in a broadleaf crop.

He has actually talked about developing an organic no-till rotation, and sadly he retired before he got that far, but he definitely has some really good information out there. And I encourage people to do a little poking around and reading on Dr. Anderson's work because, for us, that was one of the biggest things that drove us in this direction.

The other thing that really helped is there was research that the University of Nebraska Extension did in Grant, Nebraska, that said the crop that you raise every year, essentially, is from the rainfall you receive. Traditionally, in this part of the world, people are doing fallow. And with that fallow they think, "Well, I am banking all that rainfall and then the next year's wheat crop will have all the rain from last year." And their research showed that, at most, you retain two inches of rainfall on average. The rest of it either evaporates or percolates.

So with that, that two inches of rain isn't making up for the amount of wheat yield that we would have to increase to cover our carrying costs. In chem fallow, in this part of the world, carrying costs per year is $75 to $125 an acre. So that's something that the following wheat crop has to make up for. And when wheat $7, $8, it's really easy to make up for it, but when it's $3, doesn't make up for very much very quickly.

So with that information, it gave me the confidence to say, "Okay, we can look at continuous cropping. We can look at having roots in the soil every year instead of every other year or two out of three years." And it was one of those things, it was a hard sell. My mom told me it wasn't going to work because she grew up on this farm. She knows what the weather's like out here. Thankfully we've been pleasantly surprised.

Now, some of the challenges that we faced when we started implementing this rotation is we weren't really paying attention at what happens with volunteer. And it's bit us a couple of times, but with that, every time we've learned something from that and we've moved forward and it's actually giving us some more opportunities that we'll talk about here in a little bit. But it's one of those things, you don't follow millet with grain sorghum because you can't control that millet volunteer and it will come.

Now with different harvesting methods that we've worked on, we've helped really reduce that millet volunteer problem, but it's still there. You don't follow sunflowers with another broad leaf unless you want volunteer sunflowers. It's one of those things that I had the problem last year. I did it with field peas and I thought I can get those field peas off before those sunflowers will really take off. And it was all fine and dandy until about middle of May, and we had three days of 105 degree heat. The peas were blooming, the sunflowers grew three feet. And it wasn't possible to harvest the field as it was, so we ended up chopping it for silage. And of course with that, we now have friends that are at a dairy and it gives us more opportunities. So we always get something from that.

One of the other challenges is how do you classify some of these crops? What makes a hot crop a hot crop? What makes a warm crop a warm crop, I guess? And what makes a cold crop a cold crop? The one that I always struggle with is chickpeas because chickpeas can handle some cool soils, but at the same time they really like hot growing conditions. So some of that you kind of have to make those decisions for yourself. And that's one reason that I've disappointment with Dr. Anderson's retirement because I couldn't call him up and ask him, "Well, how do you do that determination? How do you see that?"

Now the other challenges of diversity, if you look at the four crops that I have pictured, this would be an excellent rotation. We have spring field peas and winter wheat, so both of those would be our cold crops. We would follow that with corn. That corn, if it looks a little odd, it's short stature corn drilled on 12 inch centers. I don't like working on planters, so I'd rather use my air seeder than I would work on my planter. We have found it actually makes a huge impact because it closes the canopy so quickly. In our drought conditions, it produces a significantly better corn crop. And then proso millet.

So there's not a lot of diversity there. You look at it and yes, there's four different crops, but those four different crops, three of them are grasses. And so we got to start stretching ourselves and how can we get something other than another grass? I guess I could do the thing with oats, wheat, corn and proso, and that way I'd have four grasses, two cold, two warm. But that's something we definitely want to move away from because it really helps us with weed control down the road.

And the other challenge that comes with that diversity is marketing. Where do you find markets? It's one thing that I've started to become pretty passionate about it, that there are markets available, you just have to know where to look. And that's one of the things that we have to have to make our system work, is if we don't have a market for it, well then we're raising a cover crop that we just don't even harvest. So that's one of those, working on developing that market.

And come to find out there's a lot more things out there than what people traditionally believe. I joke now that when I started this five years ago, I struggled to find a market for anything other than what the local grain elevator take. And they take a lot. We're really, really lucky to have them with the diversity that they encourage through what crops they receive. But now I say I could go to the refrigerator and get the milk out and I'll find another market behind the milk. It just seems like once you know where to look, the there's a lot of possibilities and a lot of things that I feel are really optimistic for agriculture.

Mackane Vogel:

I'd like to take a moment to thank our sponsor, Montag Manufacturing. Montag precision metering equipment is helping producers achieve their yield goals while saving on seed and input costs. For establishing cover crops, Montag's family of seed platform equipment adapts to a variety of major brand delivery systems that will conserve seed and nutrients along with soil and water. Explore new options for your production and conservation goals with your Montag dealer. Visit or call Montag at (712) 517-2775. Now let's get back to the podcast.

Roy Pfaltzgraff:

So now we've adapted this practice, now we need to adopt it so it'll work for us. And this is the one thing that having those computerized records, we were able to look back. And when we first started doing this, we first started Haney testing, we were getting results that we didn't understand. And so in the attempt to understand, it's like, "Well, what's the history?" And so my dad asked, "What do you want?" And I said, "Could you give me 20 years of cropping history on all of our fields?" And that produced this lovely chart, which really starts driving some points home and really starts helping understand what's going on and why we were having the struggles we were having.

You can see I started focusing on soil health in 2017. Prior to that, if you see a blank, that was fallow. So if you look at the top two fields, those top two fields are on the same quarter. They're north and south of a dry creek that runs through it. Well, it wasn't dry last year, but it usually is. The south field isn't bad. The north field should have never been broke out of sod. It's a horrible field. That's what we've always said. The bottom of it follows this creek bed. It's actually gravel in the bottom. The edge of the field is literally a gravel mine, there's a gravel pit there.

So it tells you how challenging those soils are. And then the north edge of that north field is actually white rock hills. The rock hills that we get, they're a calcium rock. They are hard. They can break equipment, you get it stuck in equipment, you only can chip it out of there. But we have a hundred feet of elevation change in that field.

And so that was always a struggle of how are you going to harvest this field if we're going to raise something else? Because you got to really... The only way to cut that field is with the terraces and how are you going to cut with the terraces when you went in there and you planted corn or you planted sunflowers? So that was really a struggle. And so that's why it was wheat and fallow. And I don't blame anybody for it because that was the limit of our ability and the limit of our knowledge. And talking with my father, that had been wheat fallow for as long as he could remember. And I have a feeling that has been wheat fallow pretty much since it came out of sod, 100 to 120 years ago. So that's really been one field that we've focused on.

Of our soil health, that was our worst field when we first did our Haney test in 2018. It was our worst field by a long shot. Some of the other fields, beat them out by they were marginally better. Well, what made them marginally better? They had sunflowers 15 years ago, and that made a difference in the soil health scores. We had fields that are side by side and one field would be quite a bit better soil health score, a couple of points better than its neighboring field. And it's same soil type, same moisture, but why is there a better soil health score? And it comes down to what was in that field. And with this, we could look back at it and that's when we realized that sunflowers were so impactful.

My dad stopped raising them in 2006 because we were going through a really dry time. He'd always heard that sunflowers dry out the soil. And even when things are wrong, if you hear it often enough, you start to believe it. So he stopped raising them in 2006. He admits that's one of the things that he would've done different if he knew then what he knows now. I brought them back in 2017. We started drilling them in 2017 and then we got a header that we could combine them. It has nine-inch pans and so we could combine them with the terrace. So that suddenly gave us the ability to combine a different crop.

And the first crop that we got in there, because of what was going on with soil health in that field, we went with sunflowers because we knew the sunflowers could make a difference there. The interesting thing is, that year I screwed up the seeding rates on the sunflowers. We seeded them way too heavy. Come to find out that's actually what we should have been doing. And that north field, which is a disaster, had places in that field that were over a hundred bushels to the acre on sunflowers. That field averaged over 2000 pounds an acre.

And when we got done with that, my dad and I talked about it and he goes, "Well, maybe that field isn't as bad as I thought it was." We put flax in it. We had a stand issue. It was oats, this last year. We raised decent oats. It's going to milo this year. We're getting that diversity in there.

I did the top chart, my dad put it together, that I've since maintained. And we've actually gone back and challenged the chart and found things that the cropping records were actually off and we were able to determine other ways. And looking at the chart that's there, there's actually a couple of holes that's been filled because there's no way we would be summer follow in 2000 and [inaudible 00:31:31] and follow it with sunflowers the next year. We'll come to find out that actually was wheat.

But I took that top chart and I created the bottom chart. The bottom chart is our cropping for 2022. We will be raising milo, corn, buckwheat, wheat, oats, sunflowers, proso, yellow field peas, chickpeas, pinto beans, black eyed peas, and there will be flax in there. And this is actually old because we have since added camelina. So we've gone from the traditional, raising wheat, milo or wheat, sunflowers or wheat, proso or just wheat because if you look in 2007, dad just raised wheat.

We've gone from one crop to 14 crops, 15 crops. We've been as high as 17 crops. And part of that is in response to the market because people know we raise crazy things. They'll come to us and say, "Hey, we have a specialty crop. Can you do this for us?" Because we have more expertise raising stuff that nobody else knows how to raise in this environment. We've been raising buckwheat for a number of years. We were actually told by RMA this last year that they will not insure buckwheat in northeast Colorado because buckwheat does not grow in northeast Colorado. It's actually one of our highest profiting crops.

So with this, we've had to adapt it. And we've taken that chart, and when we first had that chart in 2007, I went through and compared our soil health score to how many different types of crop had been in that field over time. And we found that our best fields had the most variety. And our worst field was wheat and fallow. So soil biology likes that variety. And that's one big thing about diversity, is we're feeding that biology every year.

And if you think about your favorite food, my favorite food, believe it or not, is potato soup. I love a good potato soup, but if I had to eat potato soup every day for every meal for the rest of my life, I would not like potato soup after a couple weeks, because I can go on potato soup for a while. Now, if I change that up and have potato soup and then vegetable soup, that's a little variety, but that's like going wheat and corn. Those are both grasses. We need more diversity in there.

And that's where we brought in a bunch of legumes. We had been raising broadleafs, our sunflowers, for a long time. We brought them back. We added buckwheat, another broad leaf. This year we added camelina, it's a brassica. So by having that diversity in my diet, it makes me healthier. The soil is the exact same way. If we don't have diversity in the soil, we're not going to have healthy soils. And so one way people get diversity in soil is through their cover crop blends. Because I don't have a way to harvest my cover crops, because I need to generate that revenue, I am now raising those crops that you usually find in cover crop blends, as crops.

The other thing that diversity factor does for me, is it is really big on risk management and efficiency. If you look at 2007 when it was just wheat, we had about 800 acres of wheat that year, one hailstorm, one major weather event would've taken out our entire harvest. Now with a couple of crops, there's a chance that you could miss a major weather event. This year our camelina is going to come off in the middle of June, our black-eyed peas and our late drill crops, they won't even be tall enough for hail to effect in the middle of June. So there won't be a single weather event that'll affect all of our crops.

I've taken that risk and I have spread it out through the entire year. I start drilling... Well, camelina is drilled in November. We put it in in December because that's when we finally got our seed. But my main drilling is March through the middle of June. My harvesting starts in the middle of June and goes through November, and then I stop and drill winter wheat in early October.

But with that, I've spread out that risk of when my growing crops are, and I've also spread out my equipment use so that way I don't have 700, 800 acres a week that has to happen in the next week. I don't have 500 acres of corn that needs planted in the next week. You catch one rainfall and it kind of screws up your whole schedule. This way everything's spread out that I only have to do a couple hundred acres every week or two. And harvest is the exact same way. So with the diversity in my rotation, yes, I'm harvesting more crops. I'm actually harvesting more acres because I'm harvesting every field every year. But I actually am a lot less stressed because I've spread that out. Cover crops would give you that option, but once again, I want to be able to harvest that. I don't have livestock. So this is my response.

This is how adoption is a big thing. When I speak, I always talk about listen to what I'm doing, don't try to copy what I'm doing because I honestly believe our soils know us. And if you go out there and try to implement what I do, your soil is going to be like, "This is not our thing." So it takes that adaption period. You have to work through it, you have to make it your own. So when you listen to this, you're like, "Yes, this guy is in an arid region, can he help me?" Well, part of it is I'm in an arid region, if it works for me, there's a chance you can make it work for you. And so you have to learn how to adapt it.

And that's one of the things that we've really learned going through this process. We've learned how to adapt to all kinds of things. It used to be, when I came back and took over, my father told me, "I don't want to stand in the way of progress." He fought with my grandfather for years trying to make changes and progress was slow. He's like, "I don't want to stand in the way of that." Initially, he was really resistant. There was things that he is like, "Just not sure you know how this is going to go raising beans, but I told you I'd be hands off as long as you can show me that it could be profitable. And it's paid off. And the sad thing is we've gotten to the point where all my fun's gone because he has no more shock value. When I come home and say, "I'm going to raise upland rice." He's like, "Okay, where's your market?" But it's made things a lot less stressful. And we've also changed our risk because we've stretched that out.

So what we found when we developed this chart, and then down below, I actually created spreadsheets and you can see them across there, for every year, what crop was in what field, and then how many acres of each one of those crops did we have. And one of the biggest thing we found out, soil health, yes, there's a difference. Weed control, we had more weed problems in the field that was just wheat than the field that had some variety in it. But then it comes down to revenue. I told my dad, "I understand why you were never getting ahead because you were only farming two-thirds of the farm every year." So if you only have two-thirds of the revenue and a hundred percent of the expense it's really hard to break even.

And with going to this continuous cropping, with going to this very diverse rotation, our revenue has increased significantly. And it's more than one third. People ask me, "Is soil health worthwhile?" I say, "Absolutely." They said, "Well, do you make more money?" And I'd said, "Well, we used to be breakeven farmers before and we'd hope every now and then we'd catch a good crop and we'd be able to have profit every five years. Now, our accountant told us we'd better get used to paying taxes." Our revenue has tripled, our expenses have doubled. You take whatever number you want, multiply it by three, multiply the same number by two. The revenue is always going to be bigger. And it's allowed us to do some really cool things that it's really allowed us to adapt.

Now with this, yes, I don't do cover crops, but I am starting to do some other things. I do intercrop. I intercrop flax with chickpeas. It controls the ascochyta in the chickpeas very well. The chickpeas evenly mature with the flax in it. At harvest, we don't have to desiccate. So not only do we save in operation, we also can deliver our legumes and say, "There's been no desiccant applied to this crop." So we're starting to do some of those intercroppings. We're starting to do companions. I like to follow my buckwheat crop with sunflowers. Buckwheat likes to volunteer. That grows up in that sunflowers. It doesn't compete with the crop, but it's down in there and it's providing me cover after harvest. So there's ways that we can take these cover crop principles and adapt them to make them our own and to make them work for us versus this is how you have to go out and do it.

So the big thing that I like to watch is what is our trends? Are things headed the right direction? When you do a soil test, it's kind of a snapshot at that little moment, at that little spot in the field. But if you look at that same general area over 20 years, is your organic matter increasing? Is your fertility increasing? And that's where the Haney test really gives us a lot. We're carrying over 70 to 80 pounds of nitrogen after every crop, almost every year. We harvested a decent crop of sunflowers and we already have 70 pounds of nitrogen hanging out there in the soil waiting for us for this next year.

So that's helping us reduce our inputs. Sometimes the most profitable thing is not spending money in the first place. We've cut our fertilizer use by over 50%. People ask me, "Well, what are you going to do for fertilizer this year because of the prices?" I said, "Well, I started doing things five years ago that fixed my fertilizer problem this year." We're going to spend less on fertilizer in 2020, dollar wise, than we did in 2016. So significant impact in adding this diversity, in creating this rotation that doesn't look like what normal is in our part of the world.

Now I'm doing it with all cash crops. Some people are going to do it with cover crops. That's great, but find a way that does it that helps with that financial piece. I mean, we went to get a new piece of equipment. We talked to the banker about what we're looking at. The banker's scribbling down a couple of notes and we're talking about what we're thinking about, buying this. And at the end of the conversation the banker said, "Well, I'll take it to the loan committee tomorrow. I'm pretty sure it won't be a problem." We hadn't even made a decision yet but our bank is willing to work with us because they see the positive outcomes that we're getting and they see that we're profitable. And we can take some hits where traditionally we couldn't.

So where do we go from here? This is something that I've started working with about four years ago. It's something that I think is going to work great in arid regions, but it's not going to be one of those wetland kind of things. If I farmed in the Midwest or on the East coast, somewhere where I got a lot of rain, I think this could be kind of dangerous. But it works well for us. I am working on getting Dutch white clover established in all of our fields. Dutch white clover, if you're not familiar with it, is a very short clover. It's about eight to 10 inches tall. It's a perennial. It'll fix up to 200 pounds of nitrogen per year depending upon the stand.

But the great part about it is once it's shaded, about 45% shaded, like it is in that bottom picture, it actually starts to go dormant. It will prune itself back and it won't compete with your crop. Now the other thing is, it's tough. We've gone out, we've hit it with glyphosate, we've hit it with 2,4-D, we've hit it with Starane. We have not changed our chemical program in these fields and we are slowly establishing a good stand.

The middle picture is actually the first spring after I integrated it in one of the fields. That first year, you go out in the field and you might see a plant like that's in the top picture. Just a little, tiny, barely anything there. That next spring I went out and looked down the row and it's like, "Holy mackerel!" The second year, you go across the field in a side by side and there is clover everywhere out there. So I actually have continuous living roots for 34 months in an arid region.

And we're starting to see some really interesting things. We're starting to see that Palmer amaranth really doesn't like to grow close to clover. We're seeing that it isn't affecting our yields. They're hanging out there, down below the canopy, and after harvest away they go. So we are actually having a cover crop, but we're not having to go out there and seed it, but it's also out of the way, so it doesn't affect the growing crop. We go out there, we apply our herbicide, it knocks the leaves off of it, and by the time the growing crop is going, when it comes back, it's already shaded.

The other thing is I have bees. And so this provides me something that blooms late because after you harvest the crop, then it'll bloom. So I have things blooming in September and October, where traditionally there's nothing out there for the bees.

So where are we going now? We have a lot of insanity going on here. Alternative crops, yes, I'm serious about raising upland rice. I finally have a good lead on some seed. We're going to give it a shot. With our changing climate, at some point wheat might not work here. Well, rice will, as long as I can find some good dry land varieties.

Different weed control methods. We got an electro-weeder this last year. It was driven by the problem with the sunflowers and the peas. I am now going to be integrating sunflowers in all my legumes and then go out and I'll control them after they're up, before they bloom. And this way it'll provide structure and shade for these crops that they're starting to get going in some of the really hot, dry times. So we're actually working on creating microclimates in the field inside that canopy.

And then we're looking at composting ferments, some things like that. Korean natural farming, that's what the picture is in the bottom there. Magic juice, who knows where it's going to go? But as we progress, as we continue, diversity is key. And dealing with some of these other methods is really helping drive our soil health. So if you have any questions or anything... This is a picture of our bee yard on a nice, sunny spring day... And be more than happy to answer any questions that people may have.

Speaker 3:

Well, thanks so much, Roy. I do have a couple follow up questions for you. At the beginning of the presentation, you mentioned rotating through crops or oscillating crops. Can you expand on that a little more and what you mean by that?

Roy Pfaltzgraff:

Well, an oscillation is a movement between two positions. A light switch is an oscillation. It's either on or off. There's not much of a rotation if you're in either one location or the other. Rotation implies there is movement around a circle. And so I'm going to poke fun at the guys in the Midwest a little bit. I understand where you're coming from, but corn and soybeans is not a rotation, it's an oscillation. The field is either corn or it's soybeans, it's nothing else. So by adding some things to get some rotation in there, and that's the nice part about that two hots and two colds with Dr. Anderson, is it forces you to have a rotation because your corn and soybeans, those are your warm weather crops. What are you going to do to get some colds in there? So with that, it creates that dynamic where it's not one or the other.

Speaker 3:

All right, great. My other question is how do you go about finding markets for all of these different crops that you raise?

Roy Pfaltzgraff:

That's a separate one-hour presentation in itself. The funny thing is, I gave that presentation the other day and this lady came up to me afterwards and said that was three hours of information in one hour. The biggest thing is start looking. Believe it or not, get the Yellow Pages out. I never realized the number of bean companies, and when I say beans, we're talking dry, edible beans. The number of bean companies that are in my area, there's seven different companies within a hundred miles. And you start getting a reputation.

The local elevator is working with sustainable oils about getting camelina raised because we have the reputation of raising crazy things, we get phone calls from companies saying, "Would you be willing to try this for us?" And the funny thing is you ask, "Well, how do you raise it?" Well, we don't know. It's like, "Well, we're going to take the best shot and go with it and figure it out on our own because we've had that experience."

The other thing is we do direct marketing, and that's something that people always are hesitant about. You see all of our logos. We do honey, we do flour, we have a line of gluten-free mixes. My wife makes beauty products from the bees wax. So we're doing some direct marketing. So that's another thing, we're not doing a hundred percent, but each one of these different avenues... And part of it is just stepping outside of your comfort zone because most farmers' relationship ends at the grain elevator, at the processing plant where they go and they roll the trap open. That's their last relationship with it, and they look at that as it's a commodity.

I like to challenge people to think that everything that you raise is actually food. It might not be humans eating it, but it's going to be livestock eating it, it's going to be yeast eating it if it's going to an ethanol plant. There's always something's going to be consuming it. So it's important to look at the little details, to clean things up. Once you change your perspective from commodities to food, it really starts driving home would I feed this to my family? And with that, then you start looking at the different markets. What are the different things that I can raise? And it snowballs from there.

Mackane Vogel:

Thanks to Roy Pfaltzgraff for today's discussion. The full transcript will be available at Many thanks to Montag Manufacturing for helping to make this Cover Crop Podcast series possible. From all of us here at Cover Crop Strategies, I'm Mackane Vogel, thanks for listening.