You might say the seeds of Zack Yanta’s farming innovations were mail-ordered and planted when he was a young boy.
“When my dad started his farming operation, he was always ordering mail-order seeds, trying different crops, seeing what would work and what wouldn’t work,” the 57-year-old Runge, Texas, farmer says. “He and mother both taught us that there is always a better way to do things. There is always room for improvement, and I think both of them instilled that in all of us kids.”
It’s that quest for constant improvement that lies at the core of the Yanta family’s focus on soil health on their farms and ranches — operations than span more than a half-dozen Texas counties.
But it was one specific event several years ago that brought the “room for improvement” lesson home to Yanta in a poignant, visceral way.
“We had some really strong 30-40 mile-an-hour northers come in while my son and I were down in the fields looking things over,” Yanta says.
He and his son Zachary II watched as the wind scoured his conventionally tilled fields, whipping dark billows of dust into the sky. As he looked on, Yanta knew he was not only seeing his farm’s precious topsoil vanish before his eyes, but potentially, the farm’s future.
“It hurt me personally,” he says. “I took it to heart that we were literally seeing our land, the topsoil, the organic matter, blowing south. The very next day we were down there and it was blowing north because we had a 30-35 mph wind come in from the south.”
That experience was a turning point.
“I told my son, we can’t go on like this, we can’t. Something has to change, we have to change because our soil is one of the most important resources that we have.”
So Yanta, who is also a Texas Farm Bureau State Director, began reading, researching and searching for a better way.
“I was hungry for information and came across the idea of no-tilling. I was lucky enough and fortunate enough to learn that the no-tilling goes hand-in-hand with using cover crops and things just kind of took off from there.”
Working with NRCS soil health specialist Willie Durham, Yanta is now 2 years into his soil health management system, using no-till, cover crops and diverse species and rotations. Yanta is already impressed with what he sees — and sometimes what he doesn’t see — on his farm.
“It used to be that we would get a 2-3 inch rainfall event and we would have water standing in the field puddled up for maybe a week or so or longer,” he says. “Last year, after a near 3-inch rain, we were out the next day in the field riding around in the Gator. We got out and walked around. I looked down and there was practically no mud on our boots, no mud on the tires of the vehicle.”
Yanta says that in just a couple of years he’s already seeing an increase in life below ground, in the form of earthworms, and an abundance of life above it.
“When I was a kid we hardly ever saw a turkey and very seldom saw a deer,” he says. “Now we have deer that come out into these pastures that we have cover crops in during winter and we have seen probably in excess of 40, 50, 60 deer roaming around and at times during the day when you would think that you would not see anything. And we have more quail around than we have seen in years.”
What he’s seeing with his eyes is impressive, but Yanta says the improvement in soil health is something he can feel, too.
“You can actually feel that there is a resilience, a give to the soil where before it was more compacted,” he says.
Yanta’s son Zachary II sees the farm’s use of cover crops resulting in greater production capacity and healthier cattle.
“We’ve been able to increase our herd size numbers,” says the 30-year-old son. “Instead of a cow to every 10-15 acres, we doubled up our numbers this past winter. And we didn’t have to feed a single bale of hay.”
While there is an investment cost in cover crops and no-till practices, Yanta urges farmers not to focus on how much soil health measures will cost them.
“Instead,” he says, “they should ask themselves what it will cost them not to employ soil-health building principles.”
Focusing on soil health has not only breathed new life into the soil, but it’s also imbued Yanta with a renewed sense of hope and enthusiasm about farming.
“It’s a learning experience and it has given me an excitement that I hadn’t previously had. I am more excited about farming and ranching now than I was when I came out of college in 1983,” he says.
Yanta admits that no matter the strides he makes in improving soil health on the family’s farms, he’ll likely never be satisfied with the status quo. Like his father and mother before him, Yanta personifies a “let’s make it better” stewardship ethic that he’s proud to pass along to his son Zachary.
“My parents taught us that whenever we leave the land we should leave it in better shape than it was when we first took ahold of it,” he says. “I want my son to be able to take this land if he so chooses. So I’m trying to take care the land in a better way than even my dad took care of it, so it can be passed along to the grandkids and their kids.”
Yanta (who used to be called “Butch” by his father) believes a brighter future for those coming generations lies in the health of the living and life-giving soil.
So what would his late father think of Yanta’s commitment to soil health?
"I think he’d say, ‘Good job, Butch.’ I think he’d be really proud.”