Jordan Carlson grew up on the farm close to Arnold, Neb.
He can remember in grade school, staying home to get the discing done. Sometimes they would pull all-nighters to do so, “That silly job. But that went away. Thank goodness.”
Around 2000, Carlson’s dad, Keith, changed to no-till, “We just started out of necessity to cut costs and be timely. Looking back, it made it possible to keep going through tough years. Now it’s a totally different perspective. It’s about the soil.”
Carlson attended high school in Arnold and then headed to Waukesha, Wis. for two years of Bible college. He went from there to the University of Nebraska – Lincoln and earned a major in mechanized systems management. In 2007, he and his wife Elizabeth, a registered nurse, bought some ground and started to grow their family, “Somewhere in there, the focus went from just getting the job done to changing the soil. The ground we bought when we returned home is where we have learned the most about what soil should be. Ninety of the 160 acres was native grassland that we converted to cropland without tillage in 2008. That ground averages five percent organic matter compared to the rest of the quarter at two percent. That soil is our goal for the the rest of the farm. It is granulated, soft, dark, and full of life. It shines in drought conditions where crops can go weeks without water.”
The Carlsons farm mostly silt loam and sandy soils on some rolling hills and flat ground where soil variations can differ in the same field, “That was one of the challenges that led my dad initially to try the no-till thing, because it made it possible to farm.”
Carlson said they changed by reading publications and going to educational events such as No-Till on the Plains, “We learned from other people in that group. When I came back, one of the first things we did was learn how to take hold of our own fertility recommendations and understand them. We started using compost, fewer commercial fertilizers and cover crops started the year before I got back. Dad had planted just rye originally in the fall of 2007. We had some big rains that spring. Two quarters were cover cropped and two quarters were not. There were washed out soils on one and not washed out in the cover crop fields.”
Why did Carlson decide to embark on soil health research? “I wanted to learn. Tim Schaff, who works at the Natural Resources Conservation Service at Broken Bow, approached me. With what they were offering, I felt like it was a no-brainer.”
“The overall point of the demo was to test brassicas in the rotation. So, we added oats to get brassicas in the summer. But the brassicas got hailed off and then we ended up with volunteer oats, which actually did the soil a lot of good. It was fun to see the earthworm activity and the porosity was just crazy. Then it went to corn and is soybeans this year. Following the corn year, last fall, I put in Camelina late into November. Camelina is a small-seeded Brassica that is supposed to be somewhat winter hardy,” Carlson explained.
“We went from corn and soybeans in 2007 to 2017 where we probably had 10 different crops in diversity if you count the different kinds of corn – corn, soybeans, non-GMO corn, popcorn, white corn, peas, oats, rye, vetch and buckwheat. These were all harvested crops. On top of that, we had a lot more diversity in the cover crops following some of these crops,” Carlson said.
“The last couple of years, anything we do, we have soil biology in mind. As much as we can, we limit our fertilizer inputs. If we can replace synthetics with composts, we do so. We are using humic acids and molasses as biological promoters and as nitrogen stabilizers in some cases. Those things work together. Everything you do you have to think about the carbon and microbial activity,” he added.
In 2017, Carlson also planted some inter-row cover crops, “When the corn was at V-5 stage, I planted with a four-row planter between the rows – cow peas, rye, annual rye grass, radishes, broad leaf mustard and some others. Everything grew even through the herbicides. Cow peas did the best. The corn was hailed on and opened-up the canopy for the cover crops and we had pretty decent growth. There was no difference in yield in the corn either. From that, we went from a four-row planter to a 16-row inter-row seeder and went from 10 acres to 600 acres. This year, we are doing the same on about 800 acres.”
When it comes to what others might think, Carlson said, “I try and not worry about what everyone else is doing. It will just drive you crazy. Look at what your biggest need is in the soil. Get a shovel out and start digging. Make observations from farm to farm. One farm may have more earthworms and another farm with more plating in the soil. Look at those things and see if there is anything you can do about it.”