WICHITA — More than 500 farmers and ranchers gathered in downtown Wichita on Tuesday and Wednesday to discuss how to increase yield, decrease pesticides and boost profits.
Along with producers from Sterling, Russell and Yates Center, Kansas, farmers from Uganda, Hungary and France traveled to the 24th Annual No-till On The Plains Winter Conference to learn the latest developments in regenerative farming — a farming practice that minimizes soil disturbance, increases crop density, keeps the soil covered and roots growing in it 365 days a year and integrates livestock into crop infrastructure.
David White, who is a farmer in Cambridge in the United Kingdom, is a part of a 500-member community farm group in the UK who supply niche grains, beans and vegetables, including fava beans and barley, to consumers. White traveled to Kansas to learn about new strategies in regenerative farming.
“I want to build my knowledge and to help that group get more for what we’re producing there,” White said.
White uses conservation and regeneration principles. Like many farmers from abroad who attended the two-day conference, he sees the U.S. as a leader in no-till farming. Marie Gassler, of Amblainville, France helps run her family farm, which relies on no-till and cover crop management practices. She said farmers in France are interested in regenerative farming, but they are unwilling to take the needed steps.
For presenters Ian and Diane Haggerty of Western Australia, their epiphany came about 20 years ago when they switched from conventional farming to no-till. They realized their old system was vulnerable to dry seasons. Their input costs were increasing at a steady rate, but their profits were not.
“It didn’t take long to realize that there were a lot of farming costs to conventional farming,” Diane Haggerty told the crowd. “We’ve got a landscape that is seriously broken. Not much rain cover, so a really poor state.”
The Haggertys, who live in the wheat belt of Australia, decided to stick it out and make improvements. They started researching no-till farming and cover crops, reading information from the U.S.
“Somehow or other we got stuck on the idea that we just had to build resilience,” Diane Haggerty said.
Like other farms of the presenters at the conference, the Haggertys' no-till, cover crop managed farm became a soil regenerator.
“We have a 13% increase in soil water holding capacity,” Diane Haggerty said. That means is less runoff and more water goes into the ground and into the plants.
The couple introduced sheep and grazed them on self-generating native grasses and other cover crops. They realized the animals needed the biological diversity for their digestive health. Because their diet was more nutritive, they did not eat as much.
“They have also become very water efficient. They are able to digest and utilize paddock roughage,” Diane Haggerty said. “There’s no mucous running from their noses.”
Other speakers at the conference saw similar results with not tilling their farms, introducing cover crops year-round and having animals graze on these cover crops.
“We need to start thinking more ecologically,” said Loran Steinlage of West Union, Iowa. “We need to start paying attention in our fields.”
Steinlage practices inner seeding, a farming technique he said that has been around since the turn of the last century. And farmers must pay attention to how much water plants need. Steinlage said buckwheat hardly needs any water.
Farmers have seen less flooding, more nutrient retention, higher protein in soybeans and other crops, healthier animals and richer soil, which has led to using less chemicals, nutrients and feed, and less gas for the tractors that no longer till the soil. They save money, increase yield and create a healthier climate.
“You become the low-cost producer and the high quality producer,” Steinlage said. “Take a little bit of what I’m saying, take a bit of what the others are saying and make it work for you. Start simple and cheap."