Oklahoma farmer Jimmy Emmons discusses using cover crops for drought resilience, how to influence policy changes, and why managing regenerative systems requires more, and better, education.
John Kempf. Tell us a little bit about your background and what your journey has been like —what brought you to the work you’re doing today?
Jimmy Emmons. I was born and raised in western Oklahoma. We still farm the original homestead my great-granddad brought my granddad to 1926. My wife, Ginger, and I started no-tilling in about 1995 on our own land. Farming had worked well here, because it was carbon-rich soil, and my family members were the benefactors of that. But they didn’t know what they were doing as far as degrading the land — they never would have done that intentionally. We peaked out with no-till in the early 2000s, before I had the big-picture concept of regenerative ag.
Kempf. What types of crops are you growing? What does your cropping rotation look like, and how has that evolved over time?
Emmons. Originally, we only farmed wheat, and a little cotton and alfalfa in the bottomland. Now we’re up to about 14 different crops in about a four-year rotation. That rotation has been upset here by drought over the last year and a half — when you finally exhaust all the water out of the profile, it’s challenging to grow anything.
Kempf. As you’ve made this transition, including different cover crops, including more crops in your rotation, incorporating livestock — what changes have you observed in your farming operation with soil health and with improved crop resilience?
Emmons. Probably the big “aha moment” was in 2012, after we put in our first cover crops for the second year in a major drought — a D4 drought. We had moisture probes and temperature probes in the soil. We kept some check strips of bare soil — like my granddad and dad would have — and we found that where we had had cover crops, the following year, our crops showed that big square that we’d left bare, and we actually had more water in the profile to work with where we had cover crops versus where we didn’t. That was a gamechanger for me. I understood the principles and what we needed to do; that was a real catalyst to start moving this forward at a faster pace.
Kempf. I’ve had this conversation a couple of times, and I find it so intriguing that there is this idea that has emerged — and I understand how it emerged — that the best way to conserve moisture for a wheat crop in dryland farming is to have a bare-land summer fallow. But I don’t know how many farmers I’ve spoken to who have used a cover crop and found that they had more moisture underneath the cover crop than they did with the bare fallow. I had this one remarkable experience at an organic farm in southwest Kansas where kochia got away from them. We chose to do something fairly heretical — we just let the kochia grow to five feet tall, and then incorporated it — knocked it down with a disk, and lightly disked it into the soil. Everything was bone dry that summer, but when they went through with a disk to knock down the kochia, the soil was almost too wet for the disk underneath it. What are we missing here? What are we not getting? Yes, plants do utilize water. But bare soil also loses water — faster, perhaps, than when it’s covered by plants. So it’s really intriguing to hear your experience with that.
Emmons. Yeah, we do that all the time. One year on a rented farm we had marestail get away from us — totally out of control. So I just let it grow until it flowered, and then we mowed that residue down and no-tilled into it. And the moisture was amazing. We had a great crop following that. It’s really amazing to watch how the water recycles in that canopy when it gets dense and thick — with either weeds or cover crop. Nobody wants a solid stand of kochia or marestail, but it does keep the land covered, and it will build water in the profile. It’s amazing what a root can really do.
Kempf. I’ve also observed these plants actually building water in the profile; do you have any hypothesis of how that might work or what might be contributing to that?
Emmons. I think it’s like in the beginning — there was just dew every morning; there wasn’t rain. Plants circulate water — they breath it in and exhaust it out, as do all the microbes that are feeding on the root exudates. All life forms, like you and I, and a microbe — the major gas that we exhale is water vapor, not CO2 . So the more microbes there are, the more water vapor is being exhaled into the soil profile. It does add up. It’s amazing what a living canopy of plants can do. It really turns it into a semi-rainforest, so to speak.
Kempf. In that 2012 drought, we had some farmers planting corn into standing alfalfa that they tried to knock back — not to completely kill it, but to knock it back when they planted into it. And by the time the corn was tasseling out, the alfalfa was four feet tall and in full bloom, and the lower leaves were dying off, and it was starting to go into decline because it was shaded out. It was just this incredible environment, filled with pollinators. Those fields went on to produce an average or higher-than-average yield in the various regions they were in. We observed this on three different farms in three very different locations — at a time when other farms in the neighborhood and the surrounding regions were producing 20 to 30 percent of an average crop because of severe drought. A few years later, I think I learned what was going on: the alfalfa was actually bringing moisture up from down deep and releasing it into the atmosphere. Corn has the capacity to pick up moisture from the atmosphere and utilize it and actually transfer it back into the soil. It makes me wonder — we know that different plants regulate water in very different ways. Some are much more capable of absorbing moisture from humidity in the atmosphere than others. Is it possible that marestail and kochia and some of these weeds that really thrive in these arid environments are particularly good at getting moisture from the soil? And would we be better off using them as a cover crop than our “cover crops”?
Emmons. That’s what I was talking about when I mentioned how water was recycling. I do believe that plants are pulling it out of the profile down deep, but they’re also putting it back through the cash crop. I think we have a lot to learn yet about plants and their complete cycle —ones that we should be using in dry areas and ones that we should be using in 50-inch-rainfall areas. We tend as humans to categorize and to label certain crops or cover crops that we think should be number one on the list; but are there other species outside that box, like kochia, that can be used in a dry context to help the water cycle?
Kempf. As an example of thinking of plants differently, 15 or so years ago, when I first started doing consulting work, I was working with balancing grassfed dairy rations. At one organic farm, due to high rainfall during critical periods, they weren’t able to cultivate well, and lamb’s quarter got away from them. They had this corn silage field that had a pretty dense lamb’s quarter population, and they harvested when the corn was perhaps slightly less mature than ideal, because they didn’t want to let the lamb’s quarter go to seed. And that was the most valuable corn silage I have ever seen. Those cows performed extraordinarily well on it — because lamb’s quarter as an individual plant has something like 23 percent protein; it’s superior to alfalfa in protein content. They had this corn silage that didn’t just have a lot of energy — it also had a lot of protein. It was so amazing that I think there’s an argument to be made for growing lamb’s quarter in corn silage fields.
Emmons. That’s a great point. I was in Alberta, Canada, last summer at a big dairy that was transitioning to a more holistic thought process and grazing the cows out more. And they had put in corn silage with about 12 different species in the mix. When they sent that to the lab, the lab called them back and said, “There’s been a malfunction — could you send us another sample?” They sent another sample in, and the lab called back and said, “What is this? We’ve never tested silage at this level of nutrients, with energy and protein. It’s the best corn silage we’ve ever tested.” I think there’s a lot to that — that we should really be using more species in silage and hay to elevate nutritional value.
Kempf. When you think about the experiences you’ve had on your farm, plus things you’ve observed on the many farms you’ve visited, what are some of the unexpected results that have surprised you?
Emmons. I’m coming from an arid environment — it gets even worse west of me — but the unexpected thing is the amazing ability of multiple plants living together to flourish in a drought, where a single species will either almost die or will die and completely go away. It’s testimony that our whole system, across the planet, is very diverse. Nowhere do you find a stand of trees or prairie with a single plant or species. I truly believe that we should create that atmosphere — that diversity. It always surprises me — the ability of plants to help one another, to cycle nutrients and water to the very optimum in very harsh conditions.
Kempf. I think Ray Archuleta described this in a phrase that I really have come to appreciate. He said that in environments where resources are abundant, where there’s abundant water and abundant nutrients, it’s true that plants will compete with each other. But the moment resources are limited, and you have limited water and limited nutrients, plants and microbes immediately develop this symbiotic relationship to collaborate and to support each other. That’s a beautiful way of thinking about it. Because fundamentally, we are in a resource-limited planet, and perhaps we should behave in the same way.
Emmons. Definitely. Ray has several good sayings like that. He’s most definitely right. We see that time and time again — how when there’s adverse weather, plants are able to survive and help one another. It’s really extraordinary. And like you said, I think we should look at that and work together.
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