On a Montana Farm Tour: Small Innovations that Could Mean a Lot

Central Montana, it turns out, is having the best year for farms in recent memory, with round bales of hay in dense profusion on the landscape,  luxuriant fields of barley undulating in the wind, thick stands of golden wheat ripening under the sun, and happy, fat cattle.  Our first stop on our farm tour was a young farmer – Curt Myllymaki – on a large cattle and field crop farm (over 1000 acres) who is experimenting at scale with innovative crop rotations, dual cropping, and cover crops to restore soil fertility.   We visited a field that was dual cropped with flax and chickpeas, as well as some stray sunflowers that “was left over in the seed hopper.”
Flax is grown for its seeds and oil, but of course flax is also the fiber source for linen. Curt showed us the nitrogen-fixing nodules on the chickpea roots.  He felt that mono-cropping would one day become a thing of the past, as farmers will grow multiple crops in a single field that will complement and benefit each other, decreasing the necessity for pesticides and herbicides. Legumes, such as the chickpeas, provide nitrogen fixing capability, thus alleviating the necessity for applying fertilizer, and crops such as flax provide weed control and add organic material to the soil.  This dual cropping is made feasible by innovations in processing that allow the flax-seed and chick-peas to be separated from each other at harvest.  Curt was also enthusiastic about the disc drill – a piece of no-till planting equipment that allowed him to disturb the soil as little as possible, as well as the stripper-header i.e. a piece of harvesting equipment that allowed him to harvest the heads of wheat while leaving the rest of the plant standing. As a little side-benefit his dual cropped field with “left-overs” made for a charming bouquet of stray sunflower and wheat, along with blue-flowering flax, and tendril-ly chick-pea plants with their sculptural pods.   Curt Myllymaki also showed us his cover-crop, which he plants on fields that are in a rest period from the more demanding crops such as wheat and barley.  The cover crops will provide organic matter to the soil, litter to keep the soil cool in summer, as well as forage for the cow-herd that is rotated through the resting fields daily. His cover-crop mixture includes twelve different species of plants including fave beans, purple forage turnips, forage peas, collards, as well as, evidently, eight other species that I didn’t get down on paper.   Looks like some kind of sorghum in the mix?

All of this is to say that the young farmers  on the Great Plains are doing some really smart, interesting things to increase the sustainability of agriculture, which is a cause for hope and celebration.

4 Replies to “On a Montana Farm Tour: Small Innovations that Could Mean a Lot”

  1. Michelle,
    Thanks for the nice description of good things happening in Montana! So you are off traveling again. How are things going on your ranch and on your island home? We began clearing some trees on the new land for a road to the lower field, where our new pole barn will be built next month. It will have a small apartment so anytime you come for a visit you can hang out there and enjoy the solitude. We met our new neighbor and I simply love her! She is 83 and spends everyday outside busy around her 3.5 acre property. She likes to sit and watch us work, offering a bottle of water or a sandwich, and a place to sit for a spell. It’s nice to find good neighbors.
    safe travels,

    1. Hi Jody,
      I’m home again and very happy to be so. Things are pretty dry here so I’m hoping we get some rain. The volcano is not doing anything too dramatic right now but the geologists say that there may still be some drama left.
      Your new neighbor sounds wonderful, and that is a beautiful piece of land that you have there next to the creek.I will definitely come and see your new barn if I’m nearby again.
      I wonder why so few farmers in Illinois plant cover-crops in winter? It is really interesting to me that there is so much potential for a better kind of agriculture just waiting in the wings…

      1. Michelle,
        Isn’t that the truth! I found it very interesting the inter-planting of crops and ways to separate the seeds at harvest. There definitely potential for a better kind of agriculture!
        You are welcome to visit anytime. Next time I hope you stay longer.

      2. I wonder why so few farmers in Illinois plant cover-crops in winter? It is really interesting to me that there is so much potential for a better kind of agriculture just waiting in the wings…

        If I might offer a few ideas quickly –
        1) Cover crop seed isn’t free… (not suggesting it should be), but in terms of value for money the jury is still out for deep loess soils where loss of productivity is not obvious.
        2) Much of the advantage to using cover crops on soils for regeneration accumulates over longer time scales. Land tenure issues complicate the investment decision… if you rent land on a year-to-year making a longer term investment is hard to pencil.
        3) Rates of tenancy (esp year-to-year) in IA, IL, and IN are particularly high when compared to other US states (re Montana).

        Still, these are not insurmountable issues. Cover crop seed prices will soften some once the infrastructure (incited through increased demand) matures. I might also prognosticate that the cover crops themselves should improve once some investment in plant breeding is afforded (but this is the bias of plant breeder).

        The most productive prairie soils will likely be the last to see much cover crop use, simply because there isn’t as much need for ‘regeneration’. If your house is already a showplace you only need maintain it. If the building is a hovel, you have to upgrade it before you come to a maintenance position.

        For me the biggest roadblock is the land tenancy issue. This is more political than biological. If rents or leases were constructed in such a way that a landowner’s incentive to improve (regenerate) their soils could be accomplished we’d make more progress.

        Nothing simple here, but if it were simple – it would have already happened and we wouldn’t be talking about it. 🙂

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