John grew up on his family’s dryland farm in northeastern Colorado. After coming back from University of Nebraska with a degree in Economics, John decided to completely revolutionize the farm. After only 5 years back on the farm, John has grown peas, oats, rye, wheat, sunflowers, milo, lupin, and a variety of diverse cover crops that are grazed by cattle. He has done all of this on a farm that had only grown wheat for decades.
The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Steve Rosenzweig: You’ve made some pretty drastic changes on your farm recently, right?
John Heerman: Previously, my dad had been growing wheat for 40 years on a wheat-fallow system so it's just been the last 3-5 years that we grew different crops and eliminated the fallow period.
SR: What is your motivation for moving some of your fields into a perennial system?
JH: It mimics more what Mother Nature is doing. She doesn't just grow one plant every three years, she has a diverse mix of things. Even if your crop rotation is wheat-corn-fallow, that's only one different species every three years. Whereas here, I have seven different species all at once. So if I can keep that going I think that will help build the soil better. I don't see the sense in converting this perennial pasture back to a cropping system that's all annuals, so ideally I'd like to use grazing and some specific crops to try to keep this living perennial system here as a cover crop. Sequester carbon and build soil structure year round, and maybe try putting peas or a legume in here that can still maybe be combined and grow with the grasses. And use the cattle to set back the grass enough that I could maybe get peas in here after the cows knock the perennial grasses back, get the peas a chance to go. And then once you combine the peas, you have the opportunity to come back and graze the perennial grasses again.
SR: What do you think that system will do for your soil?
JH: I'm feeding aboveground livestock here, but there's also a whole host of livestock underground that need fed. All your soil organisms need fed, and if they don't have a diverse diet, essentially then your only feeding them one root exudate or one small fraction of the food they need. If you want to build healthy soil and build a functioning soil I think you have to have a diversity of root exudates and a diversity of food aboveground, which will equate to diversity belowground, which will ultimately improve the function of the soil, which will improve the quality of the grass, which improves the quality of the beef, and ultimately the quality of us.
SR: We noticed all the water ponded up in the middle of your neighbor’s field. What was going on there?
JH: It didn't rain an awful lot in that particular field, it just rained enough and that soil was so poor that it could not hold the rain that came. We live in such a low rainfall environment that it's vital to utilize the moisture that you get efficiently. And if your soil's not covered and if you're not using no-till practices, it's hard to utilize that moisture and get it in your soil. I think we need to change our view that it's not how much rainfall you get, it's not what's on the calendar at the end of the year, it's what rainfall infiltrates your field and what you can use for crops. It doesn't matter what falls from the sky, it matters what ultimately infiltrates your field and isn't stuck in a lagoon or ponded up in the middle of your field.
SR: How do you prepare your soil for this unpredictable weather?
JH: I've been using no-till and I also have a tremendous amount of residue to protect that soil. And I've been trying to build the soil health to try to accept rain events that come very rapidly. It's hard to tell what the future will bring but I think if you can prepare yourself now for events down the road… so the moisture I am getting now I'm growing as many plants and as diverse plants as I can to build that soil. So if we do come to a very dry time, hopefully I've built my soils enough and raised my organic matter and still have my soils covered that I can better make it through that dry period because my soils will be more resilient. And if it’s a wet period, my soils will still be resilient because they are able to utilize and have that water infiltrate the soil better. By having different root depths and feeding different soil biology, it builds that soil so that when a rain event does happen, whether it be a small one or a large intense one-inch rain that comes in 15 minutes, my soil is prepared to capture and utilize 100% of that.
Steve Rosenzweig is a PhD Candidate at Colorado State University. This interview was conducted as part of a film project to document emerging innovations in dryland agriculture, which can be viewed here.