Lead Don’t Fallow

Challenges of an Arid Climate are No Match for Maximum Farming System

The challenges of dryland farming require most Montana farmers to leave their land fallow in order to conserve moisture for the next season’s crop. One year of barren land provides time for crop residues to break down and returns nutrients back to the soil for the subsequent crop, but that also means reduced profits.

When Jerry Philipps took over the family operation he made the decision to continue his father’s no-till tradition that was started more than 30 years ago. The no-till management practice has led the Philipps’ farmland to benefit from organic matter retention, increased water holding capability and reduced soil erosion.

Philipps knew however, that healthy soil meant more than just no-tilling his farm, “Before I was introduced to Maximum Farming, I was arguing with my agronomist over fertilizer application rates. He said I needed to add more fertilizer to my fields, but I knew how much had been applied and I already knew it was in the soil. It just wasn’t being used by the plant,” said Philipps.

Jerry Philips, Maximum Farming in MontanaWhat could only be described as complete serendipity, Philipps found the answers to his dilemma.

“Three days later an Ag Spectrum Associate showed up at my place and introduced me to the Maximum Farming System and the benefits it has for crops and soil. The System was everything I believed in; I was already no-tilling, so I had a good start. I’m a guy who usually tries anything once, so I decided to give it a shot.”

At that time, Philipps owned one of two low disturbance disk drills in the state of Montana. The drill was specially designed for no-tillers and does not have a shank that gouges deep into the soil’s structure. The low disturbance drill is what set Philipps apart, and made him a perfect candidate for implementing the Maximum Farming System.

The following year Philipps began using the Maximum Farming System on winter wheat. It proved to be a wise investment, as he observed noticeable differences in crop quality when compared to his previous fertilizer management plan. Differences that he wasn’t necessarily expecting.

“I dug in and tried the System on a part of my farm. When plants reached the three leaf stage, I compared roots from plants that were treated with the Maximum Farming System and plants that weren’t. There were easily three times more roots on the Maximum Farming System crops. That lit me up right there.”

Pea RootsPhilipps saw impressive results that led him to implement the full System on his entire farm the subsequent year. Not only had he reduced the amount of nutrients he was previously applying, the plants were able to fully absorb the nutrients that were applied.  During his third year of taking a systems approach to management, Philipps added a liquid kit to his drill and saddle tanks to his tractor to streamline the nutrient application process. Philipps has continued to make equipment upgrades over time which has allowed him to improve the application process and enhance his  accuracy during planting. He is now using a John Deere Disk Drill which prepares the seedbed for planting while accurately seeding grains.

Growers who implement the Maximum Farming System are backed by a team of Ag Spectrum employees and researchers who are prepared to provide guidance along the way. Steve Osmundson, Area Manager for Ag Spectrum, is fortunate to work closely with Jerry Philipps on his Montana farm.

“Jerry is a great business man and knows how important it is to pay close attention to detail. When Jerry does something, he follows through, which is why he’s found the benefit of using the systems approach. Because he’s willing to do it and do it right, he’s rewarded with the response he wants. In this case it’s great soil health and quality.”

Osmundson has worked with Philipps to overcome some of the challenges with which Montana farmers are faced. Unlike the warm summer days, regular rainfall and desirable soil pH for which the Midwest is known, farmers in Montana are always in need of moisture and battle a higher soil pH.

The soil pH of many Montana farms rages from 7-8 while farms in the Midwest average around a pH of 6. Because pH levels control many of the chemical process that take place within the soil, specifically the nutrient availability of plants, it is vital to maintain proper pH levels so crops can have a better chance of reaching their maximum potential. Farmers see the benefit of the Maximum Farming System as it is able to unlock nutrients that would otherwise be unusable by plants.

Midwest and Montana farmers are also set apart by cation exchange capacity, also known as CEC. The higher the CEC number, the higher the ability of soil to hold onto water and essential nutrients, while buffering against soil acidification. Although Montana receives a fraction of the annual rainfall the Midwest does, the amount that they do receive is held in their soils for a longer time because of their higher average CEC. No-tilling fields is another way farmers are able to conserve rainfall and ensure their crops have enough moisture.

“Montana CEC’s are higher, around 20-22, than those of the Midwest, which are around 12-14. Those Montana fields need to hold as much water as they can, so it does help. Jerry also benefits from his long-term no-till practices,” said Osmundson.

Even as he battles the dry, arid climate that is typical of Montana, Philipps is able to see a stronger crop that is more apt to pull through seasons when it’s faced with pests or crop diseases. Although the pests and plant sicknesses are much different than those that Midwest farmers experience, they still pose the same challenges.

“We have sawflies that lay eggs in the stem of wheat. Larvae eat the stem which then stops the transfer of nutrients to the head which makes the stalk weak. Heat blight and fusarium are other common diseases that can really hurt a crop.”

Maximum Farming Today

Eleven years later, Philipps reflects on the success he’s seen since implementing the Maximum Farming System. He shares that it is one of the best decisions he’s made in regards to the health of his operation. In addition to healthier soil structure and crops, one of the greatest advantages is reducing costs in other areas of his operation.

“My fertilizer usage has gone way down, and the cost per acre has decreased significantly. Alternatively, I’ve probably seen an all-over 10% increase in yields and have definitely seen an increase in quality. My test weight always outperforms everyone else’s. The elevator hates seeing me pull in during harvest because when I dump, it’s always more than their equipment can handle.”

Philipps has seen drastic improvements in the seed that he produces for a local seed company. Since 1985, his Montana farm has produce ced barley seed, durum seed, winter wheat seed and spring wheat seed. Since using the Maximum Farming System, the seeds he produces are fuller and denser and have a more consistent quality than other competing seed producer’s seeds that are grown in northern Montana.

“Nearly three-quarters of my farm is used for producing seed. I’ve created a standard of quality that farmers appreciate, especially since no one wants to plant little seeds. They have noticed that my seed is larger and more plump than most others’, which has led me to earn a premium for the crop.”


Changes in Soil Structure

Rather than having fertile topsoil worn away by wind and water, the Philipps’ have used no-till practices on their farm for more than 30 years. Because of their existing soil management practices, their soil started out healthy, but that doesn’t mean they haven’t seen improvement.

“A couple years ago, the National Resource Conservation Service offered a cover crop program. I signed on, agreeing to give cover crops a try for three years,” said Philipps.

Philipps was required to send in soil samples to Ward Laboratories Inc. so tests could be conducted on the biological make-up of the soil. Not long after, Philipps received a call from a tech at Ward Laboratories.

“The lab called me and asked what I was doing with my soil. They told me my tests were incredible and off the charts. They said the soil I sent showed things that no other soil in the area had, especially fungi. We’re really dry in Montana, so they were really impressed with the soil activity they saw.”

“Changes are not just going to happen overnight. It takes time to build. Since making the switch to the Maximum Farming System, I have seen improvements in my crop quality and soil health.”

Whether it’s having agronomic questions answered in a timely fashion, learning about the most recent basic science advancements, or having an Associate provide support each step of the way, Ag Spectrum encourages growers to put the Maximum Farming System to work.

Even amid dry soil with unpredictable rainfalls, the Conrad, Montana grower has seen phenomenal results in the success of his farm since adopting the Maximum Farming System. Results that will lead the next generation forward as he is able to leave a legacy for his son Brandon to carry on.

Jerry, Phyllis and Brandon Philipps, Conrad, MontanaInnovators like Philipps know that there are better ways to farm. It seems inefficient to leave land fallow, but it’s also unrealistic to expect a healthy crop from nutrient- and water-deprived soils.

Leadership and commitment have proven success on the Philipps farm. “I know how farmers think, so my best advice would be to start slow and prove it to yourself and your farm that it will work. If you lay the ground work during the first year and take a look at the roots, you will definitely be convinced to go full force with the System in the next year.”

By: Karolyn Kruse |  Photos By: Eric Sherwood 

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