Underground Livestock: Reaching New Depths in Soil Health

RN Hopper showcases his healthy soils as a result of the no-till and other conservation practices he and his father have implemented since 2004. RN Hopper showcases his healthy soils as a result of the no-till and other conservation practices he and his father have implemented since 2004.

Just north of Petersburg, in the High Plains of West Texas, lies what seems to be dry, unmanaged fields. The surface is cracked from the heat, and corn cobs from the past harvest litter the fields. But what actually lies in RN Hopper’s fields is anything but dry and unkempt. Beneath the surface is a world breaming with life and a future in sustainable agriculture.

Hopper Graduated from Texas Tech University in 2000 with a degree in agronomy. He came home to work with his dad, Ronnie Hopper, and together started Harmony Farms in 2004.

Hopper’s passion for farming and the land led to an understanding of the soil beneath the surface and how it can provide for him and the land in the future. This understanding was garnered from both his college education as well as an informative experience at a No-Till on the Plains conference in Kansas.

The main goal of Harmony Farms was to take what Hopper had learned and put no-till conservation practices into action.

“A lot of times when people start down the no-till road, they don’t seem to have success with it because they don’t have a diverse rotation,” Hopper said. “You have to have a very diverse rotation of crops; as many species as possible. For the most part, it won’t work over an extended period of time if you’re just cotton after cotton after cotton.”

Hopper’s fields cycle cotton one out of every three years. He follows cotton with wheat, wheat with corn, and corn with cotton. He said no-till practices are very much about getting a bacterial-dominant soil back to a fungal-dominant soil, which is done by ceasing tillage.

“We’re trying to return some of the structure to the soil,” Hopper said. “It’s impossible to build organic matter if you’re oxygenating the soil with tillage because it immediately gets consumed by the microflora, once it is gone, their populations crash.”

Hopper said a healthy soil has the equivalent microbial biomass of three to five beef cattle units per acre. That is a tremendous biomass that must be fed, and the currency of nature is carbon.

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RN Hopper holds the end of a 6 ft pole inserted into his no-till field. No-till fields are composed of compact, healthy fields soils that can hold 75 percent of rainwater.

“So, if you’re not cycling that carbon slowly and naturally into your soil, you don’t have anything to steadily feed that underground livestock,” Hopper said. “And if they’re not being fed, they die. And if they die, they’re not helping to make nutrients more available or doing the thousands of other things that they do.”

Hopper said these “underground livestock” are billions of microscopic organisms that live under the soil. They feed off carbon that comes from recycled organic material. In doing so, they help create healthy soil for future crop seasons.

However, cover crops and no-till are not just about returning carbon back into the soil. John Zak, associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Texas Tech, said he has been working with RN for three years conducting research on microbial health and manipulation.

“Really what we’re trying to understand is how soil can do certain things in terms of productivity if you manage it,” Zak said. “They have their own microbiome the same way humans do. So, the question is, how do you manage that microbiome, and what are the consequences of managing practices to the functionality of that microbiome?”

Zak said the microbiome in soil is what directly contributes to crop yield. He attributes healthy soil to a healthy microflora. One determining factor that makes soil healthy is lowering the variability in daily temperature range, or DTR, which is the difference between how hot and cold soil gets in a 24-hour period. Zak took this idea to Big Bend National Park before using it in Hopper’s fields.

“We decreased solar input (on the soils).,” Zak said. “What that does is raise the night time temperature a little bit because the soils don’t dissipate as much heat, but they don’t heat up as much during the day. You decrease DTR by about three to four degrees centigrade.”

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RN Hopper pulls back the trash from past season’s corn harvest to show the cover no-till practices provide for the soil. Using practices like no-till and cover crops keeps the daily temperature range (DTR) minimal to develop healthier soils and microflora.

What was showed from the lowering of DTR in the soil, Zak said, is that microbial activity in soils can increase without any change in soil moisture by about 30 percent. He explained that one of the reasons deserts are deserts isn’t because of lack of moisture: it’s because of DTR.

Zak said the results from these experiments meant farmers could create healthier soils and higher yields without irrigating more than they were already.

Hopper said no-till has greatly increased water infiltration and holding capacity in his fields.

“(The fields) probably catch 70-80 percent of the rain,” Hopper said. “But, if you have something that’s conventionally tilled, there’s probably some of the times of the year they’re only catching 30-35 percent to be used by the plants and the rest is going to runoff or evaporate.”

Hopper said he and his father did not start irrigating last season’s cotton crop until the first week of August.

“I think we’re barely tapping the potential of what we already have,” Hopper said. “Most people argue no-till is worth 5 inches of water. I would argue that it’s considerably more than that. We have the ability to get to a point, hopefully, where we can consistently capture 75-85 percent of the rainfall and get it to the root zone. And in the worst conditions, the 35 percent zone. In my opinion, it’s usually a 5- to 8-inch advantage.”

Hopper said that cover crops or residue from the past season act as armor for the soil surface. and trash from past seasons acts as a barrier to the soil. When rain falls, the impact is busted on the cover crop and then drains into the soil.

“If it rains in permanent grass, the water doesn’t run out,” Hopper said. “It all goes into the ground. You’ve got mulch cover and grass to deflect the impact of the raindrops. You only see soil uncovered in two cases, shifting landscapes or a desert. But, you won’t see any other natural landscape that’s not covered in plants. You won’t ever find anything clean tilled in nature. If there’s nothing above ground, there’s nothing to feed what’s below ground. Most, if not all, of the benefits of no-till come from that mulch cover.”

I can see a future in farming without irrigation, but I can’t see a future without a healthy soil. RN Hopper

However, Hopper said this whole process has been a challenge and a good learning curve.

“By 2006, we were committed to continuous no-till. There was a lot of steep learning curves, and there’s not a lot of people out here that do it,” Hopper said. “And so, we made plenty of mistakes and continued to make mistakes, but we’ve never had enough trouble with it to deter us from staying on the path.”

Hopper said he believes that the future of agriculture in the United States and West Texas lies in no-till practices.

“I can see a future in farming with no irrigation, but I can’t see a future without a healthy soil,” Hopper said. “I don’t know everything, and I’m definitely not right about everything, but I know there’s not a best way to do anything, but only better ways, and that’s the very definition of progress.”

At the end of the day, all Hopper does for his fields is because of his love and passion for farming and the land, he said.

“People refer to crop production as yield: it’s what you get at the end of the day, but, really, it’s what nature has yielded to you,” Hopper said. “So, I guess what I love most about being a farmer is trying to be the best steward of what God has given us that I can be. And that’s the challenge and that’s what keeps me excited about each coming year, and that’s what gets me up in the morning — just the hope of what might be yielded to us at the end.”

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