'Without the new ideas, we don't learn': How farmers are using technology to boost yields
Connor Peirce grew up on the farm, always watching and learning from his dad, Cameron. Last year, when Connor came back to Hutchinson with his diploma in agronomy from Kansas State University in hand, Cameron told him they were now a partnership.
Cameron always tried new things, from farming methods like no-till and cover crops to crop rotation and new crops like sunflowers and canola. Each time he experiments, he does so with a lot of research. Connor does the same.
Their dilemma, like all farmers face, is how to produce a great crop at a decent return on investment. Both Connor and Cameron realize they need to revitalize their soil and work to eliminate weeds and unwanted crops without many pesticides.
The Peirces' property falls within the Cheney Lake Watershed District. The Watershed organization helps farmers improve water quality by working on education and outreach.
On Thursday, Connor demonstrated to more than two dozen farmers how his bioreactor bins and the stock chopper that he and his father are retooling into a crop roller are going to help revitalize the soil.
A bioreactor can boost yield, nutrition and diversity
With plastic bags, steel cages, straw and leaves, Connor set up his bioreactor, which is modeled after David C. Johnson's research. For less than one dollar per acre, a composting bioreactor increases crop yield, nutrition and biological diversity in fields.
Less than one decade ago, David C. Johnson, a faculty affiliate at the Center for Regenerative Agriculture at California State University-Chico, discovered a new way of composting – he invented the Johnson-Su Composting Bioreactor. Since then, he’s fine-tuned, tested and experimented with this low-cost unit, and he has asked others to join him.
By using Johnson's method, heavily depleted soil flourishes, and once treated with this composting extract, can withstand heavy rains.
Johnson’s bioreactor produces fungal-rich compost that boosts crop growth and carbon sequestration in soil.
"It's about adding fungus to the soil," Connor explained to the crowd. "Each gallon produced will cover one acre."
The hitch - it takes a year to make the special mixture. By forming a cage, laying plastic around the inside, placing pipes with holes in the center and then adding either chopped-up leaves or hay, for less than $10, a bioreactor is formed. But to make it work, the reactor must be fed one gallon of water a day, and it must be kept in above freezing weather. It can be housed in a barn or work shed.
"The microbial diversity formed is the key to healthy soil," Connor said. "When it's done, it will be the consistency of clay."
After the mixture is ripe, it is mixed with water and placed on the field. Once treated with the fungal tincture, compacted soil that was not able to hold water, can now be infiltrated. In addition, because less fertilizer and herbicides are used, fewer contaminants enter the groundwater. Likewise, insects become abundant, weeds die out and less water is needed for irrigation.
Crop rollers from discarded stock choppers
Connor also showed the farmers how he and his father are creating a crop roller with a discarded stock chopper - a machine designed to chop up corn stalks - and a toolbar.
The machine will be pushed, as opposed to being pulled. This action will avoid tire marks and uneven flattening.
"Our biggest hurdle will be driving straight," said Connor. "Where the tire tracks go, you don't get as much crimp."
The Peirces hope this machine will diminish weeds and kill their cover crops of rye and triticale. They also showed the group how they are experimenting with double-row crops.
Austin Schweizer, a farmer in Reno County, converted a stock chopper to work as a roller-crimper.
"It seems to suppress weeds," he said. "It helps hold moisture and cycle nutrients."
Agronomist Kevin Schoenhals said these types of products help increase conservation. and water mitigation so farmers can use fewer pesticides.
"I'm proud to have Connor here on the farm and have him introduce all the new ideas and energy," Cameron said. "Without the new ideas, we don't learn."