Farmers from across Kansas learn how to hold water in their soil

Alice Mannette
The Hutchinson News
John Kirkchoff of Garden City and Jordan Koehn of Sublette examine the soil at a No-Till on the Plains event just south of Liberal.

LIBERAL — Many Kansans say keeping water in the ground by not tilling dry land can't be done. On Thursday, a farmer in southwest Kansas said it could, at least for the most part.

Nick Vos is changing the biology of his soil. He's giving it structure and helping it retain water on his land in both Hugoton and northern Oklahoma - just across the border from Liberal. 

"Tilling is a practical solution for us trying to get away from the chemicals," Vos said. "We're too dry too often to have consistency."

Vos' method seems to be working on both his fields as each year his soil is able to retain more and more water.

"It's all trial and error," Vos said. "We try to learn as we go. There's no single way of doing this."

No-Till on the Plains soil health event

Jordan Koehn of Sublette digs into the dirt on Nick Vos' farm during a No-Till on the Plains event.

Farmers from across Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas came to the No-Till on the Plains soil health event in Liberal on Thursday. Jordan Dyck, a native Kansan, woke up at 3:30 a.m. on the morning of the conference. Dyck (who farms in Texas, but when he was little he grew up on a dairy farm in Moundridge) picked up his friend and fellow farmer, Waylen Becker, from his home in Oklahoma.

Dyck and Becker try to use as many regenerative practices on their crops as they can. Both men utilize cover crops, try not to till and try to keep a living root in the ground as much as possible.In addition, the two men rent out their pastures to cattle ranchers so the animals can graze. Like Vos, their soil is sandy. 

"I'm trying to go as regenerative as I can," Dyck said. "There's way too much spraying out there. Cover crops will do a lot more than the plow."

Nick Vos shows farmers a plant during a teaching event on July 15 on his farm in northern Oklahoma.

Many farmers who farm on sandy soil do not think regenerative farming will work for them. Changing over to regenerative practices brings with it a large learning curve. So going to events like this one helps farmers understand the process and how it would work in sandy soil and a climate with not much rain. 

For regenerative farming to work, one must have a living root in the ground, plant cover crops, cut back on herbicides, bring in livestock, and stop tilling the land.

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Well, Vos said he does it all, except he runs one pass through his fields each season. Because he raises grass-fed sheep, he wants to keep the chemicals off the land and, he said, as of now, the only way he is able to do this is to run the machinery over his land on a strategic basis.

It is Vos' contention that his two or so tills each year do not affect his soil's biology: that is, as long as he does everything else as well as he knows how. 

NRCS regional soil health specialist Candy Thomas, who is based out of Salina, tested Vos' soil in his non-tilled land, and one in which he runs one sweep over his land about twice a year and found there was not too much of a difference. But when she took a section of area where a pipeline was placed on the ground in Vos' field and the area had been heavily tilled, there was a major difference.

"You can see how carbon-starved those soils are (where the ground was heavily tilled)," she said. "(With the regenerative principles), the activity (worms) is there. There's good structure."

Candy Thomas, an NRCS regional soil health specialist stationed in Salina, tests the soil on Nick Vos' farm in northern Oklahoma - just outside of Liberal, Kansas.

For Ryan Speer of Sedgwick, who has more of a clay-based soil and receives more rain than in southwest Kansas, regenerative farming is not new. He raises cover crops, cotton and soybeans on his farm. Speer has practiced no-till for 20 years and has used regenerative practices for just about 15 years.

Because of the dry soil and lack of rain in southwest Kansas, many farmers remain hesitant. Jordan Koehn of Sublette and John Kirkchoff of Garden City attended the conference. Kirkchoff said he was thinking about going regenerative. Koehn has already started on his corn, soybean and sorghum crops on his irrigated land. He has used cover crops for three years.

"I'd like to integrate some sort of animal eventually," Kirkchoff said. 

More:A no-till event focuses on using soil-health practices in western Kansas

Profits in sheep

Vos' main commodity is sheep. He also grows soybeans, corn and lots of diversified cover crops. Because the sheep are fed by his crops, they do not need medicine or minerals. The sheep also take care of pigweed on Vos' land. 

"The more we graze it, the more perennials come back without putting any inputs into it," Vos said. "The sheep compact the top end. We have tons of residue."

That residue leads to healthier soil. And healthier soil means less chemicals and less runoff. 

Tyrel Owens of Minneapolis, Kansas said Vos is his mentor. 

"Sheep are my primary operation," Owens said. "They are my cash crop."

Like Vos, Owens' sheep are healthy.

"We build up a pretty resistant dewormed herd," Vos said. "We look at the pasture, when it needs a break, we move them."

Vos said the sheep will graze down to the ground and then move onto another spot. This method gives the Vos' nutrition for their sheep. They also birth more twins and the land contains higher carbon and nitrogen.

"If you leave them long enough, they'll eventually mob-graze every spot," he said. "You can't try to manage them."

Joanna Vos of Kansas leads her sheep into new pasture on one of her farms in northern Oklahoma.

Vos also told the group there is a huge demand for meat sheep. He plans to increase his herd from about 250 to at least 500 by next year.

Many at the conference are trying some form of regenerative processes, but they are not raising animals. Several saw the value of adding sheep to their mix. Because sheep need less food, they are easier to handle on dryer soil.

"I'm wanting to get into sheep," Dyck said. "This (event) made me want to get sheep."

Kinzie Reiss of Weston raises goats on her land in northcentral Kansas. She doesn't want to purchase sheep, but she was excited to learn about the benefits of the sheep and equate them to her goats.

"The biology from the sheep seems to compensate everything we do wrong," Vos said. "It (our soil) used to be sandier. We're pretty happy with the progress we've made."

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