East Idaho dryland growers dabble in ranching to improve soil health

A young couple in Caribou County, Idaho, has added livestock and chickens to their farm, as well as cover crops, and implemented direct seeding to improve their soil health.
John O’Connell

Capital Press

Published on August 4, 2017 9:05AM

Noel and Cody Cole, of Soda Springs, Idaho, are experimenting with chickens and cattle to graze their cover crops and recirculate nutrients.

John O’Connell/Capital Press

Noel and Cody Cole, of Soda Springs, Idaho, are experimenting with chickens and cattle to graze their cover crops and recirculate nutrients.

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SODA SPRINGS, Idaho — Just last fall, Cody and Noel Cole raised a single crop — wheat — and their approach to farming entailed heavy tillage and increasingly frequent fungicide applications.

Now, they suddenly find themselves learning the ropes of cattle ranching and poultry farming as part of a holistic solution they’re slowly phasing in to improve soil health throughout their 2,800-acre dry-and farm.

Last season, Noel, 29, had an internship with Crop Production Services. As she scouted fields — including her own — she surmised the lack of diversity in local farm rotations and deteriorating health of overly disturbed soils was contributing to increased disease pressure.

Noel and her husband are in the midst of transforming their farm’s long-held production practices — aiming to eliminate tillage, leave living roots and stubble to “armor” fields, diversify their crop rotation and plant multi-species cover crops, which are raised for soil-health benefits rather than for commercial sale. They plan to try sunflower, safflower, mustard, faba beans and dry lentils as new cash crops.

“For the past several years, we’ve been battling stripe rust and having to use more and more fungicides,” Noel said. “We always felt like we were limited because we’re dryland farmers, and we could plant wheat or barley and that’s it, but there are a lot of other things out there.”

Perhaps the greatest change has been the addition of livestock and poultry to graze the cover crops, thereby taking advantage of the forage value of the vegetation and recirculating nutrients in their excrement.

Cody’s father, Morris Cole, admits he’s been a “thorn” as his son and daughter-in-law work to modernize the farm, but he’s eager to see their results.

“They’re a younger generation, and they’re what’s going to keep us in the game,” Morris said.

Cody, 30, planned to buy a conventional plow last fall, before watching soil-health videos on the Internet and visiting with a couple of area farmers who had tried cover cropping and no-till farming. Instead, he bought a no-till drill.

He and Noel are conducting formal experiments to discover the best approaches for their farm. They planted 10 acres in various cover crop blends and brought in friends’ cows to graze them and see which plants the cows prefer. They’re using electric fencing and moving cows to new paddocks every two days to prevent overgrazing, following the cows with about 25 broiler chickens. By next season, Noel, who comes from a ranching family and will oversee the livestock, hopes to expand to 30 cows — buying some of her own livestock and grazing them in partnership with a neighbor — and 100 chickens, which she’ll sell via social media.

Cody also planted 180 acres of cover crops on commercial fields this season. He’s conducting trials to compare ways of terminating his cover crops, including livestock, mowing and applying glyphosate herbicide and mowing and baling. Cody insists he’s already noticed benefits — Noel’s soil sampling showed cover crops kept soil up to 15 degrees cooler, and moisture remained in the cover crop strips in his grazing trial long after it had evaporated from conventional fields.

“I’m excited to farm again,” Cody said. “I know I’m going to fail along the way, but I’m going to learn from my mistakes, try to correct them and keep trying different things.”


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