Description

Darrin Unruh has worked for several years to improve the quality of his 314 acres in Reno County.  Unruh’s property facilitates a multi-use farming system of native grasses for rotational grazing of cattle and cropland dedicated to growing alfalfa and wheat that will eventually be converted to alfalfa. He has long practiced no-till agriculture, but found that no-till alone was not the answer. He became proactive by experimenting with other techniques that he read about, heard from others, or just experimented with on his own.

One thing that really opened my eyes is I planted some oil seed radishes with my wheat seed…just mixed in a couple of pounds per acre with my wheat seed, and that winter really opened my eyes to a lot of things. When I saw that wheat root wrapping around that radish and following that radish down…not only did you get the wheat root to penetrate deeper, but you have all of that biological activity going on around that wheat root. That was an "Aha!” moment.

That experiment is what led to Darrin’s perception that land and water conservation is tied into soil health and integrity.

I think that’s where a lot of the focus in the near future is going to be…what’s going on underneath the soil, not what’s going on on top. That’s a hard thing because, number one, you can’t see it, and number two, you don’t always see the results on top of the ground on what’s going on under the ground.

There were many challenges to improving the integrity of Unruh’s soil. Without irrigation or electric lines, Unruh had a difficult time practicing rotational grazing because his cattle were dependent upon the river and an existing pond as their water sources. His efforts to improve the health of his pasture soils were often experimental. He began converting cropland back to grasslands by planting Bermuda grass. This experiment, however, was not a success.

We were spending a lot of money on nitrogen fertilizer. What we were putting in and what we were getting out wasn’t matching up…It wasn’t economically sustainable and it wasn’t environmentally sustainable. It [nitrogen fertilizer] just wasn’t working anymore.

The conversion did result in an increase in organic matter in that soil, so the next step was to find a way to increase the soil organic matter without the inputs required by Bermuda grass. Unruh has converted much of monoculture Bermuda grasses back to crop land. Specifically he has planted alfalfa because he believes it has less of an environmental impact when compared to crops like wheat and corn. He intends to drill cover crops into his existing alfalfa stand with the intention of increasing the biological diversity in the stands. Whether this improves the integrity of the soil in those stands remains to be seen, but Darrin Unruh has seen a lot of improvements on his lands and those improvements can be attributed to two things: his willingness to keep experimenting and his location within the Cheney Watershed.

The Cheney Lake Watershed, Inc. is a private, non-profit organization with a mission, "to provide water quality education and funding for cost effective clean water projects that improve the North Fork Ninnescah Watershed which feeds Cheney Lake” (http://www.cheneylakewatershed.org/missionvision.htm). Lisa French, the project coordinator for Cheney Lake Watershed has served on the Kansas Water Authority and has been instrumental in helping Unruh establish better management practices that improve water quality and use on his property and in turn, improve soil structure and reduce energy use. She directed him to the Kansas Rural Center’s River Friendly Farms Environmental self-assessment. This assessment highlighted four priorities for Unruh: degradation of water systems from frequent use by livestock; lack of plant diversity and poor rangeland health; poor wildlife habitat around water sources and no testing of well water.

The Watershed has been really helpful as far as putting on programs and meetings bringing in people from different parts of the state or country that were trying different things and having successes.

The collaboration between Darrin Unruh and the Cheney Lake Watershed has resulted in better management practices that not only improve and preserve the pastures on Darrin’s property, but will benefit the city of Wichita and Sedgwick County by improving the quality of the Cheney reservoir. An improved reservoir can reduce energy consumption on a grand scale.

Water

Unruh’s pasture lands lie along the North Fork of the Ninnescah River, which drains into the Cheney reservoir. This reservoir supplies water to the population of Wichita and surrounding residents. For this reason, water use and water quality issues not only affect Unruh’s lands and his business, but they also affect the reservoir and the community. Initially, Unruh’s cattle relied on the river and an aging pond as their sole water source. Their frequent use was leading to the degradation of these sources. To combat this, Unruh installed compressed air pumps that would pump water from a well to a 4,200 gallon storage tank that would then gravity feed water to tanks installed throughout the pasture. The pumping mechanism is powered by solar charged batteries running a 24V DC motor. These alternative water sources enabled Unruh to utilize all of his pasture lands for rotational grazing, drawing the cattle away from the river. By keeping cattle out of natural water sources, sediment disturbance that can lead to murkiness and nutrient loading are curbed, and the risk of contamination by pathogenic microbes is decreased.

Darrin Unruh established a stand of native grasses so his cattle would have a variety of foraging options. According to French, these grasses also have a positive effect on the reservoir:

Over time, Darrin has converted cropland back to grass, added water sources for livestock, reduced livestock access to the stream, and improved the health of the grass in the pastures. All of these practices reduce soil loss, nutrient loading, and bacterial levels…the proximity of the river means the reduction has maximum impacts on the reservoir.

Up until late August, Reno County experienced intense drought conditions. The drought took a toll on many farmer’s lands, and even some of Darrin’s, but he had the benefit of seeing the effects of the dry conditions on his multi-use landscape. Overall, some stands of grass fared better than others, and Darrin attributes this to increased biodiviersity.

Healthy soil is dependent upon diversity. Not just plant diversity but also animal diversity. The animals have a huge impact on the carbon: nitrogen ratios.

He goes on to explain that the health of the soil changes the way the land holds water, moves nutrients and while animals are often considered a hindrance when it comes to water quality, the hoof action of grazing cattle breaks down soil residues making them available to worms and microbes. All of these actions result in healthier soils that will hold more water during dry conditions.

Unruh acknowledges that the drought has been a big eye-opener to himself and others in the community. It has been instrumental in showing what practices work and which ones need improvement. Reflecting on his radish experiment, and seeing the positive results of increased biodiversity, both plant and animal, has made that the primary goal for Mr. Unruh.

Energy

Darrin Unruh has seen direct energy savings through his better management practices.  He has had success using solar panels to charge the batteries that operate his compression pump and that choice has proven to be more economical than running electrical lines throughout the property.  He continues to try different methods that will improve the health of his soils.  Ultimately, he prescribes to what he describes as four components of soil health:  1. Living roots in the soil as much as possible, 2. Covering the soil, 3. Diversity and 4. Less disturbance.  When asked how improving the health of his soils will save energy he responded:

I think on how it saves water, it all relates back to the soil.  It relates to what’s going on in the soil…it doesn’t matter if it’s pasture, native pasture, farm ground or what it is.  It has to do with the soil structure.  If we’re able to build organic matter and soil structure and help the soil, that will help conserve water and get us through dry periods like we’re in now. If we concentrate on soil structure and soil health, that will conserve water and make it more productive.  It’s a win/win, not an either/ or.

Lisa French explains that to see the connection between improving water quality and energy savings, you have to look at the big picture:

If you’re gonna have clean water, it’s gonna take energy, and if you’re gonna use energy, that involves water in some way.  We don’t usually consider that water use when we’re looking at energy use.

Progress

Darrin Unruh doesn’t think he is doing anything special. He made the decision to utilize and protect resources and has relied on the experience of others and his own intuition to try new practices. He has seen successes and failures, but thinks his is on the right track. He describes what he would like to see in five to ten years:

I’d like to be able to take the shovel out there and see the big porous holes and higher levels of organic matter…and more diversity in the native grasses.

He would also like to be able to practice mob grazing. He has done some intensive grazing in the past, but has had to cut back due to the drought. Unruh is candid about the fact that he doesn’t have all of the answers. But, he does have some advice for crop farmers:

The first thing you can do is go plant two pounds of radishes with your wheat seed and lets go out there and dig some roots.

What Unruh would like to see in the farming community is a continued discussion on water quality and use. As long as the conditions remain dry, that discussion happens, but once the rain comes, he fears the discussion will end.

We talk about how farmers are the true environmentalists, and you can say that, but you know…It’s one thing to say it, but you really have to be out there and do it. To be a true environmentalist you have to do things to improve the health of the soil which will increase water conservation and reduce energy. I think we’re on the right track, but I think we have a long way to go.
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RESOURCES
Getting the Lowdown on Worms
Iowa's NRCS: No-Till Will Preserve Soil Moisture For Next Year
USDA Rural Energy for America Program
USDA NRCS, Soil Health Key Points
Conservation Practices that Save: Crop Residue Management: Save ENERGY, Save MONEY
No-till can save water, pumping crops
Save Soil, Nutrients, Money with Cover Crops
Soil Quality and No-Till
Plenty of Positives with No-Till System
Managing Cover Crops in Conservation Tillage Systems
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The Prairie as the Model