Jimmy Emmons standing in front of soil and cornfield
FREE SOIL UPGRADE: Jimmy Emmons says use of no-till and cover crops produces millions of beneficial life forms in the soil, which improve soil quality for free.

Carbon-load to regenerate soil

With his 20 years of building healthier soil, Oklahoma farmer reduces fertilizer and fuel use.

After more than two decades of trial-and-error and perseverance, Jimmy Emmons is slowly attaining his goal of regenerating the soils on his northwest Oklahoma farm.

"It's a new day at the Emmons farm," he recently told farmers and conservation supporters at a soil biology field day in southeast Nebraska. "I'm focusing on soil health principles to change the way I farm."

He adopted no-till crop production in 1995. Then he diversified his crop rotation by adding various cover crops to keep crop roots active in the soil to feed soil organisms, all with the goal of "loading my system with carbon." Doing so, he adds, builds organic matter, which increases soil water-holding capacity.

Emmons is an award-winning farmer, rancher and conservationist from Dewey County, Okla., who serves as the president of Oklahoma Association of Conservation Districts. He serves on several boards and is vice president of No-till on the Plains.

"One-half of the topsoil in America has been lost through our farming practices over the decades. As a nation, we see the effects everywhere. With the soil we've lost, we lost half or more of the capacity to hold water. Just think what you could do with twice as much water in your soils," he says.

"When water is standing, it's not a rain problem; it's an infiltration problem."

The benefits he's attained so far include applying just 65% of the fertilizer he applied eight years ago and cutting fuel costs by two-thirds.

Emmons is always under the threat of drought in his part of the Southern Plains. On average, he receives 20 to 22 inches of precipitation, but much of it comes in the form of intense rainstorms. "With my crop rotation and not committing to just one or two crops, I'm spreading market risk and capitalizing on the changing weather patterns," he says.

In the past few years, Emmons has incorporated cover crops into his soil health system and has increased his cover crop cocktail mix from a six-way to a 14-way seed mix. Increased cover crop diversity keeps root activity in the soil year-round, he says.

"We don't understand our soil in this country," Emmons says. "There are millions of life forms below ground working for us for free. In most parts of the country, we're killing them."

No-till with cover crops, according to Emmons, provides living plant activity in the soil 24/7 and increases soil aggregates, making the soil mellow and resilient and creating higher biological populations. Other benefits are an increased infiltration rate, lower soil and wind erosion, lower compaction, and higher organic matter.

All of this is on Emmons' 2,000 acres of cropland. He's now incorporated a 220-head cow-calf herd into his soil health system through rotational grazing of his cover crops during winter. With the help of the Natural Resources Conservation Service, he's found he can return more to bottom line than the cost of seeding the covers. "It's also a great way to recycle nutrients back into the soil."

The field day was held south of Douglas on land owned by Mike McDonald. McDonald is one of the leaders in the soil health movement in Nebraska, working with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and NRCS to conduct field days and explore the idea of setting up "carbon hubs of learning" in the state.

These field days and meetings are part of the NRCS Soil Health Initiative.

McCabe writes from Lincoln.

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