Justin Flaten, Highwood MT

Justin Flaten had his mind made up when he bought his farm near Highwood, Mont., in 2009. He was going to continuously crop his fields instead of doing a 50/50 wheat-fallow rotation, which has been the typical way to farm in the Montana’s Golden Triangle area. Farmers have used fallow cropping systems since the 1800s in semi-arid regions to keep land out of production for a year to conserve moisture for the next growing season.

More from Justin FlatenFlaten on Continuous Cropping for Soil Health (SWF; 37 seconds; 45 MB)

Flaten on Marketing Pulse Crops (SWF; 23 seconds; 29 MB)

Continuous Cropping Helps Flaten Improve Soil Health (PDF; 3.53 MB)

While strips of summer fallow fields can be seen for miles in the seven-county area that makes up Montana’s Golden Triangle area, farmers like Flaten are questioning the norm.

Flaten said he saw the farming changes taking place in western North Dakota where his grandparents and uncle farm. “We felt the rainfall here, it’s 14 to 16 inches, is very similar to a lot of areas that were continuous crop farming and so we decided that it could work well here,” Flaten said.

Flaten said continuous cropping is working for him. “It seems every year we’ve farmed here, we’ve gotten, from what I can tell, as good of yields on winter wheat following pulse crops as others than have it on chem fallow or on barley,” he said. Flaten said he rotates fields each year, planting wheat one year and then a pulse crop the next year, having profitable pulse crops as well.

“We grow chickpeas, peas, and lentils and all three have done really well,” Flaten said. Although, he said, the chickpeas and lentils have the highest revenue potential, the peas have the best rotational benefit in that they put the most nitrogen in the soil.

Continuous cropping has also reduced Flaten’s market risks. “We are spreading our risk out over different crops. If the wheat price is low, we are not too heavily invested as that isn’t our only crop.”

In addition to continuous cropping, Flaten can talk about the benefits of no-till farming. He uses a precision hoe drill to seed through the previous year’s crop residue. He said the vertical shank doesn’t pick up and plow as much dirt, which he feels is important in not disturbing the soil. He also seeds at 4.5 to 4.7 miles per hour to reduce soil disturbance. Keeping the soil covered is important to reduce erosion and conserve moisture.

On the flip side, too much crop residue or poorly distributed residue can cause its own problems, from poor planter performance to increased pest infestation. Flaten said the trick to residue management is getting the residue spread at harvest. “The key is a really fine-cut straw chopper and having it spread over 30, 40, or 45 feet,” he said.

Flaten said the second factor to managing residue is crop rotation. Pulse crops leave less residue than wheat. “If you grow wheat on wheat on wheat, you are going to pile up a lot of residue, but if you go wheat and then a low residue crop like peas, the residue will be basically gone the next time you seed wheat,” he said.

In addition to pulse crops, Flaten has dabbled with cover crops. “We planted some oats for nitrogen along with some radishes and turnips, nitrogen scavenging cover crops,” he said. “I’ve read a lot of literature about cover crops and want to try and increase organic matter and increase the tilth of the topsoil.”

Another issue that Flaten uses cropping to deal with is alkali. Excess water in the soil profile can gather salts and other minerals and leave them on the soil surface when the water evaporates, creating soil alkali problems.

“Continuous cropping is obviously key, using up excess moisture and preventing alkali from spreading,” Flaten said. Although fairly new to using cover crops, Flaten said he is going to keep using them. “We will probably focus on areas where water accumulates and keep something growing at all times.”

Everything Flaten does on his farm is to make it sustainable. “You know, sometimes the word environmentalism and farmers don’t go together, but I guess I think I’m a practical environmentalist in the sense that the better we can do things for our soil, the more sustainable we can make it.”

Flaten said paying attention to his soil will increase organic matter and improve his soil health. Continuous cropping and cover crops are just a few of the tools he is using to reach those goals.

“I think the benefits of higher organic matter, the diversification of species which promotes microorganism growth, microbacteria growth, and the whole health of soil way offsets the risk of dryness.”

Justin Flaten plants nitrogen-fixing peas, after his wheat crop.            Flaten plants nitrogen-fixing peas, after his wheat crop. Justin Flaten, farmer near Highwood, Mont., seeds pulse crops into no-till wheat.           Flaten seeds pulse crops into no-till wheat. Justin Flaten uses a precision hoe drill to seed.             Flaten uses a precision hoe drill to seed.


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