Derek Axten and his wife, Tannis have improved the profitability and sustainability of their diversified grain farm near Minton in southern Saskatchewan through a systems approach that focuses on soil health and regeneration.
The Axtens’ low disturbance no-till system combines cover crops, intercropping, combination planting, compost teas and extracts, high-density livestock integration, controlled traffic and high plant diversity.
“There isn’t one specific thing that we do that is the reason for the improvement we’ve seen in our resource,” says Derek. “It’s a whole bunch of pieces to a puzzle.”
Axten Farms covers around 6,000 acres and has two locations 60 miles apart. Both locations have different soils, topography and climate. The home farm of about 4,000 acres is hilly with light soils, and the other 2,000 acres in the more northerly Milestone region of Saskatchewan is a flat plain of heavy clay.
Developing a system that works equally well in both situations has been challenging, but add the short growing season and typically low rainfall environment and it’s become something of an art form, Derek says.
The five essential pillars that support Axten’s farm are keeping the soil covered at all times, eliminating soil disturbance, having live roots in the soil for as long as possible, high plant-species diversity and incorporating livestock.
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Axten grows an average of 15 different crops each year, with no monocrops. Instead of a fixed rotation, he has guidelines that determine what crops he needs to grow to achieve his goals.
“Every year I am going to have over 50% cereals in rotation to maintain our surface residue and have a certain amount of grasses to keep the system healthy. And we have general rules like five years between chickpeas. But from there it’s like making a puzzle and deciding where everything fits.”
Cereals like durum wheat, rye or oats are grown with under-seeded companions such as clovers or alfalfa. Cover crops, which are currently seeded just after harvest into a standing crop stubble, are a mix of cool-season grasses like oats or annual ryegrass; warm-season grasses such as millet or sorghum-sudangrass; brassicas such as radish or yellow mustard; broadleaves like buckwheat or flax and legumes such as faba beans or clover.
Cover crops are designed to prolong the amount of time that live plants and roots are present in the soil to feeds soil biology, sequester carbon, improve drought tolerance and nutrient cycling and prevent rain and wind erosion.
Since 2011, Axten has intercropped a number of crops, such as canola and peas, flax and lentils and flax and chickpeas. Most are seeded together in the same row using a 60-foot John Deere 1890 air drill on 10-inch spacings.
He’s added a double-shoot air kit and an additional set of towers to the drill to allow him to seed chickpeas and flax — his most consistently profitable crop — on alternate rows, which has prevented disease in the chickpea crop and eliminated the use of fungicides.
“The problem with our existing 1890 drill was it was set up with a single shoot, so we specifically ordered a double-shoot cart so we could put two sets of towers on the drill,” Derek says. “We have nine runs so instead of blocking off runs we bought a smaller set of towers made in Australia that has a set of four and a set of five runs that we can use to seed the flax and chickpeas at the same time.
“We just switch hoses in order to make the alternate rows. And with these towers the seed goes out nice and even and we get better plant distribution in the row.”
Because he’s never seeding one single crop, seeding rates and depths tend to be a bit of a compromise. Axten seeds legume or broadleaf intercrops at two-thirds the regular rate and brassicas at 50%.
He seeds pulses at two-thirds the normal rate but has gone as high as three-quarters on chickpeas. Seeding depth is determined by the biggest seed size in the mix. “As an example, mustard needs to be seeded at three-quarters of an inch and peas at 2 inches, so we seed one-and-a-quarter- to one-and-a-half inch deep,” says Axten.
Derex Axten added a double-shoot air cart kit to his 60-foot John Deere 1890 air drill to help him seed chickpeas and flax, his most consistently profitable crops, on alternate rows, which has prevented disease in the chickpea crop and eliminated the use of fungicides.
One of the first things Axten learned when he started no-tilling in 2007 was the importance of stubble management. After struggling the first year with hairpinning, he bought Shelbourne-Reynolds stripper headers for the combine. The heads just take the heads off grain and leave straw behind.
“Combine efficiency goes way up and fuel consumption goes way down,” with the headers, Derek says. “We need standing stubble for better soil protection and less evaporation and we strip as many acres as we can every year.”
Axten uses standard John Deere rotary combines for harvesting all his crops, but has gone to large wire concaves that are easier to adjust to work on the farm’s different cropping systems.
“We pretty much always set the combine for the pulse crop — peas, lentil or chickpeas — and keep slowing the fan until we start to get a mess, then speed it back up a little. Then we check the drop pans and fine tune it from there,” he says.
“You need to go at the right speed to keep the combine full. There’s usually a happy place where we can get all the mustard or the flax, or whatever it is, in the combine and do a good job of thrashing out the pulses.”
Separating crops is a job that often spills over into the fall and winter, but the task is a lot more efficient since Axten went to a mobile cleaner on a trailer which has a scalper aspirator, a set of indents, an air-screen cleaner machine and a gravity table.
Crops are separated cleanly enough to be used for pedigree seed in some cases, he says. A permanent, indoor cleaning facility is currently in the works as the diversity of the farm’s crops has opened up new, value-added marketing opportunities for cover crop seed, forage peas and supplying oat seed to a gluten-free food facility.
Efficiencies with CTF
Controlled-traffic farming (CTF) has been another important element to the farm system that Axten added 4 years ago.
“Originally, I want my soil structure fixed, better water infiltration and for my roots to grow better — all those things that no-till diversity was trying to give us,” says Axten. “The other guys who use controlled traffic were seeing a lot of the same things, so I thought that it would build on what we were already doing.”
Axten’s CTF system is set up on 30-foot tramlines with all equipment adapted to this spacing or multiples up to 120 feet. He’s found the most useful part of CTF is the possibility of doing new things like relay seeding his cover crops with minimal disturbance.
He’s also seen a big improvement in water infiltration in the cropping areas that are no longer compacted by heavy equipment.
Another positive change is an 80% reduction in inputs. He uses minimal herbicides, no fungicides and last year only bought 60 tons of urea fertilizer, using carbon-based compost teas and extracts that are produced on the farm.
“For intercrops like flax and chickpeas we use no fertility,” says Axten. “We started doing trials in 2015 with reduced and zero rates of phosphate starter and saw no difference in yield, so we just cut it out.”
More Productivity per Acre
Derek says overall farm productivity is up and Axten uses Land Equivalency Ratio (LER) metric to quantify how much.
LER provides a score based on how much yield per acre is achieved through intercropping. As an example, if a farmer seeded 100 acres of lentils and 100 acres of mustard, the LER would be one. If the farmer seeds 200 acres of lentils and mustard as an intercrop he might get 1.25 LER, because of the combined yield of the two crops on the same acres.
Axten usually averages between 1.25 and 1.35 LER but has achieved more than 1.5 LER on chickpea/flax intercrops.
Since 2011, Axten has intercropped a number of crops, such as canola and peas, flax and lentils, and flax and chickpeas. Most are seeded together in the same row using a 60-foot John Deere 1890 air drill on 10-inch spacings.
There are still challenges with the short growing season and consistent lack of moisture, but the resilience of Axten’s system becomes apparent during a drought year like 2017.
“We had one of the worst recorded droughts in 100 years and still grew a crop on ninth-tenths of an inch of rain,” he says. “People always talk about the rate of return on X input, but for every dollar you spend you need to get that back and we didn’t have to get it back because we didn’t spend it. Reduced risk has been a huge thing for us.”
Unexpectedly, Axten says he’s struggling to maintain residue in his fields, partly due to limited rainfall and because of improved soil biology.
“When we stopped using fungicides we couldn’t keep residue on the surface because the soil microbes want to eat and you need to provide a live root to satisfy it, or it’s going to start consuming old carbon, residue and old roots,” he says. “I’m trying to get our cover crops bigger so we can grow more residue and have live roots in the ground longer.”
With the short growing season, it’s hard to achieve maximum growth on fall-seeded cover crops, but Axten’s working on a solution. He’s adapted a new seeder to work on 15-inch row spacings so he can relay-seed cover crops earlier in the summer into growing crop stands.
“As a cover crop gets bigger it produces more biomass and the carbon/nitrogen rates increase. We’ve been trying this on 10-inch spacings for the last three years, but our crop canopies so fast that the cover crop doesn’t get any light.
“On 15-inch spacings we should get enough light penetration to start a second crop.”
Soil Biology the Focus
Tannis Axten does much of the soil analysis on the farm, which includes annual Solvita tests that assess biological, chemical and physical traits that indicate healthy soil function.
Organic matter in the soil has increased by 1% over the past 10 years, and the Axtens add nutrient cycling has increased and mycorrhizal colonization has improved to around 90%.
“When we first looked through the microscope and realized how broken our system was, I’ve never had anything make it more real,” Tannis says. “The soil has become the backbone of our operation.
“Not knowing the biology in your soil is like farming without knowing your bank balance. We’re trying to build resiliency in the soil and restore the soil food web to ensure this resource is here for generations to come.”