SHAWNEE – Russ Jackson of Kiowa County has done more field work with his mind and less with his tractor in recent years – and the use of cool season cover crops is a part of that.

Russ and his wife, Jani Jackson, were the 2018 recipients of the Leopold Conservation Award in Oklahoma. Sand County Foundation, the nation’s leading voice for private conservation, created the Leopold Conservation Award to inspire American landowners by recognizing exceptional farmers, ranchers and foresters. The prestigious award is named in honor of renowned conservationist Aldo Leopold.

Russ Jackson will be among the many speakers featured at the Cool Season Cover Crop Soil Health Day Dec. 6 at the Citizen Potawatomi Nation Cultural Heritage Center, 1899 S. Gordon Cooper Drive, Shawnee. Registration is at 8 a.m., with the event beginning at 9 a.m. with a welcome offered by Linda Capps, vice chairman of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation.

Later in the program, Greg Scott and Blane Stacy of the Oklahoma Conservation Commission will discuss “Soil Health Benefits.” Carla Smith, Pottawatomie County OSU Extension Educator Horticulture/4-H Youth Development, will talk about “Soil Health/Cover Crops for Gardens,” and those attending will receive information about “OKIE811 – New Requirements for Farmers/Ranchers.”

In the afternoon, Scott, Stacy and Jackson will provide presentations with the Rainfall Simulator/Soil Health Trailer, and they will discuss soil health in the field and will look at cool-season cover crops in the field.

Early in the day, Jackson will talk about the “Benefits and Purpose of Cover Crops.”

In 2006, Jackson’s family operation was clean-till, 1,800 acres of wheat, 600 acres of grass, 800 stockers using wheat pasture and grass seasonally, no cows, three tractors, five tillage tools, a planter, a drill and a combine.

In 2019, that same operation consists of 2,200 acres of crop rotation of 10 or more different crops, 1,235 acres of grass (two-thirds native, one-third introduced), 140 purchased stockers, 140 raised stockers, 190 cows, two tractors, a planter, an air seeder, a sprayer and a combine.

The Jacksons’ ranch is located on prairie at the base of the Wichita Mountains in southern Oklahoma where the summers are hot, the winds are often strong and the rains that do come tend to come by the bucket rather than tenths of an inch. How do you manage such conditions? This is where the thinking really came into play, as Jackson realized conservation practices were needed on their highly erodible soils for the present as well as the future.

The Jacksons began converting their cropland acres to a no-till system. The crop residue on the land provided increased habitat for wildlife. They soon noticed improved soil health, and reduced wind and water erosion. The switch to no-till also reduced their fuel and labor costs.

Developing a conservation plan with the Natural Resources Conservation Service allowed them to access the Environmental Quality Incentive Program. That federal program’s positive impacts convinced them to enter the Conservation Stewardship Program in 2011. Its goals included brush management, prescribed grazing plans and planting cover crops.

The Jacksons found that planting canola as a cover crop helped suppress weeds in wheat fields. And it could be planted with equipment they already owned. Wheat yields increased the following year. It was a very thought-provoking moment for Jackson, who wondered if adding more crop diversity would lead to further productivity.

Adding milo, sesame and cowpeas to their rotation of cotton, wheat, corn and soybeans gave their soil year-round nourishment from a variety of root types and nutrients. The soil’s organic matter increased dramatically between 2015 and 2017, allowing it to hold more moisture between rains. A nearly constant crop canopy also provides habitat for small animals, insects and pollinators.

The Jacksons’ diversified ranch was more profitable and better for the natural resources on the land, while requiring less labor. Despite all this progress, they felt something was still missing. So, the thought process continued.

The Jacksons knew that when managed properly, cattle can stimulate the same plant growth. Grazing cattle press seeds into the soil with their hooves and spread their waste on the land as a natural fertilizer. So, they introduced a herd of beef cattle to graze the ranch’s grassland and crop fields. As was stated in the announcement of the Leopold Conservation Award, “It’s the latest example of their efforts to benefit the ecosystem by mimicking its natural processes.”

Another example of changes brought on by conservation is that of Lance Coker of Shawnee. Several years back, Coker, owner/operator of Circle C Farm and Ranch, came to a realization similar to Russ Jackson. Coker and his wife, Katie, currently operate 1,500 acres in Pottawatomie County and have 125 head in a cow-calf operation. Traditionally, Circle C’s focus was on a basic row crop rotation and producing high-quality Bermuda and Alfalfa hay; feeding cattle grain and high-quality protein hay for roughage in the winter for supplementation.

In the past few years, they have shifted their operation from traditional farming practices to more of a holistic approach with goals of improving soil conservation, soil health and selling a healthier end product straight off the farm. Being an operator for Citizen Potawatomi Nation has proved beneficial to Coker’s endeavors. Seeing the need for practices such as this, CPN has helped Lance bring his vision to light and promote such practices with agricultural sustainability in mind. 

Coker currently has programs of this nature on 30% of his acreage but hopes to move it to 100% of his operation in the next few years.

Coker will give a local Pottawatomie County account of putting such practices into action and the trials one would expect to face and the great reward and benefits that can been seen down the road.

Please RSVP by Wednesday. If reasonable accommodation is needed, please notify when you RSVP to the Shawnee Conservation District Secretary, shawneecd@conservation.ok.gov, (405) 275-5220, by Wednesday.

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