By Laura Lengnick, founder of Cultivating Resilience, LLC

This story is excerpted from Resilient Agriculture: Cultivating Food Systems for a Changing Climate (New Society Publishers, 2015).  Resilient Agriculture explores climate risk, resilience, and the future of food through the adaptation stories of 25 award-winning sustainable farmers and ranchers growing fruits, vegetables, nuts, grains, and livestock across America.

Russ and Kathy Zenner have been farming in the Palouse Region of Idaho, near the Washington–Idaho border in Genesee, for more than forty years. Located about a hundred miles south of Spokane, Washington, Zenner Family Farms includes ground that was first farmed by Russ’s grandfather in 1935. Kathy and Russ joined the family business in 1970 and took over management of the farm fourteen years later. In 2012, Russ’s cousin Clint Zenner and his wife Alicia took on some management responsibilities, becoming the fourth generation to carry on the farming tradition of the Zenner family in Idaho.

Russ manages 2,800 acres of dryland direct-seeded crops in a three-year rotation of winter wheat, spring grains and spring broadleaf crops. In addition to those three crops, garbanzos, lentils, peas, oilseeds and grass seed are the farm’s main cash crops. Within each year of the rotation, Russ has a variety of crop types to choose from. Russ says that he considers a number of issues when choosing a specific crop for each phase of his crop rotation, but the overall goal is to increase the yield potential of the following crop. Over the years, the Zenner Farm crop rotation has shifted to emphasize spring-seeded crops to curtail both weed and disease problems in the winter wheat crop. Other important factors in crop selection include soil type, potential markets, seasonal workloads, and weather.

Changes in seasonal rainfall patterns and concerns about overall performance of his no-till production system have made Russ think about redesigning the crop rotation to increase both crop diversity and the proportion of fall-seeded broadleaf crops. “Years ago, we adjusted our rotations to reduce peak disease pressure in these no-till cropping systems,” Russ explains. “We’re planting less winter wheat than we did twenty years ago. Where it used to be 50 percent of our seeded acreage was winter wheat, we’re now down to about a third. That means two-thirds of the farm is seeded in the spring, and that’s a problem if it’s too wet.” But this plan carries some uncertainties as well, because the drier conditions in late summer and fall complicate fall planting. According to Russ, “The late summer and early fall have been drier compared to the first half of my career. That’s made it somewhat challenging to get good crop establishment on fall-seeded crops. “

As weather challenges increase, Russ appreciates the flexibility of the diverse crop rotation he has developed for the farm. “Say, for instance, a wet spring has delayed planting, we will maybe cut back on the garbanzo acres and plant more peas or lentils instead,” Russ says. “Garbanzos are the longest-maturing summer crop we have in our mix, so we can run into harvest risks in September if the crop is planted too late. Peas and lentils mature more quickly. Same way with spring grain – spring barley matures much more quickly than spring wheat. So if we need to, we can plant barley instead of wheat. And we can select from different maturity dates within the barley to fit the time available for production of the crop.”

Russ is also interested to see if there are diversity benefits to the reintegration of livestock on the farm. The newest members of the management team, Clint and Alicia, have introduced a beef cattle herd that they manage with intensive grazing of cover crops. Russ sees potential soil quality benefits of grazing cover crops, both from the additional crop diversity and the addition of manure to croplands. Although the cattle have only been on the farm one year, Russ says that the soil structure under the grazed cover crops has improved noticeably. He is looking forward to finding out how these changes in soil quality affect the yield and quality of subsequent grain crops.


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