Soil Health Restoration on the High Plains, Part 1

Interview with Jay Young


Jay Young and his father, Jerry, own and operate Young Red Angus in Tribune, Kansas. Since discovering the Johnson-Su composting process, Jay has been producing and apply compost extracts on 8,000 acres of corn, wheat, and milo, as well as running cattle on cover crops. Jay shares his knowledge and discoveries, as well as conversations with kindred spirits, on his popular YouTube channel, and has been invited to speak at conferences throughout the Plains region.

This interview will be posted in essay format in three sections:

  1. Johnson-Su Compost: Why and How
  2. Jay’s Results
  3. Resources and Recommendations


Section 1: Johnson-Su Compost: Why and How

 Jay’s Journey  

I got into what I call “soil health principles” or regenerative agriculture in 2016. I saw a YouTube video from Gabe Brown on grazing cattle on cover crops, and my dad and I had always talked about how cool it would be to have a cow / calf operation, but we never had grass to be able to do that, so when I watched that video I was on board. I knew my dad would think I’m crazy so I did a ton of research. After a month of watching YouTube videos and reading books I laid out my plan for what I was going to do – I was going to raise cattle on cover crops. He thought I was nuts, and said, “You go do that on your farm ground,” – his mindset was that this was going to fail colossally and you’ll realize, it’s great to do new things, it just isn’t going to work. And then after a year it was profitable enough, and he was doing enough work, that the best thing was to sell him half of Young Red Angus – we became Young Red Angus LLC a year into it, and that’s what we are now.

That’s the way it was from 2016 until 2020. We would grow a cover crop on about 25% of our acres and graze cattle on it, and the next year we would do a cash crop. And we experimented with a whole bunch of stuff like just doing cover crops and then a cash crop without grazing it, and that really just wasn’t profitable. Not that it wasn’t the right thing to do because you’re healing your soil and it’s definitely what needs to be done, but the key to getting soil health principles to work is that you have to find a way to be profitable.

At the time, I only cared about regenerative agriculture because it allowed me to raise cattle on cover crops. I didn’t really care about the science, it made me feel overwhelmed, so I didn’t really apply myself to learn it. But at the High Plains No-Till Conference in 2020, I heard Dr. Christine Jones say that you have to eliminate phosphorus to get where you need to go soil health-wise – because phosphorus hinders root exudate development, and if you don’t have root exudates you can’t build aggregates, and aggregates are necessary to build soil structure, and increase water infiltration, and heal the water cycle that’s so broken within our soils. When she said that, I realized I was in a lot of trouble because we were really phosphorus-dependent and even with doing cover crops we hadn’t made sense of eliminating phosphorus.

At the same conference, I heard Dr. David Johnson speak about the Johnson-Su process, and I knew that was the ticket to being able to get free from phosphorus applications. He spoke about the dangers of phosphorus and how this farm they had been working with eliminated their phosphorus and dropped their nitrogen by 85% - they only applied 15% of the nitrogen that they had normally applied, and that was the most profitable response that they had. They lost a little bit on yield, but they had saved so much on input costs that the little yield drag they had didn’t outweigh the huge benefits.


Applying Soil Science  

Phosphorus has a negative charge to it, so when you put it in your soils, it wants to bond with something that has a positive charge, and in our soils it’s calcium. So as soon as you put down phosphorus, it’s immediately tied up with calcium. We have high calcium soils in my area, so 85% of your phosphorus is tied up immediately. In our soils we have 1,200 pounds of phosphorus in this one field in our soil, it’s tied up with calcium. To get 1,200 pounds of phosphorus, I would have to apply 5,000 pounds of MESZ. We applied 40 pounds of MESZ a year – that means I have 130 years’ worth of MESZ stockpiled in my soil. I don’t need to apply MESZ or any kind of phosphorus for years, because I’ve overapplied it. I can access it by the microbial life. It’s the same the thing with nitrogen – we have a lot of organic nitrogen tied up in our soil, and the plants can’t access it.

Because we tilled, we’ve destroyed the fungal community within our soils, and there’s not a lot of diversity in the bacteria. There’s a lot of bacteria, but there’s not a lot of different species, it’s just species that can thrive in tilled-up soils. Even if you do no-till, if you have a long fallow period, you don’t have the diversity of species. Monocultures don’t share micronutrients, so you don’t have a lot of habitat that’s supporting that microbial life. Those microbes, that we’re adding to the soil through the Johnson-Su compost, let’s just talk about mine specifically. The Johnson-Su that we did a BeCrop test on had 670 species of fungi and bacteria, so 365 species of bacteria, 305 species of fungi. Those 670 species, 83% of them made organic nitrogen in a form that a plant can take up, 49% made phosphorus plant-available, and 49% made potassium available.

That’s how it works. We have excess micronutrients in our soil. Everyone’s going to have to do their own Haney test and Total Nutrient Digestion tests that they can do through Regen Ag Lab to know what they have and what they don’t have in their soil. Getting compost amendments into your soil, whether it’s an extract or a tea or a slurry, and whether you’re applying it to the seed, or foliar, or in-furrow, you have to be getting the biology back into the soil, because the soils are so depleted. Farmers that are farming over 2,000 acres of corn, if you’re reducing your fertilizer bill by 100 pounds a year – that’s close to a quarter million dollars of nitrogen and phosphorus. So they can afford to buy an extractor that’s going to apply this compost for them and there’s plenty of places to get good compost that will do what our Johnson-Su compost did.


Building a Johnson-Su Bioreactor – Materials and Preparation

When I make a bioreactor, it takes about three hours to do the stack method that you can see on my YouTube channel, and it takes around an hour or less when we are just doing one out of an IBC tote. You can watch that process on my YouTube channel, and there are plenty of YouTube resources of people making different types of bioreactors. It takes a full year to break down.

As far as materials, I don’t have access to leaves out here in western Kansas because there’s literally no trees. I put on Facebook, “Does anyone have bagged leaves?” No one from my town commented, and everyone who was from a wetter area made fun of me saying, “Tell me you’re from western Kansas without telling me you’re from western Kansas!” I had fifteen comments like, “I’ve got bags and bags of leaves, come pick them up,” and then they’re like six hours away from me. The reason you want to use leaves is because they have a ton of protozoa, there’s a lot of different micro-organisms on leaves that are good to get into your Johnson-Su. So leaves are a great resource.

Wood is really great because it supports the fungal life within your Johnson-Su, so I recommend having one of the two of those in there as a carbon source. We have access to a lot of cornstalks, so we use cornstalks. You want to run them through a bale processor and maybe a wood chipper – a small, $300-$400 wood chipper you can get from Home Depot will do the trick. It takes a long time to break that down though, I would give yourself a couple hours to break down the cornstalks if you have to go that route. If you run wheat straw through a bale processor or any kind of straw like that from a cereal, that would work fine. Try to get something that hasn’t been sprayed with some kind of fungicide on the straw. But those are the materials that you want to use.

I recommend to people using 60-70% carbon source, then add manure in there as well. Dr. Johnson recommends materials the size of your thumb. I know someone who’s been very successful having 50% cow manure, then 25% bigger wood chips that are the size of your thumb or finger, bigger pieces, and then they grind up wood to where it’s fairly fine particles, and they mix it up with the manure. He makes really good compost doing that.

This is all time-consuming, so if you don’t have time to build one – I think anyone can and should build their own bioreactor even though it is time-consuming, it’s beneficial – there are multiple companies out there that can supply good compost: Fed N Happy, Soil Works, Colville Compost, Fungal Link LLC.


Compost Extraction and Application  

Right now I’m using the Bio-5 extractor to make extracts, but I’m planning to build my own extractor as well. We’re going to try to do all our wheat this year with a foliar application of our compost, Fed N Happy, and Soil Works compost mixed together. We do in-furrow applications on all of our row crops, two pounds of compost in eight gallons of extract per acre going in-furrow at planting. We’ve applied it to all of our seeds except our corn seeds, and this year we’re going to do it on our corn seed as well.

When I’m doing seed applications, I take a 250-gallon IBC tote, and I’ll dump in 35 pounds of compost, and then I’ll add 70-100 gallons of water and run an air hose through it, and I’ll make that slurry go onto the seed because I want bigger particles going onto the seed. So that’s how I treat wheat seed and all the seed. If I have extra extract during corn planting, I’ll take that and I’ll treat my milo seed with the extract, or I’ll take the slurry that’s left over after extracting and I’ll just treat those thick particles on my milo. That’s how I do seed treatments.

To be continued in Parts 2 and 3...

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