Soil Health Restoration on the High Plains, Part 2

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 2: Jay's Results

Results from Compost Extract Applications   

The results we have seen so far applying it are, anywhere this gets applied has a huge rhizo-sheet – rhizo- means root, so basically the root system and soil that attaches to the root system. I have a skeptical neighbor that I finally got him to try some of this stuff, and he did two quarters of ground. He said, “I’m kicking myself that we did test plots this year.” I said, “what do you mean?” He goes, “I shouldn’t have tested, I should have done everything. The two fields that we did compost extract, the root system is three times as aggressive. We’re doing it on everything next year, everything will get compost extract on the seeds, it was just foolish of me to not do it. It was not that expensive, you’ve been showing me pictures for years,” or at least since 2020. Seeing my skeptical neighbor going from laughing at me and making fun of me to being 100% on board is really cool. So that’s what we see with seed treatment.

For in furrow extract, the first year I wanted to cut back on nitrogen by at least half and eliminate phosphorus. I got my dad convinced about the phos but he didn’t want to reduce nitrogen at all. So I said, let’s do three test strips on the field. The agronomist recommended 180 pounds of nitrogen, so that’s what we did on all of our acres except for these test strips, and then they recommended 40 pounds of phos. Dad agreed that we didn’t need any phos, so only this five acre test strip got phos. Test strip A got 180 pounds of nitrogen and 40 pounds of phos. Test strip B got no nitrogen, no phos, and eight gallons in furrow of compost extract at two pounds an acre, and test strip C got 90 pounds of nitrogen, no phosphorus, and eight gallons of extract in furrow. The yields were 238 bushels an acre corn on test strip A, and test strip B was 200 bushels an acre. When we broke down the math it was still more profitable to do a full rate of nitrogen and 40 pounds of phosphorus than to completely eliminate nitrogen and phos altogether, but it was still cool to see the growth with no synthetics. In my mind I was hoping for that, but just seeing it happen was like, how in the crap is this possible? I know what the scientists are telling me, I know what the research is saying, but just seeing it yourself and knowing I didn’t apply any nitrogen and that corn’s amazing – I still stand in awe of what it did.

Test strip C was the real response. It raised 242 bushels an acre – four bushels an acre more with half the nitrogen and no phosphorus. From there, the next year we cut all our nitrogen rates in half to where we were only applying 100 pounds of nitrogen on everything on our irrigated land. We typically apply 100 pounds of nitrogen on our dryland corn, we cut that back to 50 pounds on everything. Nothing got phosphorus applied in 2022; in 2021, only our wheat round got phosphorus. We’re now two years in on no phosphorus on any of our fall crops, and our milo and corn haven’t had phosphorus in two years.


Tangible Plant and Soil Health Improvements

As far as noticing less pest or less disease pressure – I know Kent Hamilton out of Montana has sprayed compost extract on wheat for three years in a row, I think that was from 2017 to 2020, and they never sprayed for stripe rust. Three years in a row, Johnson-Su compost, not spraying for stripe rust, and every single neighbor sprayed for stripe rust all three years. If you think about that, it’s about $25 an acre to spray for stripe rust - $25 an acre on 2000 acres is a lot of money. So extracts on a foliar are saving people a ton of money. As far as what we’ve seen, we sprayed for spider mites on one field, and I guess this is more toward cover crops, but we interseeded cover crops from one field, we didn’t interseed cover crops on the other field, two irrigated circles right next to each other, and one had spider mites and the other one didn’t. So whether it’s cover crops or compost extract, when you’re getting the biology and you’re getting the plants healthier, they’re able to withstand pests because pests don’t want to attack them. Pests only want to attack unhealthy plants. If you want to watch the YouTube video done by John Kempf called “Why insects won’t attack a healthy plant,” it gets into detail about the health of the plant. So all these extracts that we’re applying to the plants are going to make them healthier and more disease and pest resistant.

Since we’ve been doing the Johnson-Su, I saw our first earthworm come back in 2020 in our irrigated circles. So in two years of doing no anhydrous, no tillage, and cover crops, we started to see our first one, but the boom of the population came back with the extracts. We now have 50 earthworms on one irrigated circle in less than one square foot of soil. An article I found online that was from the 90s said 24 earthworms per square foot is worth $30 an acre in inputs – potassium, phosphorus, nitrogen.  

It’s amazing to think of what we’re doing in terms of increasing the soil infiltration. If you watch the YouTube video I have called “The coolest thing I’ve seen in the drought,” I went into my field and my neighbor’s field and just document how much better we’re infiltrating water on our irrigated circles compared to theirs. They have standing water on theirs, and my boots sink into five inches of mud with standing water. On my field, I’m walking on top of the ground, there’s no standing water and I can take my finger and stick it into the ground so you can see that you can penetrate the ground, but there’s structure and I can walk around on top of it, it’s like a sponge. So just seeing the difference in the soil structure, the root mass on our corn compared to our neighbors, all those things, you just know you’re doing the right thing when you see those things with the eyeball test of evidence of fixing your water cycle. Where his circle passes the low point it’s right by the road and water runs onto the road, his water cycle’s completely broken. And that’s the way most farms are now in the United States, their water cycle’s broken. They’ll get an inch of rain, and a week later they’ll show drought stress because they didn’t infiltrate any of the water from that rain. We’ve got to be doing things like applying compost extract that brings the biology back that supports the life of the plant, that creates aggregates, that builds the soil structure, that increases the infiltration in our soils. If we don’t do that, we’re going to be in a really bad spot in agriculture in 50 years. We’re already in a bad spot in my opinion.

Cost savings are tough to quantify because you know you are reducing your nitrogen by half, and you can do the math on how much I actually saved on nitrogen. I kind of toss around, between nitrogen and phosphorus it’s close to a quarter million dollars for us. But I know we’re seeing a bit of a yield drag possibly. I’m not doing a ton of test strips on our dryland, partially because I don’t care. I know we’re saving so much money that for me, I don’t care.



Continued Improvements    

I’m going to keep trying to improve on those results. We’ll fertigate on our irrigation systems, we’ll cut back other applications and do fertigation. I would like to see us do one field where we don’t apply any fertilizers anymore, and do cash crop / cover crop or cash crop / cash crop and just see how it responds. I know a guy in North Dakota, his name’s Rick Bieber. They did three years in a row of no synthetic fertilizers, and by the fourth year they started to see the yields come back to where they had it before, and he’s not doing any kind of applications of extracts, at least I don’t think he is. He’s been doing no-till and cover crops for years.

I have one field where we did 25 pounds of nitrogen and 50 pounds of nitrogen on half the field to see if we see any kind of yield drag from 25 to 50 on our dryland. The key with that is, if you want to reduce weed pressure, you got to continue to reduce nitrogen. Synthetic nitrogen is just going to feed your weed pressure because the pigweed and kochia love synthetic nitrogen. Those are the weeds we fight out here, and those two plants are non-mycorrhizal. So if you’re adding mycorrhizal fungus when you’re doing your extraction process, it’ll make a difference. Even Johnson-Su promotes mycorrhizal fungal life once it’s in the soil. These Johnson-Sus are full of saprophytic fungi, not mycorrhizal because mycorrhizal has to have a root, but Dr. Johnson tested roots of a field. Before Johnson-Su was applied, no mycorrhizal, afterwards there were 23 different species of mycorrhizal fungus in that field, just from adding the Johnson-Su to that field. It’s really amazing what they’ve been able to see.

The next thing I’m planning on doing that’s different is, I’m going to do some new experiments with how we build our bioreactors. We’re going to make them a little bit taller to see if we can get a little bit more product in the end, or if it just causes it to be more anaerobic because you’re stacking too much on top as it breaks down. We’re going to be doing different tests as far as foliar applications, we’re going to be applying more foliar on our wheat and doing more applications on our corn seed. I don’t have enough compost to do everything, so most of my stuff when I make it, it’ll be a third my compost, a third Soil Works, and a third Fed N Happy.

To be continued in Part 3...

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