Editor’s note: This is the first in what will be an ongoing series that highlights the work farmers and ranchers are doing to adapt their land and operations to the effects of climate change. For more information on climate change and agriculture, check out NFU’s new climate website here.
April was unseasonably cold in Central Oklahoma—but unseasonable weather is becoming the new normal here.
At Pope Hilltop Farms in Kingfisher County, some 70 miles northwest of Oklahoma City, brothers Steve and Clay Pope have noticed changes in local weather patterns, part of the broader effects of climate change in the region. Spring rains have shifted to early summer, and storms have increased in intensity—“toad stranglers,” Steve calls them, adding that “we don’t get little rains anymore.” Drier autumns and more frequent drought are increasing fuel loads for wildfires. Then this winter brought huge temperature swings; highs in the 80s and 90s around Christmas, followed by unseasonably warm weather in March, and now this latest cold spell.
But the Popes, who raise winter wheat and cattle across about 2,300 acres, are better able to handle these new weather trends than others in the region. In 2005, the farm transitioned to no-till production and they have been working to build the health of their soil ever since.
“I wish we had started earlier,” said Steve. “Yeah, we are 15 years in, but I’ve seen guys who have been doing it 25, 30 years, and I’m amazed at where their soil is.”
Steve, who serves as the president of the Kingfisher County Farmers Union, and his son run the farm full time while Clay, a former member of the Oklahoma House of Representatives and executive director of the Oklahoma Association of Conservation Districts, works with farmers to address natural resource challenges on their land and consults for the USDA Southern Plains Climate Hub. The Pope family first came to Oklahoma in the land run of 1892 when the federal government opened parts of Indian Territory to homesteaders. The family bought a couple of claims west of what is now the town of Loyal. The original homestead is still in the family, and they still have two centennial quarter sections. All the land they farm is theirs except for one quarter that they rent—a share cropping agreement they have held for decades. Steve and Clay are the fifth or sixth generation on the land depending on which side of the family tree you look at, and Steve’s son, his three granddaughters, and Clay’s two youngest children are now also involved.
About 99 percent of Kingfisher County is farmland and it ranks 11th of Oklahoma’s 77 counties for agricultural sales, according to USDA. Here, cattle and wheat are the two major commodities and the average farm size is 620 acres, 40 percent larger than the 443-acre national average.
The Popes’ focus on soil health came about in part by luck. When they were looking to replace some machinery in 2005, they were able to take advantage of a state effort to get USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) money to farmers looking to go to reduced or no-till land management systems. Instead of paying out of pocket to fix up what they had, NRCS Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) funding covered most of a new sprayer and a no-till drill.
“We started from the seat of our pants,” Steve said. “It was either change or invest in more iron [machinery]. It seemed to me that it was kind of ridiculous to invest in [more machinery] that constantly deteriorates while you see the land kind of deteriorate in front of your eyes… We were looking for some way where we could improve the soil, lower our herbicide use and maybe get a little bit of gravy through grazing.”
And over time, that’s what has happened. From their first switch to no-till farming, Steve and Clay have since added cover crops—what’s now a blend of 17 different legumes, grasses and other plants that are chosen for deep roots to store water or to fix nitrogen or phosphorous—which they clear through managed grazing of their roughly 150 cow herd and other techniques. Winter wheat is planted straight into the stubble.
The changes to the land and their operation due to these management practices have been significant. The soil on their land doesn’t run off in heavy rains and their land has become more resilient to drought. Meanwhile, deer, birds, and other wildlife have returned to the farm, and the soil is rich with worms, an indicator of microbial activity. The focus on soil health has also helped to reduce the farm’s expenses as Steve and Clay have been able to cut the amount of herbicides, pesticides, and other inputs while maximizing productivity.
“At the bottom line you’ve got to make a profit, and I think we are on the right track here in improving our bottom line all the time,” Steve said. “We are sustainable, and our land is going to be there. It’s a treasure.”
That’s not to say things have always been easy since the farm shifted to no-till. Like many farms, initially there was a dip in the productivity of the land—though it eventually rebounded. Then, when they made a first run at using cover crops in 2013, they found that while the sun hemp the weeds down and fixed some nitrogen in the soil, it was too tough for the cattle to eat. The experience was so bad that Steve and Clay didn’t plant a cover crop the following year. Now a cover crop mix is applied across the farm.
“The first three years you are going to think ‘why did I do this!’ But it is going to get better,” Steve said of his experience. “It does take time.”
While getting started can be difficult, resources through local USDA Service Centers, local conservation districts, and regional organizations like No-Till on the Plains will make it easier, Steve said.
“Find somebody that’s done it already and follow and see where they made the wrong choices and what worked right for them,” he said.
Steve and Clay are confident that the land management practices they have put in place will set the farm and ranch up for long-term environmental and economic sustainability. Building soil health is the best way to harden agriculture to extreme weather events and other effects of climate change, Clay said.
“People are realizing that we have taken things for granted,” Clay said, pointing to the long-term productivity of the land. “The edge of that knife is a little sharper than people realized and it doesn’t take much to push things over from one side to the other.”