By Jayci Cave
“The important thing to us is not how long we have been here, but the fact that we have been able to stay here because we have adapted to changing farming practices and conditions.”
Randall Bankhead is the fourth generation of his family to farm near Champion, Texas, since they came to West Texas in 1906. Today he still resides on the same land his ancestors did, and for him, farming goes beyond just caring for the cotton plants themselves. He and his family have a passion for caring for the land and soil to ensure that they truly are leaving it better than they found it.
Randall and his wife, Mary, have two children, Scott and Laura. Laura is married to Chase Schuchard and they have one son, Troy, with another on the way. Mary said farming was in Randall’s blood and was what he was determined to do. Randall hoped to someday get the opportunity to pass it on to the next generation of his family.
“When Randall finished college and came back home there really wasn’t a way to join his family’s operation. We knew we had to start on our own,” Mary said. “It was hard, but we had lots of support and encouragement from his family. There wasn’t any alternative. Randall really didn’t want to consider a plan B so slowly and surely we have grown and been blessed in our efforts. After our children went off to college and chose careers off of the farm we began to consider the future of our family farm. We really wanted to pass our love for farming and the land to the next generation. When Chase and Laura decided to come back and be part of the operation it really was an answer to a prayer. Their return has been a rejuvenation to the operation in many ways.”
Today, Randall works closely with Mary and son-in-law, Chase, to manage almost 5,000 acres of land.
“I started farming on my own in 1984 and at that time everything was conventional tillage,” Randall said. “In the last five years I have started to realize there is more of an agronomic problem in farming instead of a mechanical problem. Meaning in 1984 all we had was a plow, contour farming and terraces, and that is how we controlled erosion.”
Since then, his operation has evolved to be more focused on conservation practices that still prevent soil erosion, but also conserve water and improve the health of the soil itself. Randall said when they started implementing no-till practices, he didn’t realize that that was only the tip of the iceberg to what conservation farming could accomplish.
“We have been pretty much no-till to extremely minimum till for 15 years,” Randall said. “But we got to the point that we didn’t think no-till was getting us where we wanted to be, so we started introducing crop rotations with wheat and a little corn. That still didn’t get us the results we wanted. Then two or three years ago we got really interested in trying cover crops and that has made the biggest change in our farming operation in recent years. It put the fun back in farming when we started doing cover crops along with the no till. It has made farming exciting again.”
Randall said they originally started planting cover crops to reduce the need to run a sand fighter or have to replant crops in the spring.
“That in itself is a good enough reason to do cover crops,” Randall said. “But then I guess we started learning about how cover crops along with no-till were working well with erosion, and how much life was added to the soil along with all the additional benefits that came with it. No longer do we look at soil as just a medium to grow cotton in, it is a living thing.”
One thing about conservation farming that Randall said has been a challenge is the fact that no-till and cover crop farming are much more management intense.
“It is more management intense because you are looking at six months, a year and a year and a half down the road in everything you do,” Randall said, “while adapting your management decisions according to the changes in weather conditions.”
While he does not do this for the recognition, Randall’s dedication to conservation and soil health earned him the honor of being named the 2018 Texas Soil and Water Conservation Board Outstanding Conservation Farmer.
“It is very humbling to receive this award. My intent was not recognition, but a better farming practice,” Randall said. “I am doing this because I think it is the right thing to do for the soil and the environment. The timing for implementing this new practice is right because of technology and new research that is available to us. We are directing our farming operation to sustainable production and regeneration of the soil.
“You’ve heard the old cliché that you want to leave the land in better shape than you found it for future generations, and that’s really true,” Randall said. “That’s really what our goal is. It goes back to the fact that we will be more cost effective and efficient farmers going forward if our focus shifts to soil health. We will be able to sustain this much longer, and it really is good for the land.”
While they do not yet know exactly how much increasing the health of the soil can improve their production, Chase said he is excited and curious to see what the future could hold.
“This land has been plowed for 100 years. It is kind of at a production level of a bare minimum,” Chase said. “From a production perspective, we don’t really know how good it could be. I think it will be interesting doing this over a span of 15 or 20 years and increasing infiltration rates, organic matter and fertility – what could dryland do if it had optimal conditions?”
Another important part of their operation is who Randall, Mary and Chase choose to do business with. They are members of their local co-op gin, Central Rolling Plains Co-op, as well as regional co-ops PCCA and PYCO Industries. Randall said the main reasons he chooses to be members of cooperatives are ownership and transparency.
“The number one reason I choose to be a co-op member is I get to retain ownership in my cotton through more segments of the cotton process, like
the warehouse, the crushing of the oilseed and the marketing. It is just the smart thing to do because you get to share in the profits, if there are profits, and there usually are, and there are dividends later on,” Randall said. “That’s a big plus. The second reason is transparency. I love the fact that it is a co-op, it’s open for everyone to see, and we all get the same fair price for our cotton regardless of if you are a small or a large farmer, you’re a land owner that’s got 50 acres or 500 acres. Everyone gets the same treatment, and it is fair.”
Another reason Randall said he enjoys doing business with co-ops is the people who make up the businesses.
“I am pretty passionate about my farming operation,” Randall said, “and it is nice to see that my ginner and the marketing people are just as passionate about what they do. It is just a good relationship when everybody cares about their segment and when you put it all together, it is a nice fit.”
Chase and Randall also feel strongly about the importance of farmers sharing their story. Chase said there is a misconception that all farms are big corporations and not family owned, which can lead to negative views of the industry.
“I think it is important for farmers to share their story,” Chase said. “Farming is and always will be family-owned businesses. When people understand that, they come around and are more accepting of farming.”
Randall echoed Chase’s comment and further emphasized the need to shift the public’s perception of agriculture.
“We know we have to take care of the land, and the land is going to take care of us in return,” Randall said. “If we can tell that story to the general public out there, they will know that it is in our best interest to take care of the land and to be good stewards of the environment, the soil, the water, and everything we have been left in charge of at this moment in time.”
While caring for the land is a top priority, above all else Randall and Mary try to stay grounded in their faith.
“It is important that we try to keep God in our operation, and doing that means doing things that glorify Jesus,” Randall said. “We want to be good neighbors. We want to be good community members. We want to take good care of our landlords, and we just want to be good stewards of the land. It is rewarding to realize that we are caring for God’s creation, and we want to leave it in good shape.
Keeping It Grounded: Let’s Talk Cover Crops
How are cover crops incorporated into your operation?
Randall – One practice that we have started is after we get our wheat harvested in June, we will come back in August and plant this diverse cover crop that will stay green and growing all through the fall and winter. It will eventually winter kill about February. This past year, it was actually wet, and we weren’t able to get our cotton harvested in a timely manner so we didn’t get the wheat planted. So this year what we are going to do is go in here in April or May and plant our diverse cover crop on those acres that should have been in wheat and just build up our soil getting ready for our cotton crop in 2020. We obviously don’t have cotton on every acre, but when we do plant cotton we want to make a crop. So that’s why we can justify the rotation and the soil health principles and practices. It’s because when we do plant an expensive cotton crop, we actually want to make a crop. That’s kind of how we evolved and right now if we aren’t going to have cotton on the ground, we are going to have a cover crop growing on it. The ultimate goal with cover crops is to increase your organic matter. If you increase your organic matter you’ve done so many things. We plant 8, 10, 12 different species when we plant a cover crop. This is a unique mixture which contains legumes, radishes, forage sorghum, sunflowers, spring oats and other species to help them improve the soil and reach their goals.
How do you increase soil health?
Randall – One thing that I have learned from cover crops is the key is to keep a living, breathing root in the soil as many months of the year as you possibly can. That will increase your soil life and your soil health. As long as the root is living, the plant is taking carbon out of the atmosphere and putting it into the soil, which is the ultimate goal. If 70 percent of farmers were using cover crops, we would produce a carbon neutral footprint, meaning cover crops would take as much carbon out of the atmosphere as fossil fuels are putting into the atmosphere. Fifteen years ago our organic matter in this area was .5 percent to 1 percent in the sand and 1.5 percent in our blacklands. We are doing soil samples now, and we are up a little over 2 percent in the sand and 3 percent in our blacklands through cover crops, rotation and no till. That’s huge. That’s our goal to increase organic matter, because it is the holy grail.
What benefits do you see from cover crops?
Mary – First of all your soil can hold that moisture. If it is holding the moisture, it isn’t running off.
Randall – For every one percent you increase organic matter in the soil, you increase water holding capacity by one acre-inch of water.
Chase – The runoff water coming out is a lot cleaner and doesn’t have all the soil and sediment in it.
Randall – Everybody thinks when you start doing cover crops that your weeds are going to get crazy. It is actually just the opposite. If you get a good cover crop out there you can forget about chemicals, herbicides and stuff because the cover crop will choke all the weeds out. So you know our goal this year is when we plant our cover crop in April, if we can get up a good stand we won’t have to touch that land again until late fall. Then it will just be a couple of burn downs with a sprayer.
How does conservation farming affect your water management?
Randall – A typical tilled field will have an infiltration rate of a half inch to one inch per hour. We are having an infiltration rate of five and
six inches per hour. So, when you get a big rain event we are going to capture all the moisture and keep it for July, August, or September when it is so dry. When you increase your organic matter, the soil holds more water. We have increased our organic matter and this is really something I am really proud of, over one percent to 1.5 percent, which means that come July and August we will have an extra inch to inch and a half of moisture available to our crop just because we have better organic matter and healthier soils. At the end of the day that’s what’s going to keep us in business. What happens is you’ll be at a moisture deficit in the winter and through the spring. Maybe three inches of moisture deficit as opposed to a plowed field, but when it starts raining and it usually does in April and May, you’ll recover that because of the infiltration rate is so much better. Then if you continue to get rain you just start piling on and keeping it.
Why are cover crops management intense??
Mary – Randall made this quote to me before: “Farming with the cover crops can make a good farmer better and it can make a bad farmer worse.” It really does come down to management.
Randall – I heard that once and that is such a true statement. It is another tool in our toolbox that can really make you a better farmer, but if your timing is wrong and you don’t terminate correctly or miss a step, there’s a lot of things that can happen and you will have a worse crop. So, it is a challenge and we are still learning. I think on that quote of a good farmer better and a bad farmer worse, Chase and I are somewhere in the middle. We are trying to figure out where we fit in that. That’s really being honest. Sometimes we do good things and then sometimes we mess up.
Chase – When we plant our cover crops to keep the sand from blowing there is a fine line between spraying it too early and not having enough to block the sand and spraying it too late and running out of moisture.