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US Farmer Interview - Mac Kincaid

US Farmer Interview - Mac Kincaid
Encouraging more life on his farm and 'farming smarter, not harder' are central to Mac's approach to agriculture
  • Mac found his way into regen ag by trying to improve the water holding capacity of his soil four years ago
  • Now his whole farming system is based around the principles of soil health and encouraging the carbon cycle
  • Identifying business opportunities to do things differently and create savings are the key to driving the profitability of his operation
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Farmer

Macauley (Mac) Kincaid

Location

Jasper, Missouri 

Farming Program

Farming program has a lot of diversity.  The two most common programs are: 

Three-year rotation of wheat, grazing crops, corn, cool-season cover crops, and soybeans.  

Four-year rotation of barley, lespedeza, cool-season cover crop, milo, cool-season cover crop, corn, cool-season cover crop, and soybeans. 

Farm Size (acres)

600 acres

Climate Zone

6B

Soil Type

Newtonia sandy loam, clay, and lots of rocks

Rainfall (per anum)             

45 inches 

Years on Regen Journey

4 years

Interviewer

Jessica Gnad

 

Jess

Hello Mac. Thanks for joining me today. Tell me a little bit about yourself? 

 

Macauley (Mac)

I farm close to 600 acres here in Southwest Missouri, we’re in a 45-inch rainfall environment. I’m a fully no-till farmer and completely construct cover crops on every acre of my farm. If I don't have a cash crop growing, I have a cover crop growing. I also integrate cattle which I think is really important for pushing the limits of regenerative ag.

I got started in farming when I was 20 years old, my dad passed away from cancer and I inherited my first 60 acres. With that, I was able to rent some more ground around the area, and slowly over time, I keep growing.  

I've taken quite a few risks in farming, but I feel comfortable taking them because of my practices and the principles I truly believe in, which are largely soil health principles. 

When we got started, it was pretty tough. I was trying to farm the conventional way, I was using every fungicide, I was using as much fertilizer as I could afford, and my yield sucked. My corn yield was 98 bushels/acre. I realized pretty quickly that fertility wasn't my limiting factor, moisture management was. 

So I started changing the way I farmed, I started watching YouTube videos and reading anything I could about soil which led me to find guys like Gabe Brown and Ray Archuleta. The first time I actually heard Gabe Brown talk I thought, man, this guy doesn't know anything about farming, but then about four years ago I came across him again and everything just clicked. Ever since then, I’ve been obsessed with the stuff. I couldn't learn enough, it just kept growing and growing on me.

 

That is awesome. You’ve spent fifty percent of your farming career diving into regenerative Ag. Coming from a farming family, have these changes been hard at the local level?  

I still help my grandfather and my uncle out on their farm. It was made known to me at a young age that my uncle was there before me, so I kind of always knew that if I wanted a farm, I was gonna have to take a lot of risk on my own. In doing that I have acquired some debt, but last year, my wife and I were actually able to pay off our first farm. We only have two farms left that we have debt on and all the rest are rented. I knew what I had to work with so I just kept trying to grow. Working with my family is tough because they don't see it the way I do. My uncle and my grandfather farm pretty large, a little over 3,500 acres. I won't ever get them to change but I just try to show them what I'm doing on my farm and show them how I'm being profitable.

 

You mentioned farming for moisture rather than fertility, can you just walk me through what you mean?

What I mean by that is that we always get plenty of rainfall in our environment, but then every single summer, our crops would just dry out and look like crap. We'd pick corn and we would combine beans and they just wouldn't be very good. If guys in an 18-inch rainfall environment can raise 120-bushel corn, why can't I? So I started to realize that we must not be holding the water that we’re getting very effectively.

That's another issue with the farming system, everything's based upon yield. I hear farmers say they are trying to fertilize for 160 or 200-bushel corn every single year. Well, realistically on their crop insurance APH (Actual Production History), their average yield is 113. So why are they trying to shoot for the moon every single time they raise a crop?

It doesn't make any sense. I have more of a realistic approach. I'm aiming for about 10 bushels higher than my APH on my crop insurance. If you go to the casino, you don't want to put all your money in at once every single time. Well, maybe some people do, but I don’t. 

I'm just trying to not bet my farm every single time I put out a crop, I try to keep my expenses low and my return higher.

 

That's awesome. Let’s talk about your fertility program. How has your fertility program changed over the last four years? What was the most surprising thing you saw when you started to change it?

It seemed to make a huge difference when I started backing off of my nitrogen. I was applying close to 200 units on dry land, which sometimes might work out if we have a year like last year, where you get 72 inches of rain. But normally it doesn't, so I cut my nitrogen way back. This year I put on 40 units when the corn was emerging then another 40 units at about the V8 growth stage. I used the Haney soil test and it showed that I had over 100 units there available. I probably didn't need to put on that second pass, but I decided to because it just makes me feel a little better, I think the corn is going to be really good this year. It was planted on June 3rd and we've only received two inches of rain since it's been up. I think it's going to make somewhere between 120 - 150 bushel. 

 

Corn crop

 

Last year I ran a farm where I literally just let weeds grow the fall before, these weeds were about four foot tall. I went in and no-till planted soybeans green. I sprayed them out with a little bit of Gramoxone and a little bit of Outlook and terminated the weeds. I didn't have to come back with a second herbicide. Those soybeans made 45-bushel without any extra fertility and one herbicide pass, so that was a really profitable crop. 

 

Wow, that's awesome. You've learned a lot when it comes to managing fertility. You mentioned the Haney test. What other tools are you using to help drive your profitability?

Keeping my expenses low. This year, my average cost on herbicides was $18 an acre across my whole operation. So by keeping that low, I am minimizing my risk. 80 pounds of nitrogen on my corn is all being applied, the soybeans had no fertilizer applied. If you keep those expenses low and you keep your equipment down, it's a lot easier to make money. So many farmers want to have a disc and a digger and chisels and hydrous applicators, but if you keep your equipment low and small, you can farm without all these large inputs.

 

What other practices are key to keeping your operation regenerative?

I try to focus on the soil health principles. Understanding Ag does a really good job of laying out the six principles. 

 

Courtesy of Understanding Ag

 

I'm always thinking, I’ve got to have a living root in the ground, I need to have a diversity of plants, I need to keep that soil covered.
 

If you can just focus on the principles, everything else will lay itself out. I let my cover crops collect as much biomass as they can, normally around five to six feet when I'm planting. Then those cover crops are laid over which creates that armour on the soil. Now I've got roots going down deep, like the annual ryegrass 15 inches deep.

So I can get water deeper in the profile, those corn roots follow the earthworm channels and the annual ryegrass channels and that corn can access water.

I had an agronomist come out here when we were so dry. Everybody else's corn was burned up and mine still looked green. He stuck a probe into my soil and two feet down he's finding moisture when everybody else's corn was just burned up and looked like crap. 

A lot of corn was chopped for silage in our area this year because it wasn't going to yield anything. I've heard some guys say their corn is going to make 20 bushels and some who have harvested already and only made 60, but I've got high hopes for mine. What's crazy is the fact that they planted their corn in March and April so their corn actually had a lot more water than mine ever had to work with. Their crops probably had 20 inches of rain, but they just weren't able to hold that water and get it down in the soil profile. So like I said, if you focus on the principles, everything else just plays itself out. 

I also think it's really important that we consider carbon. Carbon is something that is so easy for us as farmers to capture and put in our soil. All we have to do is just put living plants out there. If more and more of us farmers can just eliminate those fallow and heavy tillage periods in the spring and fall, and instead drill a cover crop, it’s not only going to help our own farms but also help everyone else around us.

Most tissue samples I take of plants are 40% carbon, organic matter is 50-58% carbon. Plants release carbon to attract in biology, to essentially get nutrients. If we start thinking about getting carbon on our farm, our organic matter is going to increase. We're going to be able to release and have cycling of nutrients better. If we just focus on how to bring more carbon onto our farm, we will have a better outcome of fertility leading to better outcomes on our farm.

 

An up-close inspection of some of Mac's soil

 

This is great! It's the principles we need to highlight. The particular practices you use in your part of Missouri might be different from the practices used in Northwest Kansas, but it's like you said, the principles of regeneration apply worldwide. The more I get into this, the more connections we're making over the world, and in so many different languages, these principles seem to be the common ground.

Right, because everyone has soil.

 

Indeed! Can you talk a little bit about your livestock integration? How do you view it through a regenerative lens?

I grade my animals adaptively, which means I fluctuate stock densities. I changed the way those cattle had been moved on the farm. Nothing on my farm is in a set rotation, just like in nature. Nature's constantly adapting and changing. So by doing that with the cattle, we are actually having the benefits of more species coming onto my perennial cropland. Right now, I'm not over a hundred cows and I take on a lot of custom grazing. Before I would raise cover crops and they would just be completely a benefit for my cash crop. Well, now I can turn those covers into cash. And by doing that, we get livestock on the farm. 

I do a lot of custom grazing, where I'll bring other people's cattle onto my farm and they pay a daily rate for me to essentially take care of their animals. 

Everything a cow puts in her mouth, 90% of it comes back out the back end. The first year I did that was last year and I just started seeing tremendous benefits on my farm. I noticed mushrooms pop up, I was getting that fungal/bacterial ratio more balanced in my soil. The cattle bring a whole new microbial diet to the microbiome in the soil because as they're grazing their saliva is on the ground, they're urinating and their manure is on the ground and you're getting your cycling happening faster. We run a high stock density by putting those cattle tighter together and moving them more often.

We're really sequestering a lot of nutrients in those areas. Everyone's worried about compaction, that's a big subject. But I haven’t seen any of that, I think that if you’re using a cover crop system, they're going to aerate the soil enough by keeping their living roots there to break up any kind of compaction impact that animals might have. I'm sure after the first rain, if you go out there and do a compaction test, it's going to be halved because soil is a Sub Aquatic ecosystem. With water, comes all the biology to thrive. When we have rain, those microbes, they just start working, and everything in the system starts working better. So to me, cattle are that final piece, you can make your soil healthy with no-till and cover crops, but to push it past that limit, bring cattle into the system.

 

Cattle grazing on a cover crop

 

That is brilliant. Let's look through the lens of profitability. What profitability does having a cash crop, a cover cash crop, and cattle bring in?

By having all your eggs in one or two baskets, you're literally subjected to those couple of markets. Most farmers in my area are just corn and soybean farmers, some are only corn farmers. When that market goes down, you have no diversity of your income, so you're completely susceptible to the market. 

I raised lupins, Korean lespedeza, barley, oats, spring wheat, corn, soybeans, grazing crops, I have commercial cattle, I have registered South Poll cattle, I bring on other people's cattle for custom grazing, I have the opportunity to put up straw if I want to. When you have all these different enterprises on your farm, what happens is now your risk is so much more minimal. I'm not worried about what the price of corn or soybeans is going to do, because that might just be one-eighth of my operations income. But when you have all of these different enterprises, it can really help balance your chequebook.

 

So you're spreading out that risk, smart.  Why is it difficult for people to step outside the box and try new practices and what has surprised you by thinking outside of that box?

Crop insurance is one of the biggest issues with our entire agriculture program. The system essentially incentivizes farmers to grow corn and soybeans. They think they're always going to make money by growing corn and soybeans because they're going to get bailed out if anything goes wrong. 

There is no crop insurance on a lot of these crops I'm trying to raise. So I'm taking a gamble, but I'm not depending on taxpayers to fund my farm. As of this year, I'm no longer going to take any more subsidy money from the government or from crop insurance, I'm just done with it. I'm also not gonna take any money for cover crops. I feel like my farm is sustainable enough where I don't need those extra added benefits. I feel like a new farmer starting out, it's alright to take advantage of some of them, but we need to be weaned off of that. 

 

There are many different layers in regenerative decision making, it's hard to sleep at night, not knowing if you have that safety net to help you out, especially when you're just getting started. Do you think the tide is shifting towards soil regeneration? Do you think there are more people wanting to change? I heard the other day that only 5% of producers are managing their farm for soil health. My belief is that maybe only 3-5% of total producers are honed in on this regeneration. What's it going to take to tip that to 10% or higher?

I think we need to get rid of crop insurance and get rid of all these subsidies. If you think about years ago, there's a lot of books written in the fifties about how important it was for farms to be diversified. My grandfather, for example, used to raise a lot of different crops. When you spread out that risk, not all your acres are in one crop. Plus environmentally, that's better too, because we don't have these single monocultures destroying the soil. A monoculture plant can't do what a multi-species cover can do for the soil because you have so many different roots getting off different exit dates, bringing in that different microbial habitat.

I think about insects as tiny little nutrient packages. I've got more bugs on my farm than I think probably all my neighbors do. Sometimes that can be a bad thing, but when we get those hard freezes and they die down, that's a bunch of nutrients I'm bringing on my farm. I'm attracting in from everybody else's corn and soybean farm. I've got some beekeeper associations reaching out to me, wanting to put bees to produce honey on some of my cover crop grounds, so that might be another enterprise coming. I think that if farmers can get off the subsidies and start thinking about ways to make money on their farm, they'll look outside the box and see that there are ways to make money.

 

A ladybug pictured in a cover crop

 

I'm not doing a whole lot of direct marketing besides my chicken eggs and some beef. If farmers just want to make their own markets, I think that would be important too. I'm doing that at the moment by trying to create a profitable enterprise in producing Korean lespedeza and sweet blue lupins for cover crop seed. You have to put a lot of thought into it and you have to be a good student on the land.

 

How long did it take you to see increased profitability with your cash crops and when do you expect to see it on your Korean lespedeza and sweet blue lupin?

I saw an increase in profitability on my cash crops in the first year of implementing these practices, and I'm hoping within this first year with this new cover crop seed venture. I already have quite a few buyers lined up for the Korean lespedeza. With the sweet blue lupins, which are a legume, it's all a question about whether they can actually survive the winter. In the 1800’s they were used a lot for cover crops and then we just kind of got away from that, but I think there's a huge opportunity there. I think they might hopefully be the future of the cool season of the South.

 

Perfect. What are some ways you make a profit from cattle?

My main source of income is probably for my registered South Poll cows, I've got a pretty good market set up with them. With my commercial cattle, I've just got a bunch of old, broken mouth, cold cows, and as long as they can produce a calf every year, you can make money, especially on cheap rented land. I'd like to add more direct marketing because that's one of my goals in my farm.

One thing I’ve noticed here in Southwest Missouri, we're in a warm-season environment and most farmers in my area start feeding hay about October and finish about the end of April. They're feeding hay all that time, if we just take our cows to cover crops or wheat or triticale or barley or whatever and graze, we're not having to buy hay. It's so easy to move a poly wire.

And if we do that to seed hay, let's try to bale graze. This year alone, just on 20 cows, I was able to save $1,100 in hay on my home place. When I went to set up hay, I paid one of my friends a dollar per bale to set out the hay for me, so I didn't have to have a tractor and loader to set that hay out. Then when I had that hay set out, it literally takes me about 45 seconds to grab one of my polywire posts, lift it up over the bale and stick it where the cow gets the next post every day. It's such a simple system. 

 

Okay, awesome. What did you think you wanted to do with regenerative agriculture and what has actually happened?

When I first started farming, I wasn't making much money and I wanted to change that. I wanted to start making money for my family. I have a wife and two young kids, we had to make it work on our farm. In the beginning, I was losing money and I don't think the bank appreciated that. Since I've changed to more of these soil health-related farming practices and principles, I've just seen my farm dramatically change. I've brought more life on my farm, there are the chickens and the cows, my son goes and helps me pick pumpkins and cover crops. Not only have I brought more economic value and diversity to my farm, but I've also found a place for my kids to be involved in my farm. I don't care if my son goes out in our soybean field and runs around the soybean field, because I know that I didn't have anything sprayed out there. I know that there's not going to be anything out there that might harm him. From an ecological standpoint, I just think it's better for the environment as well.

 

One of Mac's healthy cover crops

 

I love that, 'you are farming to add life to the farm'. What's something that you would do differently?

That is a tough question. I would have tried to push harder when I was younger to rent more land and to try to educate landowners. If we talk about these ecological soil health principles, and we explain to landowners why we're doing what we're doing: to have clean water, to help our soil not erode down the rivers, etc. I think landowners have a connection with their ground and want to do what's best for it, especially if they owned it for years. 

Plus, not losing six to eight tons of soil a year off their row crop land is an incentive for landowners, we can't farm with subsoil rock. I think that's probably what I would have done differently, been a bit more aggressive about trying to educate more landowners and to rent more land.

 

Perfect. I think you are on an amazing path, for the benefit of your family, your neighbors and everybody out there.  Did you guys have to buy new equipment or make any modifications?

No, I didn't really have any equipment. A lot of my stuff now, my grandfather just charges me a fee to use his equipment. My drill and my tractor and stuff, that doesn't really need to be changed. I did buy a roller-crimper this year because my cover crops are getting so large and I don't want to let my corn and soybeans get spindly. But I don't have a disc or a hybrid applicator, chiselled diggers, turbo tills, you just don't need any of that stuff.

 

I think that’s one of the great parts about regenerative agriculture, that we're all thinking ‘how do we do this with less?’
Do you think that we have to kind of think outside the box a little bit more?

I always say smarter, not harder. Most farmers, we tend to want to do the same things that we've done for 50 years, that's just not economical. There's a lot of great books out there that touch on why we should not be putting up hay. Why would I want to own a tractor, a baler, a loader tractor, a truck, and a trailer to haul hay, when I can buy a bale of hay for $25. I'm feeding less hay because I have cover crops and I manage my grass on my perennial pastures appropriately. By doing that, we are essentially going to take less time out there on the farm and spend more time with our family and then we can spend more time educating ourselves about how we can do better.

 

Where do you go for information?

I have a lot of great mentors. A lot of guys give me their time: Gabe Brown, Ray Archuleta, Shane New, David Kleinschmidt, Michael Thompson. These guys have been so good to me. And anytime I had a question that I could probably answer myself, they would give me a vague answer that would make me go look for it for myself, because a lot of this stuff, no one's going to give you a recipe, you have to go figure it out on your own. I know that might be kind of intimidating for some farmers, but with the internet, we have so much information out there. We have to try to look outside that box, some farmers just want to watch videos on yield. Well, let's look at soil health practices, let's look at our cattle. Let's just think about different ways to actually make money in farming.

 

What about books, media, and events? Where are you going?

I think the first book that anyone should read going into this should be Dirt to Soil. I like a lot of things from Greg Judy. Holistic Management is a big one if you want to tackle it. Mainly, just talking with people and going to conferences like Soil Health U, No-till on the Plains. It is about getting involved with these people. 

There's a saying - “if you hang around six millionaires, you'll become the seventh.”  I think if you hang around six regenerative farmers, you'll become the seventh.

 

Thank you so much, Mac. 

 

 

 

Jess Gnad is a freelance consultant specializing in Regenerative Ag content and the creation of Farmer-to-Farmer soil health education.

 

 

 

 

 

region
 North America
categories
 interview
 All - Cropping
 Beef
 Carbon Credits
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 intermediate
 beginner
 Soil Health
 Carbon Farming
 Landscape Health
 Nutrient Density
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tags
#soilhealth
#regenerativeagriculture
#economicdiversity
#carboncycle
#bugs
#revenuestreams
#nutrientdensity

A version of this article was originally published on the site RFN on Tuesday, November 17, 2020.

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