Innovation merely requires a change of mindset
By Victor Shelton
May 12 — Mr. G’s planter setup
I grew up and still live close to a large Amish and Mennonite community, in which I have several friends and acquaintances. I find many of them very innovative and ones to think outside the box. Like a few in the “English” world, some are also true leaders in their community. When key individuals show that a new way of doing something can and will work, then others are more likely to follow. One of those individuals is my friend, Mr. G, who requests to remain anonymous.
Like several in the community, Mr. G multitasks — managing multiple enterprises, including farming, a major business, and of course some livestock. Mr. G has raised replacement dairy heifers, out and back into the cow/calf, and also has several horses, both draft and standardbreds. There has been a slight shift from a purely agrarian way of life in these communities to one that more likely now includes entrepreneurship or off-farm work. To many, this life seems very old-fashioned, but I will tell you that technology is very much alive and well from many standpoints.
I was not surprised to find out that Mr. G was no-tilling corn and soybeans and was very environmentally conscious and conservation minded. I visited him last May while he and his son were planting corn. Low and behold, they were planting green!
Planting “green” does not suggest that he was a newbie or was using a green implement — though he would quickly tell you that both were probably true. Planting “green” purely refers to no-till planting of primary crops into actively growing cover crops.
Mr. G explained that he had seen some cover crop fields get ahead of people. Too much rain prevented them from being able to terminate the cover crop as early as planned. If the opportunity to plant came to be, perhaps it would be better to plant, terminated or not, and get the crop in the ground.
He and his son discussed what to do a couple years earlier when their first cereal rye cover crop had gotten ahead of them due to extended wet weather. It hadn’t reached maturity yet but was heading that way fast. “It cost us a little more nitrogen, but it also helped to take up some of the excess moisture that year, and we had better control of weeds than we have had. A mistake is evidence that you have tried,” quipped Mr. G. “We figured there had to be a better way to manage it.”
Terminating the cover crop after that planting would have been better if it had been sprayed earlier, if circumstances would have allowed it. This led to planting “green.”
Mr. G started using cover crops because they wanted to reduce erosion, improve water infiltration and reduce weed pressure. The weeds that were slowly increasing in his fields included marestail and Palmer amaranth. They saw improvements in all three goals very quickly.
Cereal rye cover crops were then used after both corn and soybeans. The cover crop was broadcast seeded at 35 pounds per acre in early October of 2021, and the stalks were bushhogged on the corn ground. With sufficient rain soon after planting, the stand established quickly and provided good cover prior to winter.
LEFT: Planting green on May 12. RIGHT: The newly planted corn.
Corn is planted in 36-inch rows. This width is needed when running the equipment effectively with horses. It was planted at a population of about 29,700 on May 12. After planting, the field was sprayed with a single application combination of Sharpen, Roundup and Lexar.
Approximately 50 pounds per acre of nitrogen was added at planting, along with some phosphorus and potassium in the typical 2 x 2 position. A total of 180 units of nitrogen were added, plus a three-ton fall surface application of composted turkey manure.
Mr. G has been doing some no-till for the last 25 years, but it was the addition of a new small farm that sparked the need to do more. The new farm had drainage issues, a lot of weed pressure, and quite a bit of compaction, along with a reduced amount of topsoil from long-term erosion issues. The benefit of no-till was not new knowledge for Mr. G and his son; the savings of time alone was a big factor for a busy family.
Mr. G realized that he needed to improve drainage, reduce erosion, reduce competition from increasing weeds and improve the soil for longterm productivity. He and his son committed to sticking with only no-till on this new farm after doing some tile drainage and leveling. From attending meetings, reading articles and talking to local advisors, they were convinced that they not only needed to eliminate all tillage, but also work to build back soil organic matter and soil health. The strategy at that point was continuous no-till with a cover crop every year going forward.
The soil types on this new farm are all silt loams. It doesn’t take much exposure to the elements to have sheet and rill erosion on this type of soil, even with gentle slopes. Sheet erosion is often quite hard to see unless you look really closely, but it can add up quickly and do a lot of damage over time. “This type of erosion had to be addressed,” Mr. G said. “Not only are we losing precious topsoil, but we are also losing fertility, and it’s leaving the farm and moving downstream.”
Mr. G realized more than two decades ago that erosion had to be controlled and that traditional farming techniques were just not going to work. Conventional tillage was not only very time consuming, but it was also costing the farm money from the loss of soil, nutrients and production.
Though Mr. G had used cover crops occasionally in the past, before finally owning some spraying equipment, the timing of termination was a problem — especially a delayed termination of annual ryegrass one year. After purchasing his own spraying equipment, the primary timing concern still present was he and his family walking through a pre-sprayed field and consumption of any sprayed forage by his horses.
Mr. G’s son remarked more than once while planting the corn into the green cereal rye cover crop that the horses were not eating much hay in the evening after a hard day of pulling the planter. With his initial focus on the planter, planting depth and the like, he didn’t notice how much cereal rye was being consumed every time they stopped — he was glad it was chemical free!
LEFT: May 20 — In just a week, the corn has begun to emerge. RIGHT: By May 27, the corn is looking strong.
Mr. G uses a John Deere 7000 planter with a three-quarter-inch fluted coulter for cutting through the green cereal rye. The weight of the planter is usually enough to easily slice through the green material. He usually had to use his Yetter row cleaners until he started planting green. “They are just not needed now, and I’d probably take them off if I didn’t occasionally need them on other fields that were not planted green.”
It had been a wet spring in 2022, and he was concerned about the soil conditions for planting. I was there with Mr. G that first day of planting and remarked on how good the soil condition was. The still actively growing cereal rye was still taking up moisture, and with a few sunny days, the condition of the soil couldn’t have been better. My pocketknife easily penetrated the topsoil, coming out clean with almost no smearing of soil in the planter row.
It would have been better to plant just a little earlier if it had been just a little bit drier earlier, but it was best to wait for ideal planting conditions, and it paid off.
The last eight years, Mr. G has done continuous no-till and cover crops on his farm. He told me one day, “The best way to succeed in life is to help other people and act on the advice you give others.” He has spoken at some local meetings and field days to help promote the benefits of both no-till and cover crops. Though he has not really tracked it or measured it since the first year, it is evident that the soil organic matter has increased. The soil is darker, the structure is better, there is more water infiltrating through the soil than running off and he is not affected by dry periods as much. If you dig down into the soil now, you see lots of roots, a lot of life, and almost no compaction.
June 24: a healthy crop.
At the end of the 2022 season, I was privileged to spend one afternoon with Mr. G and his son harvesting the corn on this new farm. Yields were good, with quite a bit of the field yielding 240 bushels per acre.
As I rode on the two-row corn sheller being pulled by the team of horses, there was peace and tranquility present as we slowly moved across the field. Not only was there time to observe adjacent corn rows with their bounty hanging there, the ground between the rows of corn still armored with some remaining cereal rye cover crop from last spring and a little of the previous crop stubble; there was also time for reminiscing. The fresh smell of shelled corn mixed with the diesel engine running the PTO and the scent of hard-working horses and leather tack filled my senses.
I personally don’t remember work or draft horses on the family farm. The last two work horses were sold after my grandfather passed away in 1955. He never learned to drive a vehicle — never saw the need. Remnants of those past days are still present, and experiences like I occasionally have with folks like Mr. G are reminders of past generations and a different way of life. For a little while, time stands still.
The next step for Mr. G is to figure out how to possibly incorporate wheat back into the rotation, with an annual forage crop following the wheat, instead of double-crop soybeans. “If this farm was connected to my home farm and was fenced, it would be easy — I’d graze it,” he said. “That might still be a possibility.” The more live cover — crops, forage or cover crop — the better the soil is, and he wants to see how much improvement can be made.
This fall, Mr. G plans to experiment with a mix of spring/winter barley and rapeseed. “We’ve got to constantly try new things to see if we can keep making more improvements. I expect to see a lot of new innovations on this farm going forward.”
Victor Shelton is a retired agronomist and grazing specialist with the NRCS in Indiana.