By Jeff Moyer
The following is an excerpt from Jeff Moyer’s new book, Roller/Crimper No-Till: Advancing No-Till Agriculture — Crops, Soil & Equipment.
For decades, Rick Clark’s ancestors were, admittedly, some of the worst soil destructors in Warren County, Indiana.
But Clark knows the power of change. A fifth-generation farmer growing corn and soybeans, he made the decision to choose a new path and pursue organic no-till management. Now he is one of the most vocal advocates for organic no-till grain farming in the country.
Today, Clark Land and Cattle is approaching 750 certified organic acres, is 100 percent GMO-free, and terminates its cover crops with a roller/crimper. Much of Clark’s grain crops go to feed dairy cattle whose milk is used for Dannon yogurt.
Clark speaks to farmer groups across the country about his organic no-till journey. He makes sure to end all his speeches with the same sentiment:
“If you’re not uncomfortable with what you’re doing, then you are not trying hard enough to change.”
Making the Change
Farmers throughout the United States are facing that need for change as consumers increasingly seek organic products and weather becomes more unpredictable. Moving to an organic no-till system, specifically one that implements the roller crimper, is becoming a popular decision for many farmers.
“I was wrestling with farming and how I wanted to farm, because we’re small farmers and I wanted to go organic,” said Levi Lyle, one such farmer in Keota, Iowa, who felt that need for change in his family’s operation.
He needed to convince his father that going organic would be in their farm’s best interest and decided to become an organic inspector himself to gather knowledge firsthand.
“I learned what farmers were doing and where their struggles were, and I saw them really struggling on the soybean side of things,” said Lyle. “I thought, you know, this roller/crimper thing is worth looking into further.”
Having read about the roller/crimper a decade earlier, Lyle decided now was the time to pursue no-till on 60 acres of certified organic crop land.
Influenced by the research of both Rodale Institute and Dr. Erin Silva of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, both Rick Clark and Levi Lyle have improved the soil health on their farms through use of the roller/crimper.
While their equipment is the same, Clark’s and Lyle’s methods vary slightly, each with specific benefits. Clark plants green into his cover crop, usually a cereal rye or a diverse mix of his own creation.
This system allows Clark to plant his soybeans into cereal rye around the last week of April. By the time the rye has reached maturity and can be roller/crimped in June, the soybeans have already reached growth stage V2 and will continue to grow once the cover is terminated.
By allowing the cover crop to remain in the soil alive as long as possible, Clark believes his cash crops reap multiple benefits.
“We’ve created a mulch that’s suppressing weeds. We are feeding the microbes and we’ve put an armor on the soil,” Clark explained. “We are protecting the soil from sunlight, from evaporation … and conserving every ounce of water that gets into our profile.”
Lyle, on the other hand, uses a one-pass system where the roller/crimper and the planter are both attached to his tractor. This cuts down on labor and soil compaction as he plants his soybeans into a rye cover crop.
While some farmers may shy away from the roller/crimper due to timing restrictions on cover crop termination, Lyle has found that with changing weather patterns, timing can actually be a benefit.
“This year , there were no soybeans planted during the month of May because May was so wet,” he described. By the time conventional farmers were able to plant their soybeans, Lyle was ahead of the game.
“We could get in sooner because the rye was already there,” he said. “So, on the first of June we went in and were planting our roller/crimped soybeans before any other farmers in our county. That felt kind of cool.”
The ability to compete with conventional systems is tied up with the question of yields and profitability, a consideration that weighed heavily on Lyle. In the end, he’s been pleasantly surprised with the results of roller crimping his soybeans.
“We’re seeing improved profits. Farmers are making three, sometimes four herbicide passes, and they still have weeds in that field,” he said. “I’ve been very happy with the amount of cost I’m saving by roller/crimping instead of using herbicide passes.”
“We’re not losing any yields on our soybeans,” Lyle explained. “We’re still getting between 50 and 60 bushels of soybeans an acre.”
Comparable yields, mixed with a reduction in input costs, leads to an overall increase in profitability on Lyle’s farm.
The same can be said for Clark’s operation — though yields are not his main concern.
“I know you’ve got to have yields to make a return on investment calculation,” Clark conceded. “But we have driven our input costs down so low that our break-even numbers are ridiculously low on corn and soybeans. So we can withstand a lot.”
“It’s not about who can raise the most corn,” he stated. “It’s about building soil health and maximizing the return on investment.”
Challenges & Opportunities
That commitment to continuously improving the soil keeps Clark moving forward every day. Clark wants to keep pushing the boundary of organic no-till to make soil health the number one consideration in his operation.
Clark is working hard to diversify his cover crop mix, explaining that even cover crops can fall into monoculture. While every soybean crop comes after cereal rye, Clark doesn’t think that cereal rye should be the only thing in the field.
He experiments with mixing in other cover crops with the rye like radish, sorghum-sudangrass, and oats for winter kill, as well as something like clover, hairy vetch, and peas that will be suppressed by the cereal rye in the spring.
Despite the nitrogen-fixing benefits he knows this mix will provide, Clark knows that he’s operating on logistical trial and error.
“My biggest challenge with the crimper,” he said, “is being able to terminate all this diverse complex cocktail next spring.”
While Clark is pushing the envelope, Lyle has become the unofficial spokesman for the classic one-pass roller/crimper system. After being featured for his experience with the roller/crimper in an article by the Natural Resource Conservation Service, Lyle said he’s received calls from all over the country from farmers asking how to use the tool in their operations.
“Guys have called from Nebraska wanting to roller/crimp their wheat and plant sorghum. I’ve had calls from Texas from people wanting to roller/crimp to plant hemp, and a lot of farmers are interested in roller/crimping just to reduce the first pass of herbicides,” he said.
Lyle also loans out his roller/crimpers to neighboring farmers in Iowa, with operators coming from as far as five hours away to borrow the equipment.
“I’ve been impressed to see the amount of different systems that the roller/crimper is working in,” Lyle said.
One such new system is wildlife food plots. Lyle explained that many managers of food plots are not farmers and don’t have the same resources.
“They’re not comfortable having a bunch of herbicides in storage,” said Lyle. The roller/crimper helps these operators maintain weed control and healthy yields without requiring chemical intervention.
Lyle is excited about continuing to help other farmers find cost savings with the roller/crimper, as well as growing his own operation.
He’s interested in studying soil health and its potential to sequester carbon, which he considers a new farm commodity that should be bought and traded between farmers to improve the condition of the planet.
While he may end all his speeches with his call for farmers to push themselves, what he really wants them to take away from his talks is how passionately he loves this work.
“My very last thing I say is, I’m proud to be a farmer, but I’m more proud of the way I farm,” he said. “Regenerative stewardship. That’s what I call it. It’s all about soil health.”
Jeff Moyer is the CEO of Rodale Institute.