Tazewell County Soil and Water Conservation District
Brad Zimmerman, his wife Heidi and their five kids moved back to the family farm in Tazewell County, Illinois, in 2013 after working some time off the farm. Upon returning, Brad’s goal was to raise 300 bushel corn and 100 bushel soybeans within five years, all while improving the soil. Brad is an associate director with the Tazewell County Soil and Water Conservation District and a participant of the Precision Conservation Management program.
Brad farms corn and soybeans for cash crops, and he says the livestock they care for are the earthworms in the soil.
The family farm has been no-till since the mid-1990s and has been doing some strip-tilled corn since the early 2000s. Brad says yields have been good, but the no-till soils held most of the fertility in the top few inches. Compaction has been an issue and while the soil was good, it was not great.
Since his return to the family farm, they have taken a more holistic approach to raising their crops – the first move was to stop anhydrous ammonia.
With an educational background in biology and after attending the National No Till Conference, National Strip Till Conference and as many cover crop field days as he could, Brad decided to take a big step and grow a crop they wouldn’t harvest – cover crops. Brad started small his first year with 40 acres of oats and radish. The following year he expanded to 300 acres of annual rye grass. Today, he flies on annual rye grass, radish, turnips and crimson clover when the soybeans are starting to drop their leaves. In the rotation of corn going to soybeans, he drills cereal rye and rapeseed after harvest. Brad says he’s always looking to try new cover crops and methods in order to maximize living roots and to put liquid carbon in the ground. This year, in order to get more growth, he will interseed annual rye grass, radish, and crimson clover, possibly with some cereal rye, at V4 in corn to get more growth in the fall.
Since planting cover crops, Brad says the soil has transformed itself – it smells different, water infiltration has improved greatly, and the chronic ponding in the fields has disappeared. Weed control has improved as well when he plants soybeans into living cereal rye. Even in the white clay ground, crusting over is not a problem anymore, and he has dropped his seeding rate in soybeans from 150,000 to 120,000. The biology in the soil has come to life and has started releasing the nutrients that have been stored in the soil. Excess residue disappears by midsummer due to a health soil engine, and the earthworm population has skyrocketed.
Brad says that continuous learning is always a part of the journey and finds that social media, like Twitter and Facebook, can be great resources for further learning. Like so many of the Soil Health Champions, Brad advocates for starting small when making changes to your operation. “I’ve learned that it is okay to try something new and fail at it. I believe that if you are not periodically failing, you are not trying hard enough to leave your comfort zone and pushing the envelope.”
Going forward, Brad foresees some challenges to overcome. He’s convinced that cover crops will pay for themselves and then some, but others are not convinced. He abides by the Disneyland model – in order to add something to the operation, something must be removed. Being able to lower soybean populations is one way to allow covers to pay for themselves and still capture the long-term benefits. Increased weed control through cover crops is another way to cut back on herbicides. Another challenge is seeding early enough, getting good coverage and emergence. Brad has found that seeding at V4 seems to be a solution, and he hopes it is. Brad also believes there’s a synergistic effect to having multiple plants growing together and sharing nutrients.
“It has been said that the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is today. I believe that cover crops and improving soil are the same way. The sooner you try a small plot, the sooner you will feel comfortable to try larger areas. Reach out to others that are like-minded and will push you to try new things. We are heading into a new and exciting era in agriculture, and I am excited to see where we go.”
Posted April 2018