Decatur County Soil and Water Conservation District
We are brothers who farm about 1,200 acres of corn, soybeans, barley and operate a farrow to finish hog operation. Our families are also involved in the operation.
Soil Health Practices
We have employed cover crops on all our acres for the last four years. Application using a drill behind the combine has been successful. This fall, we will be using a five-way mix, including cereal rye, barley, oats, radish and rape. We use the manure from our hog operation to fertilize our crops. We apply the manure directly into cover crops to reduce potential runoff and enhance usage of the applied nutrients.
We began on this path after doing a lot of listening and asking questions of those who have worked hard to increase their soil health. We saw the improvements others were making and wanted to do this ourselves. We wanted earthworms for deep tillage. As cover crops relates to erosion control, if we could put a value on how much soil we all lose on a yearly basis, many producers wouldn’t hesitate to make the change. Your best soil is always on top.
We got our no-till start 15 years ago by drilling soybeans with a John Deere 750 drill into corn stubble. We started no-tilling our corn for the last 3 years. The cover crops are changing soil texture to allow better no till environment. Our agronomist, Rick Scranton, and neighboring no-tillers have really helped in the evolution. We listened to a lot of very experienced producers from across the country and tried to pick options with the highest odds of success for our operation. We’re thankful to those pioneers before us who eliminated a lot of items that didn’t work to speed our improvement in soil health. It’s a journey that doesn’t occur in just one or two years.
Now, we like to say we’re starting to feed the soil instead of feeding the plants. The last two years, the local Decatur County Soil and Water Conservation District has done soil plugs in early spring, and we’ve found root channels 18-37 inches deep from the cover crops. We haven’t applied phosphorus for several years due to manure. We may apply potash, depending on what soil tests indicate. We have also been adding gypsum to get calcium base saturation levels to 70 percent. Our soil tests are showing the manure applications are providing the majority of our crop nutrients. We try to apply manure via our dragline into standing cover crops established early fall. The growing cover crops take up the nutrients quickly from the manure, reduce possible runoff and put nutrients in a more stable and available form for our next cash crop. The dragline application into standing cover destroys very little of the cover. The benefits far outweigh the small loss.
We had difficulty getting cover crops established in the autumn with aerial seeding, which is why we now use a drill. Sometimes our own brains are our biggest restriction. You need to open your mind up and try various options. We have increased the number of cover crop species plant to increase the benefits to the microorganisms in the soil. We are continually looking to added new plants that will harvest sunlight and increase soil health.
It’s not a short- term effort. Results don’t necessarily show in the first or second years. Producers need to try a few acres to start, even if it is a late fall, the cereal rye will germinate at 39 degrees. We have not had a failure of cereal rye if we get it started. As livestock producers we have had a manure management plan for many years. It has proved to make us pro-active in managing our nutrients applied. Crop producers need to take a pro-active approach to handling nutrients before regulations are required of them also.