Justin and Javen Fann
The Fann brothers grow corn, wheat, and soybeans on 1,800 acres in Warren and Cannon Counties. In 2016, they converted to grid soil sampling and began using variable rate nutrient application and seeding.
Third generation farmers, Justin and Javen take after their father, who always believed producers should be stewards of the land. Their dad planted on the contour and built terraces, and by the 1980s, was planting crops with a no-till planter. If he did till, he was particular about when and where, Justin said. Now, “tilling the land is not an option” on the Fann Farm.
The Fanns grow cover crops as well and always have their soils continuously covered. The diversity in their covers and crop rotations has improved the soil biology very quickly, the brothers said. The soil pH is close to 7 and phosphorus levels are medium to optimum.
In the past, they baled their wheat and planted double cropped soybeans in the wheat stubble. They noticed their soil was hard and had substantial runoff that pooled during intense rainfall events. To improve the infiltration, they stopped baling the straw and left it on the soil. Their soils were still hard and wouldn’t infiltrate as well as they expected. They tried a monoculture cover crop of Austrian Winter Peas to soften the soils, but it ended in a “train wreck.”
NRCS District Conservationist Matt Feno convinced them to try multi-species cover crops in 2015. Their results were amazing. Matt recommended a seeding rate of 54 pounds per acre of cereal rye, triticale, crimson clover, hairy vetch, canola, Daikon radishes, and Austrian Winter Peas. The Fann brothers drilled 64 pounds per acre and applied diammonium phosphate (DAP). In May 2015, they sampled and estimated the covers to be 25,000 pounds of biomass (wet weight). NRCS employees were nervous about the high amounts of biomass, but the Fanns weren’t. They precision planted their corn at approximately 32,000 plants per acre with excellent stands, pushing the cover over with their planter in some places (with the row cleaners removed), and using a ten-foot roller/crimper on others.
They liked the roller, but need a bigger one. Justin and Javen had been in the market for a forty-foot roller/crimper, but most commercially available rollers are 10-, 15-, and 30-feet wide, and custom-built rollers aren’t readily available. Being handy, and owners of a machine shop, and brothers are planning to build a 20-foot roller/crimper. If it meets their expectations, they will build a second 20-footer.
With only 6.5 inches of rainfall, they made excellent yields in corn, full season soybeans, and double cropped soybeans. Justin said that the heavy cover provided moisture savings throughout the growing season and guarded against drought stress. He said corn around them that was no-tilled without covers had severe rolling up of the leaves from drought stress. They also did some temperature studies at 1.5-inch soil depth and found the soils with multi-species cover were at least 10 degrees cooler than no-till soils with crop residue.
After their corn harvest in 2016, Justin and Javen no-till drilled 50 pounds per acre with seven species of cereal rye, triticale, black oats, Daikon radishes, Austrian winter peas, Ethiopian cabbage, and hairy vetch. They bulk blended the seed and mixed them in a fertilizer mixer. They drilled after corn the last week of August to early September. Some fields have also experienced corn regrowth, so despite the drought, there is substantial biomass already present. Some radishes reseeded from last year and are showing large tubers already.
The fields after soybeans were planted with the same cover mixture in mid-October. In areas with drainage ditches or frequent flooding, they planted cereal rye and wheat at three bushels per acre in late October. Altogether, the brothers plant 400 acres in diverse cover crop species and 300 acres of wheat.
The heavy, diverse cover crop mixture made a difference not only in yields and temperature, but in soil moisture and structure. “The key to getting quick results in soil health is to grow cover crops to bloom stage for legumes and early head stage for grasses,” Justin said. “Many farmers want to kill them too early.”
“Another factor is the diversity. Farmers need grass to change soil structure, so all mixes need grass, like cereal rye, in the mix.” Legumes and brassicas are excellent for loosening tight soil and up taking different nutrients, but grass is key to building soil carbon, he added.
In the future, the brothers plan to kill the majority of their cover crops by rolling and crimping, and only using Round-Up for clean-up termination. They are also planning to fertilize the covers in the spring with DAP and plan to keep them growing into early May.