Ag Marketing Spotlight: Cover Crops, Tillage Decisions, and Farmland Sustainability Practices

Agricultural Marketing
7m

“Buy land, they’re not making it anymore.” – Mark Twain 

Thanks, Mark Twain! This classic quote reminds us that land is a limited resource – and we are all vying for that same resource, whether it is to build a new house, create a pasture for a herd of cattle, or plant a crop.  

To a farmer, land is their lifeblood – without good, healthy soil, there is no productivity – no crop, no pasture for the livestock. With 96% of farms being family owned, healthy soil means longevity and the potential for a productive ground for future generations of farmers.  

With Gate 39 Media’s April Core Values Series posts revolving around the health and stewardship of our earth and environmentwe decided to go straight to land cultivation experts and talk with a couple of farmers to find out what sustainable ag practices they are implementing to protect this valuable, limited, resource. 

Avoiding Soil Disruption in Kansas 

G39: Hi Zach, welcome! Tell our audience a little about yourself. 

Farmer Zach Vincent

Zach Vincent and Farm Hand Willie

ZV: My name is Zach Vincent, I’m from Long Island, Kansas (it’s very similar to Long Island, New York – lots of people, tall buildings – just kidding, the population is 100 people). Our farm is on a crop rotation of wheat, corn, milo, and soybeans. We also have a cow-calf and beef cattle operation.  

G39: Is your operation multi-generational?  

ZV: Yes, my brother and I are the 3rd generation on our farm. 

G39: What sustainable agricultural practices do you currently implement on your operation?  

ZV: Predominantly no-till. We no-till our wheat into the soybean fallow, which means we don’t till up our soil but rather drill in our wheat with an air drill to not disrupt the soil bed. 

On the livestock side, we rotate our cattle between pastures. This prevents overgrazing (which leads to erosion) and limits soil compaction from the cattle. 

G39: What made your farm operation switch from the “traditional” practices and when did you make the transition?  

ZV: Really, this became a marketforced decision. Approximately four years ago when soybean prices went up and the wheat market tanked, there was a lot of rainfall in our area. We had been seeing really great success planting into stubble, and with the rainfall we didn’t want to disturb the soil bed more than we had to. At that time, we bought a no-till drill and switched to a full no-till operation.  

We’ve always practiced pasture rotation for our beef operation. It has allowed us to keep a few more head of cows, gives us time for fence repairs (good fences make good neighbors), limits having to dip into hay reserves which saves money and, like I mentioned earlier, prevents overgrazing. 

G39: What positive changes have you seen since implementing these sustainable practices?  

ZV: After moving to a no-till operation, we’ve seen 20-30 bushel per acre increase in our crops, we’ve been able to reduce our inputs and our pastures are healthier.  

G39: Are there any other tools you are wanting to bring to your operation to increase sustainability in the next 1-5 years?  

ZV: More frequent grid and zone sampling to compare soil health year-over-year. This will help us really track our soil health progress and if inputs are needed, to purchase and place the product where it needs to go versus a wide-spread application thus reducing run-off and waste. 

No-Till and Crop Cover in Michigan

G39:Hi Tim, welcome! Tell our audience a little about yourself. 

TB: I’m Tim Boring from south central Michigan (AKA America’s High Five or The Mitten). Our operation focuses 75% on corn, soybeans, and wheat but we also grow diverse, short growing season specialty crops including, but not limited to: oats, rye, barley, dry beans, sunflowers, food grade red corn, and popcorn. From a risk diversification perspective, I don’t see a total shift away from the stable crops of corn and wheat. Fun fact: our farm used to process vegetables! 

G39: Is your farm operation multi-generational?  

TB: We’re a 6th generation operation. 

G39: What sustainable agricultural practices do you currently implement on your operation?  

TB: In 2014 we implemented strip till, which is a minimum tillage technique that disturbs the soil only where the seed is placed. In 2018, we phased strip till out and became 100% notill at that time.  

Our goal is to ensure that every acre we farm gets a cover crop, whether that is wheat in the fall or a diverse blend. Some of the cover crops we use include rye, barley, black oats, vetch, clovers, etc. It would be ideal to lean on science to help make decisions on which cover crop to plant and when based on the needs of the soil, but that technology isn’t yet available.   

We have greatly reduced our usage of commercial fertilizers (still use some nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium) but increasing our soil biological capabilities by spreading compost, the utilization of cover crops, incorporating no-till and longer crop rotations. 

G39: What made your ag operation switch from the “traditional” practices and when did you make the transition?  

TB: The reason was simple: long-term profitability of our farm operation. In 2013-2014, there was an increase in grain prices, and we had the capital to invest and start planning for when grain prices would inevitably fall again. Those investments entailed a new planter with twin rows, upgrades in our precision technology, including wheat into our crop rotation, and we added strip-till.  

During this time, we worked to reduce the low yielding holes in our fields by increasing the soil health and biomass, therefore increasing profitability for both the short and long-term. Due to these changes, we’ve seen a consistent increase in the productivity of the ground.  

G39: What positive changes have you seen since implementing these sustainable practices?  

TB: We have seen a lot of great changes from these practices. A few specific examples are: 

  1. Our crop input usage has been substantially decreased because we have built up our soil biology. We’ve been able to completely stop applying potash and have diverged from commercial fertilizer use, applying compost on most of our acres instead.  
  1. Despite reducing commercial crop input usage, we’ve still seen yield increases. 
  1. More resiliency out of the soil in response to weather extremes. For example, in 2018-2019 there were a lot of prevented planting acres in Michigan due to excessive rainfall. With our use of cover crops, we had a better soil structure, which allowed the water to infiltrate to a greater degree and were able to farm acres in a way our neighbors weren’t. This level of resiliency has really become a safety net for us.  

G39: Are there any other tools you foresee bringing to your operation to increase sustainability in the next 1-5 years?  

TB: It’s not exactly an environmentally based sustainability tool, but I would like to build a better market for the food grade crops we grow like barley, red corn, and edible dry beans so we can sell to consumers on a small scale. Creating this demand, paired with the soil health benefits, will allow us to fit these crops into our rotation more efficiently.  

I would also like to develop a system of looking at our farm data, differently. Current ag technology doesn’t allow for the insight to the biology of the soil and this level of ultra-management would help us better decide what cover crops to plant based solely on the needs of the soil. These soil needs vary from a nutrient loss, to water infiltration or weed/pest management and require a different cover crop mix.  

From a mechanical standpoint, upgrading our compost application equipment is also on the radar.  

G39: Zach and Tim – thanks to you both for talking with us today! We enjoy keeping tabs on the latest agricultural sustainability in practice and technology through farmers like you and we wish you both a terrific planting season! 

 

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