Shaping up tough soils with cover crops and no-till

first_imgShare Facebook Twitter Google + LinkedIn Pinterest In 2001, Lynn Eberhard and his sons, Eric and Greg, picked up some new farm ground that was pretty tough. Is was a fairly dry year for Seneca County in 2001 and that farm averaged 59 bushels of corn per acre. There was clearly some work to be done with regard to improving the poorly drained, Blount soil on the farm.Retired from the Seneca County Soil and Water Conservation District, Lynn had a long track record of no-till and cover crop use in his farm operation, so that is where they started.“That first year we tilled it because it had been chiseled the year before that. Since then it has been in no-till,” Lynn said. “We have also used cover crops on that farm religiously. At the time we got that farm, we were predominantly using rye.”With a base of continuous no-till and cover crops, the Eberhards set to work on the fertility.“We soil tested and the pH was around 4.8. We added lime and P and K,” Lynn said. “We systematically tiled in in ’06. Then in ’09 we started using tillage radishes for cover crops on the farm. In the last two years we have used fungicide and started foliar feeding.”After years of working to improve the production of that farm, there are significant and obvious differences.“That field is a lot softer today than it was in ‘01. When we started in that field, it was so hard our 750 drill was just chattering. Now you can go in there and it is soft on top — a lot more mellow,” he said. “We’ve still got some compaction issues on that farm and we are trying to work on that with some annual ryegrass and more radishes. We didn’t have the moisture standing on the ground in the spring this year as long as the conventionally tilled fields around here and that ground holds the moisture longer for when we need it. That 59-bushel field from ‘01 was at 200 bushels for a field average this fall, which is the highest it has ever been. The drainage improvement was the No. 1 thing that field needed and getting the pH balanced out was probably No. 2. The fertility was No. 3 and the no-till and cover crops were a big part of that too.”2015 No-Till Council award winners recognized: Mark Wilson, Land Stewards, LLC. (left) Business/Industry Award; Norm Fausey, USDA-ARS, (second from left) Educator/Researcher Award; Lynn Eberhard (center) and his sons, Outstanding No-Till Farmer.This year the area dodged the worst of the wet spring and early summer, which also helped the yields on the farm.“We got a good bit of rain but not like they got to the east of us in Norwalk or further west in Van Wert,” Lynn said. “This year we started planting corn about the first week of May and the beans were done the 15th of May. We had most of the corn planted in a week and were finished with corn around May 10 or 11. We had some rain after that but we weren’t drowned out. Then we got a nice window to sidedress in June. It got kind of dry in August, but with the mulch we have on the ground we kept the moisture.”No-till started on the farm more than 35 years ago.“I was working in the Soil and Water office in Seneca County and we got a no-till drill in late 70s. I was in charge of getting it around and getting people to use it. It seemed like it would save a lot of work as far as tillage so I thought I would try it,” Lynn said. “It yielded as well as our conventional beans did and it seemed like a good thing to do. I just started on 10 acres with beans with the no-till drill in 1980. A few years later we tried corn with a planter. It worked and we bought a White 5100 no-till planter in 1985. Corn was more difficult after wheat because we couldn’t get the soil to dry, but if you planted corn after beans it worked much better. At the time, the biggest thing with no-till was the reduced labor. “Through the years, they have not changed much with the equipment.“We added reside managers to the planter a while back and then we took them off because stuff was wrapping up on them and we never put them back on,” Lynn said. “Two years ago we got the Graham Electric drive so we could variable rate plant. One of the key things for no-till is waiting until the field is fit to plant and get things killed off. We don’t have fancy stuff for planting in the mud because we just don’t plant in the mud.”The biggest change to enhance the no-till on the farm has been with cover crops, not equipment. In the early 1990s, Eberhard started experimenting with cereal rye.“The biggest problem we had with no-till was getting the wheat stubble to dry out, so we’d plant rye after wheat harvest,” he said. “That helped a lot to dry the ground out in early spring for planting the beans.”The benefits of the cover crops have made them a management priority on the farm.“Instead of planting mid- to late- beans we plant 1.9s to 2.9s so we can get them off earlier. We’re planting 90- to 100-day corn so we can get the crops off and the cover crops planted,” Lynn said. “Sometimes we are in the same field planting cover crops behind the combine. We try to get the cover crops in if the field is open. We really haven’t encountered challenges with insects, disease or controlling them. We do watch for armyworms after the rye, but we have never had to spray insecticides for them.”For the last 10 years, all of the farm’s 700 acres have been covered year round with around 100 acres of wheat in the rotation and a combination of numerous blends of cover crops, said Eric Eberhard.“When my brother and I got more involved with the farm we just never let the ball drop with cover crops. We just kept it rolling. The biggest thing we brought to the farm is more diversity with cover crops. Dad always stuck with single species like tillage radish, or cereal rye, or winter peas. Now we are trying six- and eight-way blends into the wheat stubble instead of just radishes, or rapeseed with the cereal rye. We are trying to get things moving faster,” Eric said. “I work in ag retail and I noticed right away that we didn’t need so many chemicals to keep the weeds like marestail at bay. Different cover crop blends have a lot to offer. Just straight radishes have their place, but they seem to do so much better in a mix. It is sort of an experiment every time that all depends upon the soil type. I know different growers have different things they like because that is what works on their farm.”The Eberhards are continuing to develop cover crop strategies for the different soil types and different crop rotations.“We like to include cereal rye in front of soybeans, winter peas before corn and radishes after wheat,” Eric said. “The cereal rye helps dry out the ground in the spring for the beans and its weed suppression is second to none — for marestail and giant ragweed especially. It also helps add organic matter to the soybeans. Winter pea before corn provides so many roots. We plant ours in 15-inch rows. We dig them up in the row and right in the middle of the rows and it is the same amount of roots all the way across, 8 inches down — unbelievable. There really haven’t been too many cover crops we don’t like.”The cost of cover crop blends can get steep, but the Eberhards see tremendous value in using them.“We try to not put too much of some kinds in the blends so we don’t break the bank. Most of the time our seed costs are around $30 an acre, but on some of our tougher fields, if we get up to $50 an acre I think it is worth it to address those tough situations we are seeing to get those fields where they need to be,” Eric said. “The cover crops have made the biggest impacts in our poorest fields. If cover crops can improve your poor ground that much, just imagine what they do on your good ground.”Though the benefits of their healthier soils are hard to quantify, they know they have added value to the farm.“Our biggest issue is that we can’t keep residue on the surface of the ground. The worms come up and just eat it all,” Eric said. “We are trying to grow higher organic matter cover crops to feed what is underneath the ground. The ground is so mellow now and so easy to work with.”Cover crops also provide value that can be quantified.“With the cover crops, those fields are ready to plant in the spring. I didn’t spend $25 an acre tearing it up and another $20 to put it back down. The fields are ready to go after the cover crops. We save labor, time and fuel with farming the way we do,” Lynn said. “It also has helped reduce spraying costs. With marestail we have had to keep spraying, but we kill the marestail and then the cover crop keeps it under control.”They are also considering ratcheting down fertilizer use in the future.“After winter peas last year we cut nitrogen rates by half in test strips and the cut rate yielded only two bushels less. We are not ready to commit to it yet but it is something we are looking at,” Lynn said. “And, all the neighbor ladies like to see the sunflowers and the landlords in general like to see the cover crops. They are happy when they can go out in their fields and see earthworms.”Happy landlords, lower costs, better soils and improved yields make the Eberhards confident in the system of no-till and cover crops on their farm.“We may be a day or two later planting than others, but based on the coffee shop talk around here I’d say our yields are keeping up with everyone else’s,” Lynn said. “There are some challenges, but when you see a problem with the no-till you have to remember there are failures with conventional systems too. There was a time when I thought we were giving up a little yield with the no-till, but today I don’t believe we are giving anything up as far as yields go.”last_img

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