Leading Through Conservation
Variable Rate Side-dressing and Inter-seeding Cover Crops
By Dusty Sonnenberg, CCA, Ohio Field Leader, a project of the Ohio Soybean Council and soybean check-off.
Time is one of the most precious commodities on a farm. There are windows of opportunity to accomplish certain tasks in production agriculture, and with the adoption of new practices, such as cover crops, sometimes those windows become limited. One example is the seeding of cover crops after corn that soybeans will be planted into the following spring. Depending on the corn maturity, often the window following corn harvest is too late to successfully establish a cover crop and meet the requirements of many government programs.
In an effort to mitigate the timing issue of late seeding after harvest, some farmers have attempted to “fly-on” the cover crop just prior to leaf drop. In some cases, farmers have seeded with a “hi-boy” type machine. Siebeneck Farms in Putnam County is inter-seeding cover crops at the same time they side-dress their corn with a modified side-dress applicator. In this approach, timing is critical. The corn needs to be emerged and growing at a rate that the cover crop will not compete with the corn like a weed. At the same time, a window of opportunity needs to be found to allow the cover crop to germinate and establish itself before it is shaded out by the corn canopy. The annual rye will then go dormant and begin to re-grow in the late summer as the corn canopy opens again as the corn ripens and dries down.
At the same time the cover crop inter-seeding is going on, a variable rate of side-dress fertilizer is being applied. “We are running a Salford SD10 cart on a J&M 28% applicator frame, so we are doing a twin bin dry application,” said Aaron Siebeneck. “It is all Isobus through our Pro700 monitor. We are running it through a Mueller controller, so we are twin variable rating applying our phosphate and nitrogen application as well.”
“By applying the phosphorus source during side-dressing, the nitrogen component is better utilized by the growing crop, and we are moving our phosphorus application out of the fall. Also by moving our application from the fall to the spring and in the growing season, we are able to take some of the nitrogen credits and be able to use it toward crop yield,” said Siebeneck. “We are variable rating both the N and P by subscription to make sure we are getting them in the right place at the right time.”
The right place at the right time is more than just a 4R’s slogan for Siebeneck. “We are running 24 coulters on a 30-foot bar so we can apply the fertilizer in two strips along both sides of the row and place it closer to where the roots can utilize it,” said Siebeneck.” We are running four section controls across the 30-foot bar and running a dual recommendation for the two nutrient products we are applying. We are making sure we work the nutrient placement to credit every pound we are applying and making sure we get it in the soil.”
Variable rate application is beneficial economically and environmentally to farmers. The fertilizer is being applied where it is needed and utilized while not wasting it in less productive areas, or environmentally sensitive parts of the field. “As we go across the field, we are inter-seeding 20 pounds of annual rye, and variable rate applying 18-46-0 DAP from one bin, and a blend of ammonia sulfate and Urea with sulfur from the other bin,” said Siebeneck. “When the prescription changes as we go across the field, the rates change automatically. We are targeting a nitrogen rate of 180 pounds and slightly increasing the rate in higher yielding environments. As the phosphorus recommendation goes up, we can drop rate of the Urea blend nitrogen since we increase the nitrogen from the higher rate of DAP.
Transitioning requires flexibility and having the right tools for the job
By Dusty Sonnenberg, CCA, Ohio Field Leader, a project of the Ohio Soybean Council and soybean check-off
In a twist of fate, the transition to organics began in 2019 for Shane Meyer of Countryside Land Management in Wood County. It was the year that found over 50% of the acres in Wood County electing for “prevent plant” status.
“We were a traditional corn and soybean operation using strip-till for the corn,” Meyer said. “I had been talking to a neighbor that has been an organic grower for a number of years about what it took to transition from a conventional farm, and the prevent plant year gave us a great opportunity.”
Shane Meyer grew up on their family farm in Henry County and worked in his father’s trucking business.
“I got more involved in the farming operation when I bought my first farm in 2005,” Meyer said. “In 2007 we purchased an RTK guidance system and a 6-row Orthman strip-till machine. The strip-till is the perfect happy medium (between conventional tillage and no-till). I began to strip-till 150 acres of our ground, and another 400 to 500 acres of custom strip-till for neighbors.”
It wasn’t long until Meyer noticed some interest in variable rate fertilizer application with the strip-till.
“Farmers were still broadcasting their fertilizer, and the technology was available to variable rate apply it with the strip-till machine in the strips,” Meyer said. “In 2009 I bought an 8-row Orthman strip-till machine with a single fertilizer bin to variable rate apply the fertilizer as a blend. In 2014, the customers told me they wanted to variable rate two products, and so I upgraded to a twin bin machine that can variable rate apply two single products or blends.”
On average, Meyer annually custom strip-tills 1,500 acres, and if weather permits, will often do another 500 acres.
Cover crops entered the picture for Meyer when he added a broadcast seeder onto his strip-till machine in 2014.
“I am really learning a lot in this area,” Meyer said. “I have worked with cover crops, in particular cereal rye for about 7 years. We will broadcast about a bushel of cereal rye in front of the strip-till machine, and then adjust the row cleaners to throw a little more soil to clean the rye out of the strips, and to cover some of the seed in the middle of the rows.”
As Meyer transitions to organic production, he is attempting incorporate the benefits of using cover crops.
“There is so much to learn when it comes to cover crops,” Meyer said. “I am just beginning to learn more about cover crop blends. Finding the right cover crop blend is what I am trying to figure out to use on the fields we are transitioning to organic production.”
Meyer turned to Jay Brandt of Walnut Creek Seeds for advice and now is also a seed dealer for them. The thought of pressure from weeds and insects, as well as re-introducing tillage into the operation have been hurdles Meyer has had to overcome in his transition to organic farming. “When I first was considering organic farming, someone told me that if you can’t stand the sight of weeds, then don’t go organic,” Meyer said. “I don’t like to see a weedy field. I am working to learn as much as I can to prevent weeds from getting established. I think insect pressure is just something we need to deal with when they happen.
Weeds are something we can prevent from getting established. I like the phrase start clean, stay clean. I have spent hours cultivating our organic soybeans this summer.”
Having the right tool for the job is a key regardless of the application.
“When I am not farming, I am working on trucks,” Meyer said. “I have a toolbox full of tools that I do not use on every job every day, but when I need them for a particular job, then I need to have them or the job doesn’t get done. Weed control in organic farming is a lot like that. You may have several styles of cultivators or tillage tools that all basically accomplish the same task, but each do it in a slightly different way. Depending on what size the beans are, and where the weeds are at determines which tool I need for the job.”
Meyer’s latest tool purchase is a weed zapper.
“The concept of a weed zapper is to use a high volt of electricity to control weed escapes that grow above the soybean canopy,” Meyer said. “Even if the weed has gone to seed, research shows that when a weed comes in contact with the electricity, it will kill the weed, and also greatly reduce the germination of any weed seeds that were produced by that plant.”
Meyer knows that there is still a lot to learn, and there are more tools that are available for organic weed control that he has not seen yet.
“Sometimes you think a particular tool will do the job, but you don’t know until you try,” Meyer said. “Having the right tool for the job, whether it is strip-till with variable rate fertilizer, or the right cover crop blend, or even a weed zapper — they are all tools in the toolbox waiting for the right job.”
“A loss of nutrients and soil is a loss of a resource to my farm.”
On his 1200 acres, Steve Reinhard has implemented waterways, buffers and drainage programs to conserve his soil and protect the environment. These conservation practices allow for nutrients to be retained in the soil, especially in heavy rainstorms. Steve chooses to be a conservation leader because he understands that it is the right way to manage the land, protects the environment, and saves his farm money.
There are currently three generations working to implement the best conservation management practices on Black Farms. The Blacks utilize sub-surface drainage with control structures that allow them to better manage the nutrients in their fields. Additionally, the Blacks employ grid soil sampling and variable rate technology to help them to understand when and where to efficiently and effectively apply fertilizer. Black Farms are doing more with less as they continue to implement innovative conservation practices on their farm.
Ryan Rhoades manages 3200 acres of land in North Central Ohio as well as a hog operation. Ryan has reduced his minimized tillage practices, installed grassed waterways, and implemented surface and sub-surface drainage systems. Rhoades also injects manure into the soil rather than spreading it over top of the ground to contain the nutrients in the soil and protect our water sources. In addition to the conservation practices Ryan has implemented on his land, he also utilizes a manure/waste storage facility for his hog operation. Rhoades recognizes the importance of containing excess nitrogen and phosphorus from hog manure to protect water quality.
Over the years, Matt has implemented many sustainable practices to preserve soil nutrients and improve water quality on his farm in Darke County. In the mid-1990s, he began no-till farming. Matt recognizes that not disturbing the soil helps to retain moisture and nutrients in the soil and protects water quality. More recently, Matt has also employed field filter border strips, cover crops and forest management plans. Matt chooses to be a good steward to protect the next generation.
Duane Stateler and his son, Anthony, are the fifth and sixth generations to operate their 1,000-acre soybean, corn, wheat and hog farm. Raising livestock and managing manure requires increased attention to conservation, but it’s always been a priority for the Statelers. Their farm is part of the Blanchard River Demonstration Farms Network (BRDFN), an initiative designed to showcase and demonstrate innovative conservation practices for improved water quality.
Duane and Anthony were on the leading edge of cover crops when they began planting them in 2008. They started using oilseed radishes to help capture nutrients from the hog manure they spread and have since evolved to using three- and five-way mixes. “We try to keep a growing crop in at all times, and we’ve seen great benefit from it,” said Duane. “We’ve found cover crops do more than help with runoff. They also help with nitrates and keep soil from moving during major rain storms.”
In addition to cover crops, the Statelers use many other conservation strategies like variable-rate manure application and adherence to the 4Rs. “Many people expect there to be one thing they can do to solve a problem like runoff, but, depending on the scope, size and cropping system of your farm, there is a long list of practices that should be incorporated to be effective,” explained Duane.
The Statelers’ farm is currently the only BRDFN site to use drainage water management structures as a way to stop phosphorus from leaving their fields through the tile. These structures give them more control over the water table in their fields, which allows them to reduce nutrient leaching while also controlling moisture levels during critical times like planting and harvest. For further runoff control, they installed a phosphorus removal bed, which acts as a filter for water coming from the drainage tile. It uses steel slag, a phosphorus sorption material, to trap phosphorus before it gets into surface water.
Watch this video to learn more about conservation on the Stateler farm from Duane and Anthony.
Bill Kellogg is a fifth-generation farmer who grows soybeans, corn, wheat and some sunflowers with his son, Shane. Bill began implementing conservation practices like grassed waterways and filter strips 25 years ago. Over the years, the Kelloggs expanded environmental efforts to include subsurface drainage, cover crops, minimal tillage and variable-rate technology for precise fertilizer placement.
Bill and Shane follow 4R nutrient management practices and participate in the Blanchard River Demonstration Farms Network, which showcases leading-edge work to improve the Great Lakes’ water quality. In addition, they plant four to five acres of sunflowers annually to provide a habitat for bees, butterflies and other pollinators that are vital to crops.
“Focusing on doing right does require more on-farm management, but it’s worth the investment. We need to protect our environment so our family farm remains prosperous and future generations can enjoy the land and water,” said Bill.
Watch this video to learn more about conservation on Kellogg Farms.
Alissa and Andrew Armstrong are siblings who actively collaborate on their family farm in Clark County. Growing corn, soybeans and hay, the Armstrongs prioritize conservation by implementing sustainable practices in their fields. Most recently, they installed subsurface drainage tiles to allow for healthy water flow and to minimize the risk of contamination.
As no-till farmers, they care for their soil by keeping it undisturbed and also use grid sampling to prescribe specific fertilizer needs for each acre. This strategy ensures their crops get the nutrient support they need without wasting resources. When applying fertilizer, they apply at the correct time in the correct amount in the correct locations to reduce the risk of runoff. Natural buffer strips like tree lines and surrounding Conservation Reserve Program ground also protect their fields from water sources.
“It’s because of universities like OSU and their newly established Center for Soybean Research we can implement new innovative production practices and be more efficient while growing better crops,” said Alissa. “There are really smart people there who have helped us get to where we are today and understand things like water quality and what we can do to improve it.”
Brothers Andy and Brian Stickel utilize no-till for about 85 percent of the corn and soybeans on their family’s farm. They also plant cereal rye and other cover crops in standing corn stalks for living coverage and soil enrichment. Cover crops and soil testing are effective components of their livestock nutrient management plan.
In an effort to use minimal fertilizer, they plant 15-inch rows of soybeans and 30-inch rows of corn, banding it in the strip 2-3 inches deep on each side of the row ahead of the planter. This method helped eliminate phosphorus and fertilizer applications in the fall.
“We believe in cover crops as a conservation tool. It’s not no-till. We’re building soil health,” said Andy. “We’re trying to use less and less fertilizer and increase cover crops. It’s about finding the right balance.”
Bret Davis has implemented conservation practices on his family farm to improve its safety and sustainability. Davis Farms utilizes a variety of practices, including buffer strips and variable-rate technology, to keep the nutrients applied to their fields where they were placed.
Focusing on soil health is the most important aspect of the farm’s operations. Davis plans to continue improving soil structure by eliminating compaction, enhancing drainage and ensuring cover crops are keeping the ground covered at all times.
“As best practices change, farmers adapt as soon as we can,” Davis says. “We do everything to be sustainable.”
John Kraft plants cover crops and utilizes no-till to keep soil in his fields and out of the water. Soil is tested on a three-year rotation to monitor nutrient levels.
He also participates in Farm Service Agency Conservation Reserve Programs that align with his desire to maintain habitat diversity and support wildlife such as wild game and songbirds. Warm season grass buffers have been added along field edges for water quality and approximately 4,000 trees were planted to increase wildlife habitat.
“It’s important because it’s the right thing to do,” said John. “Agriculture tends to get more blame than we should. We’re trying to do better. We need clean water, and we need to do our part.”
Nate Douridas is the farm manager for the Molly Caren Agricultural Center, which is home to Ohio’s annual Farm Science Review. Conservation efforts playing a major role in operations. No-till, strip-till and vertical-tillage are all utilized in different areas of the farm along with buffer strips in fields intersected by the Deer Creek. Regular soil testing helps him create the plan for nutrient management, which is applied using Variable Rate Technology (VRT).
Planting dates are critical to ensure crops are ready for harvest during demonstrations at the Farm Science Review in mid-September. Cover crops include reduced rate wheat, oats and Lynx winter pea for easy spring burn down. Water control structures help manage soil moisture as part of the Edge of Field research program. VRT is used for spring planting prescriptions based on soil moisture and drainage capabilities.
Meiring Poultry has built a reputation for making conservation a priority. Bill Knapke, who runs the poultry, hog and row crop operation, has implemented several practices to monitor and improve soil and water quality. These include waterways, cover crops and no-till practices to prevent erosion and help hold nutrients in the soil. The farm also features wetlands that help filter and slow down the water to help reduce the flow of nutrients.
They follow a nutrient management plan and Bill utilizes a manure storage facility to hold fertilizer until it can be sold and applied at the right time. In addition, the farm hosts two Edge of Field water monitoring stations to measure nutrient runoff of different farm practices and utilizes an iron slag filter, which catches and retains phosphorous from drainage water.
“We have an opportunity to grow better crops and at the same time help improve water quality and the community that we live in,” said Bill. “We’re just trying to do our part.”
Lane Osswald and his family utilize several conservation practices, including no-till and cover crops to protect the soil from erosion and prevent nutrient run-off. They also conduct soil tests and use variable rate technology to apply the right nutrients and fertilizers at the right time. As a certified crop advisor, Lane combines initial recommendations from the local co-op and adjusts them based on historical knowledge and farm data. He sees results from these agronomic practices paying off in his field because the soil holds more moisture and withstand dry spells in the summer.
“Overall I think we’re using less nutrients to grow a better crop and the nutrients are going in the right places,” explained Lane. “I’m a fifth-generation farmer, my son is pretty convinced he wants to farm, my nephews will probably want to farm. I believe I can leave the soil in better shape then I found it so they have a better start.”
Chris Kurt and his family have utilized conservation practices for more than 20 years. They no till soybeans, use a drainage control structure to shut off field tile in the winter and employ grid soil sampling to help them understand when and where to efficiently apply fertilizer using variable rate technology.
Recently, they elevated their commitment to improving water quality by joining the Blanchard River Demonstration Farm Network. This program will help them test their current practices, identify areas for improvement and share results with other farmers. One of the areas of research includes a two-stage ditch. They will continue their current practices on one side and implement new techniques like no-till corn and cover crops on the other to compare results. They’ve also installed a phosphorous bed to help extract excess phosphorous from water before it leaves the field and plan to do something similar with a nitrate filter.
“We do it to protect the water, but it also helps us get the most out of our soil and nutrients,” said Chris. “If we’re losing nutrients down the river, we’re paying for something we’re not using.”
Ryan and his family employ a variety of conservation practices including buffer strips along ditches and minimum tillage to help retain moisture and nutrients in the soil. They also use water control structures to help prevent runoff after manure applications and utilize center pivot irrigation systems for precise nitrogen applications to crops.
Several years ago, the McClures volunteered to collaborate with the Ohio Department of Agriculture to host edge-of-field water nutrient testing stations. This helps them understand the true impact of their farm practices on water quality and make improvements for the future.
“We agreed to the edge-of-field water monitoring because we believe it’s important to understand what’s coming off our fields and how much is actually from agriculture when we talk water quality,” said Ryan.