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Earlier this year in the spring of 2022, No-Till Farmer launched the Conservation Ag Operator Fellowship, aimed at digging deep into no-till management practices with a long-time, successful no-tiller to further the understanding of conservation ag practices. Jim Leverich of Sparta, Wis., was chosen as our inaugural Conservation Ag Fellow and we’ve visited him to learn what practices he’s been using and how they’ve helped him succeed. He's also been responding to questions from other no-tillers about specific no-till practices at No-TillFarmer.com/asktheoperator.
    
For this episode of the No-Till Farmer podcast, brought to you by SOURCE by Sound Agriculture, we caught up with Jim to ask him about some of the things he’s learned about no-till since he was first introduced to the practice back in the 1980s. Listen in the hear about his on-farm testing regimen, why he’s a fan of anhydrous ammonia, what seed companies could learn from the dairy industry, how much of a yield bump he gets by planting corn in 20-inch rows instead of 30s, why he says RTK steering is the most important part of his planter and much more.

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Full Transcript 

Julia Gerlach:

Welcome to the No-Till Farmer Podcast brought to you today by SOURCE by Sound Agriculture. I'm Julia Gerlach. For this episode of the No-Till Farmer Podcast, we caught up with no-tiller Jim Leverich of Sparta, Wisconsin. Jim is No-Till Farmer's 2022 Conservation Ag Operator Fellow.

Jim Leverich:

I've been here since, grew up on this farm. Farm was established in 1864. My grandfathers, they moved here from New York and they were in the fruit business and dairy business, so this farm originally was a strawberry... They had about 25 acres of strawberries and they had 30 dairy cows. They had grapes and they also had apple and orchard in the back part of the farm. But the trees are all deceased now. Some of the grapes are still there and we're kind of starting another vineyard. My daughter is helping do that.

Julia Gerlach:

Oh, that's cool. Wow.

Jim Leverich:

Through the years, my great-grandfather was quite involved locally here, setting up the fruit produce co-op, which is now a corn and soybean and dairy co-op. But then my other grandfather was a senator. He ran the farm on the side and he was in the State Senate for 28 years. And then from there, my father came back from World War II and started running the farm, but he worked off the farm as well. So all of us have always had another occupation besides farming except for the first two or three generations. So we've always had two professional careers, I like to say. I think farming is a profession as well as anybody else's. So we did that. The farm was about 130 acres when I started, and now we've grown it to about a thousand acres. We're pretty much corn and soybeans. Sometimes we have a little alfalfa and perennial ryegrass. Sometimes we raise beef. Right now we don't have a beef herd, but I wouldn't doubt that we get back into the beef at some point, just because it's just too much to handle for myself. But if I have a son or daughter that comes back and works in the area and they can get involved, then we might have another cow herd.

Julia Gerlach:

Oh, that's great. Well, and you mentioned dairy and I know that you have a dairy science degree. And so was it a dairy at some point that when you were working on it?

Jim Leverich:

Growing up here, we had a herdsman. The guy worked for my father for 50 years. He pretty much took care of all the cows. We did the crops and we had about 40 cows at that time. And then we kind of got out of the dairy industry probably 30 years ago and got into feeding cattle and raising beef herd. He stayed with us to do that. But he was such a reliable, if we could have the generation today be as reliable as George was, it'd be great. Because you could go away and you always were sure that George was here doing his job. It was pretty neat actually that he stayed 50. He started when he was 14 and worked till he was retired here.

Julia Gerlach:

Wow. That's amazing.

Jim Leverich:

So anyhow, because of the dairy part of it, I used to show a lot of dairy cattle in 4-H and FFA. And then I went on to school at Madison for a degree in dairy science and farm management. And then I went to Illinois for a master's in dairy science and farm management. Did a lot of computer stuff. Actually wrote a piece of software that was used by Land O'Lakes for probably 20 years that balanced rations. Because I had cows on trial at the University of Illinois. I had 80 cows on an experiment that we were comparing electronic grain feeders to total mixed rations. We were looking at the frequency of ration balancing and how that impacted the productivity of the cows early in their lactation. And so then I came back here, and for about six months I worked for Doboy Feed Company in some consulting work.

And then I worked as a feed nutritionist for them for a short period of time. I really liked the job. I had a hard time leaving it. But the extension agent job came open, and so I decided to go down that route. Because I had done a lot of work with Dr. Howard, who was a dairy nutritionist in Madison came from Kansas and Dr. Hutchins at the University of Illinois. He's still working. He's probably in his 80s. He's a very good extension dairyman. I wrote some software for him in graduate school, the Illinois ration-balancing programs. The reason I talk about that dairy background is it's very similar to precision agriculture in that with DHI record testing for cows, where we were taking tests on cows every month and every cow. Basically that's what we're getting into with precision ag is now we can farm every acre separately and be a lot better managers and have a lot of information and lots of data to make decisions instead of just short little experiments.

Julia Gerlach:

And so the data that you were collecting on the cows, it was what you were giving them to feed or to eat and then also their production?

Jim Leverich:

Yeah, the data was twofold. It was all the milk information. So the DHI cooperatives, which are still in existent today, had all of the milk and protein and fat records on cows and they predicted the total lactational production. And all that data is used to look at the genetics of cows and the genetics of bulls. So all the bull studs use that data to calculate out which families of genetics have the strongest attributes in the dairy industry. And so I see the same thing happening in precision ag, but it's not as coordinated of an effort as the other effort was done through universities and through the USDA when they started the DHI cooperative. I wish that they would do the same for doing field crops. They could use that same type of system that would not be biased by any seed company or whatever. It would be more of a big database that would help to sort that out.

Julia Gerlach:

Yeah. That's interesting, there isn't anything like that for the crop.

Jim Leverich:

No, not really. Except that large cooperatives or companies like 360, they'll collect data on every farmer that they have and use that internally to make their decisions. But no, not on a U.S. basis is there. You could be comparing crop production of different hybrids across many environments and then pick them out that way just like they do with cows.

Julia Gerlach:

You're sort of envisioning that, looking at all the different hybrids that are out there, look at how it's fed and what the soil type is and the moisture.

Jim Leverich:

Companies do that, but they don't do it in comparison with each other, which is interesting. So the other thing that happened when I came back here, I was the dairy livestock agent, so I got into that. And then our county farm here had actually a area where we could use 80 acres to do research on it. And so we did a lot of dairy production research with total mixed rations, but then we also did a lot of no-till research. The no-till research was done with Paul Carter who's an agronomist at Pioneer now. But back in the day, back when I was doing that back in the late '80s, early '90s, he was working for the University of Wisconsin Extension service and he was doing a lot of work on no-till corn production. And so a lot of that initial work was done here at this county farm.

Julia Gerlach:

No kidding.

Jim Leverich:

And then wasn't far after that that I started going into no-till.

Julia Gerlach:

So you were introduced to the no-till concept through him?

Jim Leverich:

Somewhat through the university extension. And then there's a farmer that was my landlord who I've worked with now to purchase his farms. He still works with me and he no-tilled way back. There's a couple other farmers I knew that no-tilled. And so those guys were the pioneers and they went in and out of no-till a little bit, but ended up being a hundred percent. And so we learned a lot from them. There's always this feeling when you go into no-till that, oh, I'm missing something that I might be not getting the full yield. I don't really think so. It seems to just get better. I've been talking a little bit about looking into that with my daughter who's a soil scientist that's finishing her PhD at Minnesota and doing a lot of precision ag. But I said, with our guidance systems now, we got to probably take a few 40 foot strips in our fields and go back to some conventional types of, not conventional but strip-till or some type of tillage to see how it compares to our no-till. It would be a very interesting thing to do. We could control that environment now with the steering systems we have now. It would be very easy to lay those different systems in and not goof them up.

Julia Gerlach:

Right. Interesting. And so you're working for extension and then you came back to the farm you were farming with your dad at the time?

Jim Leverich:

Yeah. So when I came back to do the extension work, I wanted to farm, but he thought maybe it'd be best if I got employed. He was right, because it wasn't enough here to do it. So we built the farm on the side and kept farming and building the facilities here so that we could continue to grow our acres. We do a lot of applied research on the farm now that we have done... For years, when I was working at the university, I do a lot of trials with Dr. Bundy who was a soil scientist there and Dr. Wachowski. And so some of those trials we actually did on this farm as well, as well as the other places. So I was in the county office for 17 years and I moved into the crop research.

And so I had a lot of crop plots, no-till. Roundup Ready technologies all came in. We did a lot of variety and hybrid tests there and we had a no-till farmer group. What we would do with that group is we would set up these trials and then we'd have field days in the summer. And in the winter we'd take the results and we'd have a crop, two or three crop days. And then we'd bring in specialists to talk on those events. So kind of a mini Frank Lessiter type thing on a county base. When we did it, it ended up being several counties usually that we'd work two or three counties around the area. So from all that research stuff I was doing, I ended up going into On Farm Research at the university where it was mostly a lot of nutrient and manure management types research where we raised money. I worked with a couple larger farms in Wisconsin to look at their manure separation and application costs, stuff like that. And so I did that for the last 18 years, and then I retired a few years ago and started just farming full time.

Julia Gerlach:

And then it's not really about no-till, but I'm really curious to hear a little bit more about the manure separation work that you did.

Jim Leverich:

We did a lot of manure separation work to evaluate the cost of different types of processes like Larson Acres is South of Madison. They're an excellent farm, do a lot of good cooperation with the university even in dairy research and crop research. That's probably a three to 4,000 cow dairy now. So what we did there is we did a lot of experiments looking at how much it cost them to move manure farther away, and then how much it was. We did a lot of sampling. We sampled the manure every two hours when they were hauling it, two or four hours. And then we would keep track of this analysis and we would keep track of where the tractor was in the field with GPS, so then we could build a nutrient application map based on the actual samples.

Julia Gerlach:

That's amazing.

Jim Leverich:

We found that the samples vary tremendously in large lagoons, which we would've expected. I think there's a lot more work that could be done with farmers to help them to better manage those nutrients. I think our nutrient management laws in Wisconsin actually inhibit the ability to manage nutrients because we force farmers to apply all their manure if they're CAFO in the spring and the fall. Example here, I'm farming 12 or 13 little dairies that had 30 to 50 cows on them in my crop land. None of those fields get manure anymore. As a kid, you'd go out here and you'd spread manure daily two, three loads. They'd get spread. The risk of them reaching any environmental problem was almost zero. You'd hardly ever see runoff because manure was put on, it's a risk management thing. So now we put all the risk in two periods.

So if we get a ton of rainfall in June, which we usually do, after they've applied all this manure that is high in nitrogen, we can have a lot of leaching or loss. It's not the farmer's fault. It's because policy setters have put together regulations that think they're doing the right thing but they're not really accomplishing what they'd like. So I've been doing a little work trying to get some people to listen at the higher ups about it. They're so ingrained in their thinking process that they have to regulate. There's a dairy that has two, 300 cows just to the East of us here that they still haul once a week. So they have a little pit and I don't think they have any manure management issues because they're hauling that manure. And so what happens is when we force farmers to put on manure all one time, they go out and they wait till the snow's off and they'll go out and they'll put 10,000 gallons on an 80 acre field, the whole field.

And so if you get a big rainfall or snow event and then it melts, it's going to move, and it's because they're kind of forced into doing that. Whereas if they could come to me in the wintertime with a truckload a week or two and just apply it to my farm in strips with GPS, I would know where it is. I could adjust for it. We could just use some simple, common sense technologies to avoid the problems. All these acres that I have now they're in no-till. They could have snow on them, I think, and you could apply manure if you did it smart and you use some common sense. But it's going to be a long ways to get back to that.

Julia Gerlach:

And so the smaller dairies don't have those regulations, right?

Jim Leverich:

No, they don't.

Julia Gerlach:

Because they're not CAFOs. So they can basically apply whenever they want. So you're saying these larger ones, are they not allowed to haul off their property?

Jim Leverich:

Yeah. They're not allowed to haul anywhere without a manure management plan.

Julia Gerlach:

Oh, I see.

Jim Leverich:

Rented or non-rented acres or whatever. Right here when I was a kid, there was 120 acres and 30 cows. So there's about four acres per cow of spreadable land. Now a lot of these farms at one and a half to two acres to meet their nutrient management plan, because they're using a hundred percent of their nutrients rather than buying any fertilizer, whereas here we used to buy fertilizer in addition to our cow manure. And so we were just way less risk-averse. But people don't understand that. They don't have enough background in farming, or they'll see a study that says, manure runs off with snow, we can't do it. But they don't think of all the other risks that they've created storing all this manure in huge volumes is a big risk for leakage and things like that. All these things they've created, they don't think about the big picture in a decision. And so my goal would be, if I could manage manure in this state would be to get it on as many acres as possible. At a thinner rate. You'd apply it in like our standing cornstalk. You would apply it maybe 50 feet wide and then skip 50 or a hundred feet and put another 50 feet on. And so therefore if it moves at all when the snows melts, it's probably not going to move very far. You see what I'm saying?

Julia Gerlach:

Yeah. That makes good sense.

Jim Leverich:

So that's how I look at farming as a whole is that we have to look at the big picture when we make a decision, not just the little picture at a time and how it impacts our whole management.

Julia Gerlach:

Last year, there's a digester outside of Madison. Any chance the Larson farm is feeding into that?

Jim Leverich:

No, I don't think they are because they have a manure system that basically is a squeeze press and that takes out most of the solids. And then the more liquid fraction goes into, it used to have an ultra filtration system and everything, but it was too expensive to operate. We, for example, wanted to irrigate that manure. Well, the DNR wouldn't even let us do a research trial, which was ridiculous because we had tea water, which was really high in the soluble nitrogen. So when you apply manure with an injector in the spring, there's quite a high percentage of soluble nitrogen. Whereas if you squeeze it out and you take that soluble nitrogen and put it in a different lagoon and you can irrigate that in season, which they wanted to do, they call it tea water, then we can even increase the efficiency of the nitrogen.

Normally, if we take a nitrogen sample and manure, we take about a 35% credit of it. In other words, if it was 10, we figure there's three and a half of actual nitrogen available because of the environmental losses or efficiency or how it's bound up in the soil. Well, we could have moved that up to 65% and still got a crop response. The problem is that the regulatory agency should stay out of the research business and let the universities do the research. They were so afraid of irrigating manure at the time, they wouldn't let us do the research.

Julia Gerlach:

Interesting.

Jim Leverich:

So there again is a pitfall in the system that would be an excellent way for them to squeeze out that liquid, use it in season when the crop uses it so there's not really much chance of loss at all. And then they would just buffer themselves from any residential areas or whatnot. They wouldn't irrigate there. But that's a big problem in Dane County and a lot of these counties is that the cities are moving in on the farms and so then that becomes an issue. And so the farmers have difficulty in Dane County, for example, a lot of the land, because I worked in a watershed project there, the Pleasant Valley Watershed. There's a lot of good smaller dairies there yet that are under 200 cows that they struggle finding land to spread manure because people come out and buy up CRP land and then there's not a land to spread on. Again, that's a good process, but on the other hand, maybe they ought to open up the CRP acres to apply nutrient. There's a lot of pitfalls in manure management. That's why you're seeing the farms move out of Wisconsin and move into states like South Dakota where there's lots of fast revenues of crop land to put manure on.

Julia Gerlach:

So you talked about getting the water out, and then what do they do with the solids?

Jim Leverich:

The solids when they take out and spread, the trouble with the solids at that point, they're good but they actually tie up nitrogen. So they have to be careful where they put them. It's like in no-till when your residue ties up your nitrogen, the same thing can happen with manure solids. But they are, if you put them on in the right place in the rotation, they're excellent. Some farmers actually even spread those and then they'll spray liquid on them as a way to help bind that liquid out.

Julia Gerlach:

So do you know the appropriate people to talk to about changing some of these laws?

Jim Leverich:

I've been working on some of the policy setters, but it's a tough thing. It really need to get to the state ag board to do that. We're having the same issue in the county right now. They have a climate change task force going. I have difficulties with the whole climate. I know the climate changes, but I'm not sure that... There's a lot of research on both sides of the issue. And so I'm concerned about that because they had Green Fire who's an environmental group actually was doing the work in the county, which they should had a non-biased person doing it. But anyhow, Green Fire was doing it and they didn't even inventory what's going on in the county. They went back and said, "Well, we could change the landscape in this county. We could change the effects of water runoff on agricultural fields if we did this." But their study used, they looked at row crops on all the acres with conventional tillage. And I said, "You know, we haven't done that for 50 years in this county.

And even then we had strips of alfalfa. So your baseline data to show the public what's changing, it's ridiculous." I said our conservation service and our extension service and our farmers must have not done anything new for 50 years. So actually we have a high percentage of no-till acres and a high percentage of conservation tillage. We've worked really hard to build conservation plans with farmers. So why didn't you go out and survey what's actually happening today and then compare it to what you are wanting to do? Which is fine, add more no-till and add more cover crops and things like that. But to tell people that our data goes from 50 years ago to now, that doesn't really help anybody. It paints a bad picture.

Julia Gerlach:

Absolutely. Right.

Jim Leverich:

So that's what happens to date, it seems like a lot is that we don't paint an honest picture of what's happening before we say we're going to make a change.

Julia Gerlach:

When you came back to the farm, it had been in conventional tillage.

Jim Leverich:

Well, actually it was plowed and it was strips of alfalfa and hay and a lot of the highly erodible ground was pasture yet. We did end up putting more of that into hay and we produced a lot of haylage and silage for the cows. But we were plowing I remember as a kid, I can remember plowing. 1976, we had the drought and then we had one in 88. But in 76 we had a drought and couldn't get the plow in the ground. And because my dad used to go do a lot of [inaudible 00:24:32] hunting out West, I used to go with him. We noticed they were chisel plowing out there. So we started chisel plowing here in 76. Everybody, that was new. Nobody had done that here. The other thing my father did back when he came back from the war is he put in terraces some strip crops and he was very, very much conservation minded.

Julia Gerlach:

I see. Interesting.

Jim Leverich:

And then we started chisel plowing everything. And then I guess it was probably in about 1980-ish I think, I bought the no-till Yetter caddy that I still run today to put in front of the grain drill to no-till soybeans.

Julia Gerlach:

Okay. Got you. So that was really your introduction was that caddy on the drill?

Jim Leverich:

Yeah. The introduction was in soybeans. Soybeans seemed to be the first crop that people would tackle.

Julia Gerlach:

And so you were doing that in seven and a half inch rows at the time?

Jim Leverich:

Actually, yeah. Our drill was six and two thirds.

Julia Gerlach:

Six and two thirds.

Jim Leverich:

Trying to think of the gentleman down by Bloomington, he was a farmer there that did a lot of work. He actually worked for a chemical company too, but I can't think of his name right now. But he was the innovator in getting no-till drilled beans going.

Julia Gerlach:

Oh, okay. Was it Jim Concelis?

Jim Leverich:

Yes.

Julia Gerlach:

Okay.

Jim Leverich:

That's who it is.

Julia Gerlach:

Got you. And so remind me, the drill, it was a tie drill?

Jim Leverich:

Ours was a tie drill.

Julia Gerlach:

Okay.

Jim Leverich:

When my dad bought the drill way back when I was probably in high school, the drill was 15 foot drill. Everybody thought that was too big.

Julia Gerlach:

Okay. Interesting.

Jim Leverich:

So we mounted that drill. It was actually an end-wheel drill with a three point hitch in it. So we put that on the caddy and started. I can remember farmers saying, what are you doing out there? Down by town we have a field, they called it socket tash. They just couldn't understand why we were out there planting soybeans in the cornstalks. There was a lot of friendly harassment about why are you farming like that?

Julia Gerlach:

And that hasn't stopped, right?

Jim Leverich:

Oh no, no.

Julia Gerlach:

That's amazing. So you did that for a while, but then you did get an actual-

Jim Leverich:

What did we have for a planter? I think we had a couple Allis air planters, but then we bought a 333 no-till planter from, actually I got it down at Champaign, Illinois. It was brand new from Wingfield Distributing. He's still building harrows. He was an Allis Chalmers dealer down there. I worked for him when I was in graduate school on weekends putting together HARDI sprayers. I bought that planter new from him. It was a four row and then we made it into a six 30. We were in four row 38s at the time. So then eventually that same planner I made into an eight row 20 inch planner.

Julia Gerlach:

Interesting.

Jim Leverich:

I put a bar on the back so I could add Kinze units to it. A lot of my no-tilling here I built my equipment.

Julia Gerlach:

Interesting.

Jim Leverich:

Because it was hard to access stuff that was heavy enough to do the job.

Julia Gerlach:

And so that was 15 foot wide?

Jim Leverich:

That was about 13 six. Because it was eight 20 inch rows. Because we didn't have a big combine so we had to keep the head size small. So then we built our own head out of a Case. Marion Calmer helped us because he was building the chains and sprockets for narrow row corn heads. And so he helped us to modify the gear boxes.

Julia Gerlach:

We'll get back to the podcast in a moment. But first, I want to thank our sponsor, SOURCE by Sound Agriculture. Today, nutrients cost more and could be hard to get when you need them. Thankfully, there's a better source of plant nutrition, it's your soil. SOURCE from Sound Agriculture unlocks more of the nitrogen and phosphorous already in your fields so you can add less while maintaining the yield you're counting on. It's such a solid backup plan, you'll wonder why SOURCE wasn't the plan all along. Learn more about SOURCE at www.sound.ag. Now back to the podcast. What drove your decision to keep going narrower?

Jim Leverich:

My work. I did that research on the county farm so I compare. I had a 20 and a 30 inch planter, and the 20 and 30 inch planter would give us between five and 10% more yield. The university yields, they matched it in corn silage but not in grain. I think it was because most of the research at universities was done with the Kinze interplant planters, which are great planters. But when you're planting corn, they were driving on the rows. All the narrow, the 15 inch rows are being driven on either by the tractor wheels or the planter wheels before they were planted. Or actually they were driven on the wheels and the planter ran over those rows after they were planted because the row unit was out in front of the toolbar. So the universities would use those. I'd say, no, you should design a planter, a 20 inch planter that doesn't have wheel traffic interaction. Because what they'd see in the university studies, these always get higher yields in corn silage but not always in grain.

I always attributed that to the fact that the corn, some years, not every year was delayed in its emergence when it was planted in a row that got run over because of the compaction. And so did Marion. And so basically what happen is some years when the compaction would occur, the crop would be behind. It would produce as much dry matter in the crop, but it just wouldn't transfer it from the stock to the grain. And so you would have results that were some years that would be positive and some years not, but all the corn silage trials were generally positive. So that's what I attribute it to. I tried to get all the corn specialists to plant their 30 inch rows with the 15 inch units and drive on them. And then plant some more 30 inch rows and see, but they never did, to kind of prove the point that that might have caused the problem.

So instead of that, Marion contacted me when he found out I was doing narrow research. We went around to all the Midwestern universities one summer. We went for a week, week and a half and stopped and visited with every corn specialist and tried to get them to do research with us. We ended up getting a lot of farmers with big planters to do the research. And because the big planters had less wheels on them, there would be less interaction. And so then they'd see that 7% yield increase to narrow rows.

Julia Gerlach:

And when you say a big planter-

Jim Leverich:

Well, back then it was a 12 row, but they'd be 12 and 16 row planters. Now they're much larger. But for the day, the common planters were six row planters. Those had a lot more wheels relative to each row, whereas the big planters, they had half as many rows being impacted by the wheels.

Julia Gerlach:

Okay. Got you.

Jim Leverich:

So when we did that, we compiled all that data and we always had positive yield results. We had farmers helping us. So they'd fill up a 12 row planter with interplants and plant one half of it as 15 inch rows and the other half is 30 inch rows and then they'd do the yield comparisons.

Julia Gerlach:

Wow. That's so interesting. And then what were you doing for populations?

Jim Leverich:

Here at the county farm, I did lots of populations. I went from about 20,000 to 36,000. I found that the 20 inch rows really only needed to be planted about 5% higher population. So 30,000 would be 31.5 would be enough. It was more to the fact that the crop was being spread out to utilize. And I think they always used to be really concerned about in row spacing and they still are to try and keep the crop as near to accurate as possible. But in 20 inch rows, that's not as big a concern because instead of being five to seven inches apart, the plants are 10 to 12 inches apart. So if they're off an inch or two, they're not impacting each other. So that's another benefit really to 15s or 20s is that the in row spacing, it's important. You like it perfect, but it's not, plants don't impact each other as much.

Julia Gerlach:

I see.

Jim Leverich:

The other thing we found when we did that is that the finger meters, which are still an excellent corn meter, they still make them. Not many people use them, but I do. On my Kinze, I still get really good stands and they turn slower when there's half as many plants need to come out of the meter. What would happen is the meter would kick that seed across the finger and the meter would kick it into the seed tube and it would bounce back out. So they had to change the design of the opening in the meter. Kinze worked with us on that. So lot of little things that came up when we learned how to do it.

Julia Gerlach:

That's interesting. And so when it would kick it out, you would have skips?

Jim Leverich:

You'd have a skip. Yep.

Julia Gerlach:

Oh, interesting. Okay.

Jim Leverich:

I don't think excessively high populations are necessary. I think more the fertilizer and disease aspects of things are where we have to focus and picking the right hybrids definitely is important.

Julia Gerlach:

Yeah. And so talk about the hybrids a little, because you said you do a lot of trials.

Jim Leverich:

Here, we always run two to three, usually three replications and about 20 hybrids and about 15 bean varieties every year we test. So it takes me an extra day of planting for corn and an extra day for soybeans to plant those hybrids. And then once they're in the chart, it's real easy to harvest them. We make sure our yield monitors are calibrated correctly and then we harvest them that way.

Julia Gerlach:

I forgot to ask you, what is your planter that you're using now at Kinze?

Jim Leverich:

Well, one of the planters is a Kinze. I had built a 16 row 20 planter on a John Deere frame years ago. So I had those eight original Kinze units. They're still selling them. I think they are 3,000 series row unit. And so they were kind of moving away from that unit, but there's still a demand for them. And then I bought eight more and I built a 16 row. That planter won the Farm Journal contest. I built it because the ones on the market were 24 rows and they were very heavy and they were hard to... You had to have a huge tractor to pull them and I had pulled this 16 row with 125 horse tractor. Front assist tractor. I used that for many years and then I upgraded now. I have a Kinze. I have my Kinze that I took the units off there and I built a 12 row that goes on a Yetter caddy. That 12 row, we use to plant any wet areas in the field if we're afraid of having a big planter getting stuck. Then the other planter is a 1245 Case planter, which is an excellent planter. They're both really good planters. I think they both fit well.

I think all the planters out on the market today are pretty good. 1245 Case is a planter that's 24 rows wide, 20 inch. It's a turntable planter so it pivots in the middle. It turns around just like a Kinze planter does. It's not a front fold whereas most of your 30 inch planters are front fold planters so the wings fold ahead. This planter picks up in the middle and turns for end transport.

Julia Gerlach:

Okay. Got you.

Jim Leverich:

They're a little bit different in that the Case planter opener is quite a bit different than the Kinze and the Deere and the White and the new Fendt. They all use a 15 degree, two disc together situation like this. The Case has the offset disc.

Julia Gerlach:

Why do you like that?

Jim Leverich:

I like that in wetter conditions, it creates less sidewalk compaction. Now the planter, so it wears the blades faster so you don't get the life out of the disc openers. But to me, that doesn't really matter. I mean, yeah, it's more money. But in no-till, you're going to expect that. You're going to wear out your planter faster just because the ground isn't loose and soft, it's firm.

Julia Gerlach:

Yep. That makes sense.

Jim Leverich:

So there's a lot more wear and tear on the planter.

Julia Gerlach:

And then what else do you have on your planter? What else?

Jim Leverich:

What's really important on a no-till planter is I used to say the row cleaners and now I'd actually say maybe guidance would be first. But row cleaners are really important to move the residue because of the allelopathic effects of corn on corn, like corn is allergic to itself, the stalks. So I like the row cleaner to clean enough material out that the row depth wheel, the gauge wheel, it's running on clean soil so that it's not bouncing. So if you go turbo-till field and you turn up all the roots balls and you got all these stalks all over the place, I don't see how you get the row unit to quit bouncing. So now all these new precision technologies are available to me, I think they probably work very well, but I don't know if they're necessary if you use the guidance. I have never seen a good experiment. They haven't done one that I've seen to compare if you actually put the planter in between the rows and plant so that it's not fighting all of that residue or the movement of it, the row units.

So a lot of good management was running a planter is just simply watching the row units out the back of the window to make sure they're running flat. They're not bouncing. Because you could have the best row unit meter in the world but if it's bouncing, a seed is going to bounce in the seed tube and not end up where it was supposed to. Except for now with the high speed meters and the high speed seed drop, they've got all that built in. But they had that built in the Kinze unit too and the old meter, because it had a belt in there at that time too. They carried the seed down and dropped it. So the seed drop was way less. In the old Allis air units, the seed disc was built right down into the opener so it fell out of the unit, maybe five, six inches is all the depth of, I mean the amount of travel that the seed went.

Julia Gerlach:

Interesting.

Jim Leverich:

Yeah. So it's kind of interesting how all this stuff has evolved. And so I'd like to build a high speed planter someday here in the near future and then see if all those technologies really are effective or not.

Julia Gerlach:

And so you basically, you're planting one year on one row and then the next year you're shifting over 10 inches?

Jim Leverich:

10 inches.

Julia Gerlach:

And so that you avoid the root balls basically.

Jim Leverich:

Yeah. I'm avoiding that. It's not so critical in soybeans. They're not as big a problem, but I still do it. So I use the same guidance lines. Then I also apply my ammonia with those same guidance lines so that I'm always 10 inches off the row with the ammonia. Because I put the ammonia on in 40 inch bands rather than 30s, that way it's a more concentrated band of ammonia so it takes longer for it to break down. But then because it takes longer to break down, you have to have another alternative source of nitrogen on the corn planter to feed the crop when it's little. So we use a popup system and we also use a nitrogen band two inches off the row.

Julia Gerlach:

Oh, okay. I see.

Jim Leverich:

We used to worry about putting that in the ground with a no-till opener, but we don't do that anymore because there's adequate research out of Minnesota that I'm trying to think. There's a couple good scientists there that did that work and it's still being conducted by Jeff Vetsch who's a research assistant. What they did is they looked at all kinds of different starters and then they looked at the placement of those starters, whether it be in the row or two by two or two by zero. So I use two by zero.

Julia Gerlach:

So that's on the surface, two inches off of the, away from-

Jim Leverich:

The scientist there that's working on that now is Dan Kaiser who's the soil fertility specialist in Minnesota.

Julia Gerlach:

And so that's dribbled on?

Jim Leverich:

It's just dribbled on. We use about seven gallons to the acre. So we get at least 20 pounds of nitrogen near that seed.

Julia Gerlach:

And what is the source you're using for that?

Jim Leverich:

It's usually 28% and then usually ammonium thiosulfate. But this year, I don't know, fertilizer is so expensive. I don't know if we'll put the thiosulfate in or not. Actually AMS is a cheaper source of sulfur this year and it's a better buy. So we're going to put 125 pounds of ammonium sulfate on instead of a hundred because we always broadcast. A hundred pounds of potash, hundred pounds of ammonium sulfate, and usually 40 or 50 pounds of DAP. But this year we're not doing the DAP because it's so expensive. We have enough. That's the other thing. With my soil tests, I don't know if we should switch subjects to that right away.

Julia Gerlach:

Yeah, why don't we talk about how you handle your nutrients?

Jim Leverich:

We sample every two acres. Every three to four years we soil sample and we take a sample and we then variable rate on our potash before soybeans. We will probably start variable rating phosphorus two. But my philosophy on fertilizers is that I don't like to use the optimum level of the university which is a lower level of fertility. I like to use the high or maybe sometimes very high because I like the fertilizer not to reduce the risk of my yield. And so I look at fertilizer as long as it's not an environmental threat, I'm better off to keep my fertilizer tests high so when I run into a year like this where fertilizers are very expensive, I keep my soil tests higher. That way I can draw them down if I need to in a year like this. So that's another one of those holistic farm management decisions. Now, if you're renting land, you might not want to do that because you might not want to overbuild the test because you don't know how long you're going to have the farm. But in all of the farms I have, I pretty much know I'm going to continue farming them, and so I keep the soil tests up really well.

Julia Gerlach:

Okay. And so what is the timing that you're doing that broadcast?

Jim Leverich:

A lot of farmers put it on the fall, which would've been a great decision this year, but because it was a little cheaper. But I'm too worried about nutrient loss, so I apply my fertilizers usually in March to early April I'll go out and spread. We have been using the co-op spreader, which is just eight ton spreader and we'd put our own hydraulic motor and shaft speed sensor and then we hook it up to the ag leader system to variable rate. For two to $2,500, most farmers can get into spreading fertilizer on a VRT basis, very inexpensively versus paying eight, $9 an acre to have it custom done. So that's why I like to keep my soil tests a little higher. And because in no-till for example, the soil may or may not warm up as fast as conventional. That's not necessarily bad, it's just that you have to recognize it and prepare for it. Because it'll catch up later in the season and can actually help you if you don't lose your nutrients.

Julia Gerlach:

Yeah. Then on your planter, you're doing, you said the two by zero and then you're doing a popup also.

Jim Leverich:

We also have a popup, and instead of putting it on the seed in the Case unit, there's a firming point that's a cast iron steel piece. We weld a piece of one quarter inch anhydrous tube on it that's about an inch long. And then down the unit, we run a plastic tube down into that. So it's actually dropping the fertilizer under the seed to try and minimize any impact on the seed.

Julia Gerlach:

Interesting.

Jim Leverich:

Learned that from a farmer in Illinois that was doing it.

Julia Gerlach:

What did you say is in your popup?

Jim Leverich:

Right now it's just 1034.

Julia Gerlach:

And so then the anhydrous is also going on at planting?

Jim Leverich:

Anhydrous can go on anytime up to planting now. It used to be we put it on a couple weeks ahead because we were afraid if we plant it over a seam, we could hurt the stand on sandier soils. On the heavy soils that wasn't near as big a deal, but now that we use guidance, we could be running two tractors. So now we actually have two big tractors. So if we wanted, we could be planting and putting anhydrous on them the same day now, which would reduce our risk of losing it because it would give us two more weeks into the season before we apply the nitrogen.

Julia Gerlach:

Okay. I see.

Jim Leverich:

We don't really VRT our nitrogen much except for we change rates on fields. And then we do fair amount of studies. For example, a couple years ago we just study on one of our sandier fields where we put out, I think it went from 60, 80, 100, 120, 140, 160, all the way up to 220 pounds of anhydrous. And then we came back and those were 40 foot bands of different rates each pass. And then we came back and we sidedress 20 feet of each one of those bands with 60 pounds of sidedress to see what would happen. And then we had a zero rate too. So we could see if sidedressing paid. Well, on our farm, even on our sandiest ground, we do better with anhydrous and putting it on, I'd say probably 160 to 180. Not quite that much anhydrous, but around 180 to 200 pounds of nitrogen total. Now, that might be higher than Martin, which is the university recommendation. But then to me it's all the rate per acre has really have to be equated back to the yield per acre. Even at our highest yields, our nitrogen use efficiency was higher. Even though we exceeded the Martin rate, we were losing less nitrogen because of the efficiency of the yield.

Julia Gerlach:

Oh, okay. What sort of yields were you seeing then?

Jim Leverich:

We got up to 230 bushels on that sandy loam soil.

Julia Gerlach:

Wow.

Jim Leverich:

We had plenty of moisture that year so it was a good year. That field was only planted at I think 26 to 27,000 plants. That's the other thing we've learned with precision ag is that we don't need to overplant our fields. We're actually better off on our lighter soils to underplant or not underplant, but plant them at a lighter population. Because if we get into dry weather, we don't hurt the crop. So we have to have a flexi or hybrid, but we're better off planting 26, 28,000. We get more corn.

Julia Gerlach:

Okay. Interesting. A lot of people talk about banding instead of broadcast, but you are not in favor of banding.

Jim Leverich:

Well, we tried banding. We actually built a banding machine and we banded our fertilizer and planted over it. We didn't see a big response. But then again, just because I did that one experiment, I always tell farmers this, that just because there's a research trial out there that says this works, the crop production is like a chain, every link counts. So if one of your links is a little different than the other one, it might not be the same for you. I know some very successful farmers south of here in the Viroqua area that they deep band urea and all their other nutrients and they do well. So they're strip tilling in the spring on heavier clay soils, and the heavier clay probably holds that urea very well. But on my sandy loams, that might not be the case. So we still use N-Serve even in the spring. And so what we're trying to do is hold onto that nitrogen as long as possible, the big load of nitrogen. And then the rest, we put on that ammonium sulfate. We're putting on, I'm trying to recall what that analysis is right now, but somewhere around 30 to 40 pounds of nitrogen is applied at planting or just before. Then the anhydrous makes the balance up.

Julia Gerlach:

You mentioned hybrids. What are you thinking there?

Jim Leverich:

Usually I plan about four hybrids and generally I don't switch. I'll usually use at least 50 to 60% of my production will be proven hybrids. They might not be the highest yielders every year, but I don't have to worry about them. And then I will plan in maybe 30% of a new hybrid. Although this year with tar spot, I'm switching a lot more because a couple... For some reason, the Monsanto DeKalb hybrids I had this year just, and I wouldn't say that would necessarily be true all over the country, but the ones that they have in this area, they just got hammered with tar spot. Normally I would plant tons of DeKalb in crop land and plant some Pioneer. But this year I'm planting a lot of Dairyland corn actually, which is similar genetics to Pioneer. It's from Corteva. Because those hybrids really yielded well and they've yielded well for several years now and they had a good... I don't know if tar spot will be near the issue it was last year. It just depends if we have similar weather or not.

Julia Gerlach:

So you've been doing this for a long time and there was a huge uptake of no-till for a while, but it seems like it slowed down a little bit.

Jim Leverich:

I don't think there's a big push anymore. It's because for a while there were a lot of people like myself and a lot of agronomists that helped with these. You know, you can go back to Ohio. There was tons of that too, where there were these groups that worked on it, same with cover crops. I think there's groups working on it. So in order to initiate it again, we have to start those kind of groups again. But we have to have a different approach. And that I think the way we would do it is most of these great big farms have guidance and tillage equipment and stuff. We need to have some great big planters put together that can go out and no-till for them so they can try it, so it doesn't screw up their whole routine. It's something easy they can bring in. That's what we used to do. We had no-till drills that the County Conservation Department owned. I'd go out and plant for a lot of farmers. I'd go plant some no-till for them.

Julia Gerlach:

You would? Okay.

Jim Leverich:

Yeah. Other farmers would do the same so they didn't have to invest in. Because it's really important to have the right equipment to get it to work and figure out how to get it in their system. I think that's part of the problem is we don't really have initiatives to help them start again. These large farmers are so driven on their calendar and time, they still have time to mess around.

Julia Gerlach:

I see. That's interesting. I hadn't thought of it that way. Basically they're too big, they're basically too big to switch.

Jim Leverich:

Yeah. They can't, unless they're proven that it's risk free, they're not going to do it. I mean, they got too much investment. I mean like this year, well, you got five, 600 bucks an acre invest in an acre corn. So that's $4 corn and 150 break even. So if you had a bad year and you got 150 bushel, which isn't normal for a good producer, they're up around 200. But if the price came down. Two years ago, it was 2.99 in the summer. So they can't risk losing 20, 30 bushel. That's the other reason farmers don't back off on nitrogen. I mean, if you're farming, that's the last thing you'd want to do is back off on nitrogen.

Julia Gerlach:

I see.

Jim Leverich:

Even though everybody says we're contaminating, we're causing all the problem in the gulf. I think that's more caused by the source of nitrogen now. Because we've got everybody convinced to go to sidedressing so we're using 28. And so we end up putting on a lot of nitrogen or urea in situations where it leaches and then we have to come back because we're putting on a nitrogen source that's less stable. But if you go out West in the Dakotas where my son works with the TerraGators and RoGators, which he works with, I can see why they do it because they can't cover all those acres. They take them forever with anhydrous bar.

Julia Gerlach:

Oh, because that has to go slowly?

Jim Leverich:

Yeah. So now with the new guidance systems and the new TerraGators and the John Deere and Case are into that now too, they have steering systems on them. They can go out and spread fertilizer several times in a row crop without wrecking the crop. There'd be some fields that would be applicable to, but others wouldn't be because you wouldn't know if you could get back in the field. It would be too muddy. So it's not just an easy decision about nitrogen. It's all about whether you can actually implement what you want to do. So they'll go out and they'll broadcast it on. Again, that's where the irrigator is a good deal because you can always get your nitrogen on later on if you don't get the irrigator stuck. That happens too, I guess. I don't know a lot of Nebraska farmers, but I've talked to some that say once in a while that can be an issue. If they get a lot of rain and it's too muddy, they can't, they'll get stuck. So anyhow, I think a lot, we need to be careful how we regulate nitrogen. And if guy isn't getting a good yield, he should be backing off. But generally speaking, if they're really good farmers, they need a lot of nitrogen.

Julia Gerlach:

I see.

Jim Leverich:

That's why you see the four hours for nutrient management, the right rate, right place, right time. I don't know, off the top of my head, the last one but-

Julia Gerlach:

Source.

 

Jim Leverich:

Source, yeah. That's the most important, because the source, so these nitrogen equations are just based on one rate. This is the effective rate for nitrogen. And to me, that's a bunch of baloney because it's all about when you put it on and how close you get it to the plant so it's used efficiently so that it should change based on what you're using. You can't just come out with this broad statement that farmers should use x pounds of nitrogen. They should have a better way of doing that. We do, but we don't do it. So I'm really a huge believer in on-farm testing and I'm a believer in university testing, but you also have to, that can give you your basic results on a particular type of soil. But in order to really know if it works, you have to do it on your own farm. That's the best way. So if you're going to jump in the precision agriculture, you should have good monitors and have as many devices to control rates as you can so that you can do those tests very easily on your own farm.

Julia Gerlach:

And so you had talked about ammonia being a more stable nitrogen source. What do you mean by that?

Jim Leverich:

Well, because ammonia is ammonium, it has to go conversion in the soil with the bacteria to nitrate and then to nitrite before it's leachable.

Julia Gerlach:

I see.

Jim Leverich:

And so if you put N-Serve on it, what it does is the N-Serve acidifies the soil around the anhydrous longer so that it takes longer for the bacteria to move back in and convert that ammonia to nitrate. Whereas urea, those are half and half, and so they're already half converted and so they're at more risk. Now, if you put them on right and don't put on too much at a time, then you're fine. And if your soil, if you have real heavy soil, it's not as big an issue. But on sandy soils, there's not as much organic matter to hold the nitrogen, and so then you have loss.

Julia Gerlach:

And so when you say, if you put it on right, what does that mean?

Jim Leverich:

Well, because we're putting on as much nitrogen as we can that is in a more stable form. The other thing with 40 inch bands, sure, you're going to have an area around the band that's going to kill your bacteria, but relative to the whole area of the field, that's pretty nominal. It's concentrated. Now I know some 30 inch growers, a really good farmer by Mosten here that he's not totally no-till but I think he uses a turbo-till or something. But he puts his nitrogen right under the row. He's putting it on in the fall with N-Serve and then he plants right on that seam.

Julia Gerlach:

I see.

Jim Leverich:

In the old days that'd be dangerous, but I think maybe it's an inch or two off. By that, his soils are heavy enough that the nitrogen is probably bound up. Because with sandy soils, it's not so much the leaching that happens with ammonia, it vents up through where the knife went, and that's how it kills the plant that's germinating. Because the venting of the nitrogen is actually toxic to the seedling.

Julia Gerlach:

So what is the biggest issue that people have do you think when they're switching to no-till?

Jim Leverich:

I think weeds are one. I think a lot of it is just getting the seed in the ground at the right depth and getting a good stand.

Julia Gerlach:

And that has all to do with the equipment do you think?

Jim Leverich:

Some to the equipment, but the RTK can help you, but the operator to get off the tractor and go look. And probably seeding deeper rather than shallower is less risky. In the old days, you used to think about planting too deep. You get a crust when you work the soil. But with no-till, you don't get crusting.

Julia Gerlach:

I see what you're saying.

Jim Leverich:

So you're better off to plant it deeper to make sure you getting it in the ground. In other words, get out, you really need to get out and assess your stands a lot after you plan them. Everybody should do that. You can learn a lot from digging seed and seeing how deep it was and if it's uniform. Then you get better at running your planter that way.

Julia Gerlach:

Thanks to Jim Leverich for sharing some of his insights from a lifetime of learning about no-till. The full transcript of this podcast and other No-Till Farmer Podcast is available at no-tillfarmer.com/podcasts. To get more from Jim, check out our online exclusive Ask the Operator feature where Jim fields questions about no-till from readers. The questions and his answers are available at no-tillfarmer.com/asktheoperator. Once again, we'd like to thank our sponsor, SOURCE by Sound Agriculture for helping to make this No-Till Podcast series possible. If you have any feedback on today's episode, please feel free to email me at jgerlach@lessitermedia.com or call me at 262-777-2404. You can keep up on the latest no-till farming news by registering online for our No-Till Insider daily and weekly email updates and Dryland No-Tiller e-newsletter. Be sure to follow us on Twitter @NoTillFarmr with farmer spelled F-A-R-M-R and our No-Till Farmer Facebook page. For our entire staff here at No-Till Farmer, I'm Julia Gerlach. Thanks for tuning in.