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“What we’re doing is not for the faint of heart. I not only want to farm, but be profitable, take care of the soil, water and wildlife, and make sure my children and grandchildren can keep farming in the future.”

— Kelly Cheesewright

Kelly Cheesewright has been no-tilling successfully for 37 years in central Indiana, close to the Illinois state line. A true no-till innovator, he’s always looking for fresh ideas to make his cropping operation more profitable, more efficient and more environmentally friendly. Along with son Keaton, his latest innovation has been to turn half of the family’s more than 2,000 acres into a no-till organic operation.

Join in as Kelly and Frank discuss what it takes to make organic no-till work on a sizeable scale, along with the pitfalls in making such an impactful change.

This week’s episode of the No-Till Farmer: Influencers & Innovators podcast is brought to you by Source by Sound Agriculture.


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No-Till Farmer‘s No-Till Influencers & Innovators Podcast podcast is brought to you by SOURCE®️ by Sound Agriculture.

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SOURCE from Sound Agriculture unlocks more of the nitrogen and phosphorus already in your fields, so you can rely less on expensive and hard-to-find fertilizer. This foliar applied chemistry has a low use rate and is tank mix compatible, getting a free ride into the field. Check out SOURCE — it's like caffeine for microbes. Learn more at www.sound.ag.

 

Full Transcript

Frank Lessiter:

Welcome to the No-Till Farmer Influencers and Innovators Podcast. I'm Frank Lessiter, editor of No-Till Farmer and the host of this series of interviews. SOURCE by Sound Agriculture sponsors this podcast, along with the past, present, and future of no-till farming.

My guest today is long-term, no-tiller, Kelly Cheesewright of Dana, Indiana. He and his son, Keaton, are the fifth and sixth generations to farm this ground that is located on both sides of the Indiana and Illinois state lines.

Today, we're talking with Kelly about his long-term success with no-till, and moving in recent years into no-till organic production on 1000 acres of this more than 2000 acre operation. Kelly, you farm along the Indiana, Illinois border. What's the hometown?

Kelly Cheesewright:

Dana, Indiana where we claim to be. We live and actually have a Chrisman address, but we farm oh, 65% of our grounds in Indiana and the others in Illinois.

Frank Lessiter:

Well, no wonder I was confused by Chrisman and Dana. You got two different addresses basically.

Kelly Cheesewright:

Yeah, we claim to be from Indiana. Nobody wants to be from Illinois.

Frank Lessiter:

So, you must have a time difference between Central time and Eastern time among those?

Kelly Cheesewright:

Oh, yeah. But we stay on Eastern time. It's just so much handier. And we don't want to be another hour behind.

Frank Lessiter:

Right. So, did you grow up at this, this is a five or six generation farm, right?

Kelly Cheesewright:

It is. I'm the fifth generation. Same house, same farm.

Frank Lessiter:

Right. Well, I grew up on a Michigan farm. I was a sixth generation. But it's just north of Detroit, and it's all houses today.

Kelly Cheesewright:

Oh, boy.

Frank Lessiter:

So, you came back to your dad and your grandfather were farming. When did you get involved?

Kelly Cheesewright:

I been involved my whole life. But professionally, I started renting ground in 1984. And that so happened to be the first year we started no-tilling. We were, oh, we moldboard plowed up until like 1979. And then dad bought a chisel plow. And we chiseled for five or six years before we decided to hang that up and go no-till. Dad entered that pick program in 1983. And I took on a pioneer seed dealership as well as a small seed dealership.

And when he wanted to plant all the corn, I talked him into planting alfalfa, and clover, and sweet clover. So, we had 500 acres of idle ground that had all these covers on it growing that whole year, 1983. And so, mowing those down in the summer and letting them grow back all winter and into the spring. We bought a new planter and started no-tilling. And planted into waste-high alfalfa, clover, and sweet clover. And we didn't have a clue what we were doing. But it was successful. And we never looked back. There's been no-tilling ever since.

Frank Lessiter:

Yeah. Well, this brings up an interesting point because we had a question from a reader this week that said, "Hey, I got some CRP land that's coming out. Do I have to till that for a year or two before I no-till it?" What would you tell him?

Kelly Cheesewright:

Well, it just depends on the species. And is he wanting to conventional farm it with chemicals, or is he wanting to do something different? I mean, if it's been out of production, it'd be eligible for organic.

Frank Lessiter:

Sure.

Kelly Cheesewright:

So, I would encourage him not to use chemicals. And depending on what species, how to handle it, that makes a big difference. We've tried to handle alfalfa and clover in a no-till organic situation. 2018 we planted clover, red clover, and alfalfa, and a few other miscellaneous things. And then we just let that sit for a whole year. We did hay it, just basically to control the grass and the weeds. I wished I wouldn't have.

I wished I'd just mowed it and left it. But we did hay it. But then the first year that we were certified organic, we planted corn into that alfalfa and clover. And this stuff was at least by thigh-high. So, after we planted it, we didn't know if we'd get a good roller crimp. So, we decided go ahead and flail chop it. So, we mowed it off about three inches from the ground. And then decided we'd try to roller crimp it.

Frank Lessiter:

Sure.

Kelly Cheesewright:

After that, because we had a new Don build an in-row, or InRowl roller crimper. The rollers are about 25 inches wide and you can go between the 30-inch corn row. So, that's what we used to try to manage the clover and the alfalfa without a lot of success. It was very challenging. And the clover and alfalfa were so well-established that they'd come back and outgrow the corn. A little short on rainfall.

So, they were soaking up all the moisture and all the nutrition. So, we ended up roller crimping that cover about three times. And it just didn't control it very well at all. We finally hit it the third time, and about eliminated the clover. But the alfalfa was still in control. And it is just a tough situation trying to kill alfalfa with the roller crimper. So, we're not doing that anymore.

Frank Lessiter:

So, your son is back farming with you now, right?

Kelly Cheesewright:

He is. He's two years out of Purdue. And he's all about the organic, all about growing healthier food, and more nutrient-dense food. And we've just transitioned another 300 acres this year. So, we're now at 1000 acres of organic, certified organic. That's about half our farm. So, we're about half and half.

Frank Lessiter:

Okay. That's going to be my next question, how many acres you have? So, you got about 2000 or so then?

Kelly Cheesewright:

Yeah.

Frank Lessiter:

No livestock?

Kelly Cheesewright:

No livestock. When I started having kids back in late '80s, something had to go. I had a pioneer dealership, and farming quite a bit, and didn't have time for livestock. So, hired help was a problem. Labor is an issue. So, I got rid of those. But we have utilized manure for about 17 years now. So, we import manure from other farms. We had a local guy there, had a turkey farm. And we utilized his manure for about 15 years. And he retired on us. So, we spent the last three years trying to find another manure source. And it's become very popular amongst everyone now. And we just locked down here, a couple months ago, locked down and another turkey litter source. So, we've been busy hauling and spreading litter here the last month.

Frank Lessiter:

So, you told me the other day when we were talking that you liked turkey litter because it was what?

Kelly Cheesewright:

It has less calcium. Calcium levels where we want them, or maybe just a hair too high. So, we don't need any additional calcium. The chicken litter that's available, the closest source of it is all layer manure.

Frank Lessiter:

Sure.

Kelly Cheesewright:

And it has a lot of calcium for the eggshell. So, we prefer the turkey over the chicken for that reason.

Frank Lessiter:

Yeah. Your crop rotation, pretty much corn and soybeans?

Kelly Cheesewright:

It has been. We're looking to diversify that. That's really important for a lot of aspects, workload being one of them. So, we planted this fall. We planted a couple hundred acres of foundation seed, cereal rye for reproduction. So, we're getting started diversifying our rotation here a little bit. And some of that ground will be tile, but it'll all get some sort of legume package mix.

We'll frost seed that here probably in February. And we'll let that ground lay. We'll tile some of it. And then we'll grow our nitrogen for next year's corn crop. So, we're starting to see the benefits of doing that for lots of different reasons.

Frank Lessiter:

So, on your 1000 acres that you're no-tilling that are kind of regular no-till, I hate to say conventional no-till, but what have been some of the challenges there? What have been some of your successes on this no-till ground over the last 37 years?

Kelly Cheesewright:

Oh, yeah. Tremendous. Yeah. Oh, where do we start? It's amazing how you can take a pretty poor farm, something that's been highly eroded, and start no-tilling it, get the calcium where it needs to be by liming it, get some manure on it, put some cover crops on it. You can literally turn the farm around and make it a good farm in a relatively short amount of time. I mean, we've seen the biggest response from no-till, and the cover cropping, and manure from our poor farms.

Frank Lessiter:

Sure.

Kelly Cheesewright:

Our good farms have always been good farms, and they stay good farms. They become better farms.

Frank Lessiter:

Right.

Kelly Cheesewright:

But the poorest productive farms, it is it's just TLC. It's incredible. There's a farm in the community that nobody really wanted. It was rolling. It was thin soil that had been highly eroded. And the elderly woman actually took it away from her nephew because it was only raising 30 bushel beans. And she knew my aunt somehow. And my aunt told her to call me and my dad. So, we rented it. And we literally took that farm in a couple years from 30 bushel beans to 55 bushel beans by just giving it the TLC.

And went on to tile it, and kept putting on chicken manure. And it got a shot of hog manure. And then we put turkey on it. And it ended up, here I don't know, six, seven years ago, we've got that farm up to raising 75 bushel beans now. I mean, it's just incredible what you can do. And it's all, no-till. It was all no-till cover crops, and manure, and some tile. I mean, it really is amazing.

Frank Lessiter:

Well, I've been in a field like that. I was with, years ago, I was with Ray Rawson, who passed away earlier this year, up in Central-

Kelly Cheesewright:

Oh, I didn't know that.

Frank Lessiter:

Yeah. Up in Central Michigan.

Kelly Cheesewright:

I didn't know that.

Frank Lessiter:

Yeah. Up in Central Michigan, and he took me out to a field. And this was the first year that he had taken over this rundown field. And later on, he had made 70 bushel soybeans the very first year by with his zone-till system and just paying a little attention to the field. He made it work.

Kelly Cheesewright:

Oh, yeah. He was an incredible person. I knew Ray personally.

Frank Lessiter:

Yeah.

Kelly Cheesewright:

I sold Ross & Colders back in the late '80s and '90s. And I've been on his farm. He's been to my house. He's put meetings on for us in the past. So, he was a great guy. I'm really sorry to hear that.

Frank Lessiter:

No, he was a big contributor to no-till and strip-till, and or not strip-till, but zone-till. So, do you have some land that's continuous corn?

Kelly Cheesewright:

I don't now. We did back, gosh, that was probably, oh, when the big ethanol boom was going on. We did continuous corn for six or seven years. But the thinking being that I could build greater organic matter with raising lots of biomass, but mono croppings not the way to do it. Several years ago, we figured out that that's not the way to go. We figured out how to grow good corn. But we weren't growing great soils.

So, in order to have really good soils and increase productivity, you need to have diversity in your crops and your cover crops. So, I guess a guy could do continuous corn if you had a good program for putting a lot of diversity in his covers. But that's limited as far as getting them established in the fall, and then getting them to grow in the spring to get the benefit. So, we've gotten away from corn after corn, just for that reason. We're striving for better diversity.

Frank Lessiter:

What kind of corn yields is a goal for you across the whole farmer?

Kelly Cheesewright:

We're talking two different systems.

Frank Lessiter:

Sure.

Kelly Cheesewright:

So, on our conventional GMO corns, I mean, we've been up in the 240 to 260 range. So, that's probably our goal. We got some pretty good weather last few years, and been able to achieve that several times. Organically, we've been at the low end. So, our goal is to be 150 bushel plus. We didn't quite make it there this year. I think we got 140. But we're raising food grade organic. So, you get an extra premium for that. So, even at 140, those are some pretty big numbers.

Frank Lessiter:

Yeah.

Kelly Cheesewright:

It's very profitable. We just know we can do better. It's just working through the process and getting our system figured out. Managing the legumes so they don't take away from the crop. And there's just a lot of little things. Supplemental nutrition, to get it on timely. That's important. So, just working our way through all and getting our system put together.

Frank Lessiter:

Great. On your regular no-till, are you seeding cover crops across all that acreage?

Kelly Cheesewright:

We do. We use litter on the conventional stuff as well as the organic. And we also use cover crops, and no-till.

Frank Lessiter:

Yeah.

Kelly Cheesewright:

We do them all.

Frank Lessiter:

Right. So, how much do you think these things have cut your fertility bill?

Kelly Cheesewright:

That's hard to say because the fertility bill keeps going up.

Frank Lessiter:

Right, right.

Kelly Cheesewright:

The manure helps because that's one of the cheaper forms of getting the fertility we need that's in the manure. But when you're raising 250 bushel of corn, or at least that's your goal, your fertility builds pretty high.

Frank Lessiter:

Right.

Kelly Cheesewright:

It takes more sulfur, and it takes a well-balanced diet. So, I can't really say.

Frank Lessiter:

Okay.

Kelly Cheesewright:

What percentage, when we have a high fertility bill, I'm looking for a pretty high return on investment. So, I don't know that slash in fertility bill is a priority. I mean, it's always in your mind you want to spend less.

Frank Lessiter:

Right.

Kelly Cheesewright:

But if it pays to spend more and you're going to make more, I mean, that's basically our focus. Now on the organic side, we're trying to do it as cheap as possible because our yield goal is so much lower.

Frank Lessiter:

Sure.

Kelly Cheesewright:

When you're only 150, 180 bushel corn, now I mean, longer term our goal of organic will be higher, 180 or 200. But we're just not there yet. We're still trying to figure out our system and how much manure we need. I mean, we've been without manure for three years. So, that's been part of our struggle. It's been really hard to find. With fertilizer prices where they are, everybody and their brother wants manure now. So, that's really made it hard on us organic guys to find the good supply. And finally, we sourced the supply here finally just a couple months ago.

Frank Lessiter:

That's great. So, on the regular no-till, you've been growing some specialty crops or food grade corn for a number of years, haven't you?

Kelly Cheesewright:

I have, yes.

Frank Lessiter:

This is white corn?

Kelly Cheesewright:

The GMO is white corn for Frito-Lay. Yeah. We've done that since probably the early '90s. And that's always been a good income source. Yeah, we raised food grade yellow corns for several years. Paris, Illinois has a facility, Cargill facility. And they paid a nice premium for years. We did that. Yeah, we've always looked for premiums.

Frank Lessiter:

Sure.

Kelly Cheesewright:

On what we grow.

Frank Lessiter:

So, what are you running for planter?

Kelly Cheesewright:

We use a John Deere 1770NT. The biggest thing we've got on it is the precision delta force where you have hydraulic down force and lift, both. And I think it makes several adjustments per second. That's just an incredible technology that I would hate to go without. It's an amazing, amazing technology. We have row cleaners on the planter. We don't always use them. We've been planting green into our cover crops for several years now. And there's not always a need for row cleaners. So, I've got the air assist from Precision on there. So, I just lift them out of the way when I don't need them. And I haven't taken mine off.

A few of my friends have taken theirs off. But I like to have the option of putting them down whenever I need them. So, I've left them on there. And it's come in pretty handy at times. We run a Keeton seed firmer. And then we've used several different things. Closing devices, we're always searching for a better closing device. And at the time being were using the Razor closing wheels from Martin and Kentucky. And as an added thing, we did that one year. And we didn't think it was perfect. So, we added the Martin come out with the press wheel, the mount on the back of that. So, we added that the past year. And we thought that was a good added as a positive thing to firming up that seed slot.

Frank Lessiter:

Right. How many rows on your planter?

Kelly Cheesewright:

24.

Frank Lessiter:

Okay.

Kelly Cheesewright:

I don't know that I need 24 for 2000 acres. But the way the weather is, you only get so many days of perfect weather to plant. And I planted four mile an hour. I don't have the high speed seed tubes. So, it's pretty nice to be able to go out there at four mile an hour and plant your corn in perfect conditions, and not be stressed about it. So, I'm going to keep my 24-row planter.

Frank Lessiter:

I read someplace, I pulled up a couple things we'd done over the years with you, and you were talking about planting at 4:00 AM. Just when conditions are right, you need to go regardless of whether the sun is out or not, right?

Kelly Cheesewright:

Oh, there's three years ago it was wet, wet, wet. But because we no-tilled and we had tiled ground, we were able to start planting there. I don't know, I think it was like the 7th of May or something. And it was unbelievable. I was out on the Illinois prairie on flat black ground, and that ground was planting beautiful, planting perfect behind soybeans, double. And it was the weirdest thing. You could look around all day and not see one neighbor anywhere around.

And so, I just kept planting. I mean, I felt good. So, I kept planting at night. And there wasn't any tractors running. There wasn't any pickups going up and down the road. It was the weirdest thing. But we ended up planting our whole crop in 3.5 days, which is incredible. And it was amazing. I mean, perfect stands, had a great productive year. And yeah, so when it's time to go, it's time to go.

Frank Lessiter:

We'll come back to trading ideas with Kelly Cheesewright in a moment. But first, I'd like to thank our sponsor, SOURCE by Sound Agriculture, for supporting today's podcast. SOURCE from Sound Agriculture unlocks more of the nitrogen and phosphorous in your fields so you can rely less on expensive fertilizer. This foliar application has a low use rate, and you can mix it right into your tank. Check out SOURCE. It's like caffeine for microbes. Learn more at www.sound.ag.

Before we get back to today's discussion with Kelly Cheesewright, here's a little known no-till fact. Back in 1988, we reported on 10 years of work at Clemson University, which showed a vetch and rye mulch resulted in 3.1 inches less water runoff, and 2.4 tons per acre less soil erosion loss each year without any drop in yield compared with corn grown on plowed ground. That was for no-till.

Now, let's go back to today's podcast interview. Where you're located, people don't know where these little towns are. You're close to Terre Haute, Indiana.

Kelly Cheesewright:

North of Terre 25 miles.

Frank Lessiter:

You plant corn before soybeans, or you try to plant them the same time, or what?

Kelly Cheesewright:

We usually plant them at the same time. But we're starting to plant our soybeans first now.

Frank Lessiter:

Okay.

Kelly Cheesewright:

We see a bigger yield increase from getting our beans planted early than we do our corn. So, we're rigged with that big planter that we can wait now til conditions are just perfect to plant corn. But soybeans, they don't have to be that perfect. You can plant them in cooler weather as long as you're not planting in the mud. So, we emphasize getting our beans planted earlier, and wait until conditions are perfect for corn, especially the few days after you plant the corn. That's what we're really paying attention to is what's the three or four days after you plant your corn. That seems to be the most important.

Frank Lessiter:

Right. Speaking of what conditions, 10, 15 years ago you invested in tile. That's been a pretty good investment for you?

Kelly Cheesewright:

Huge investment. It's like you flip a farm like you flip a house. You just can't believe. It's amazing how you just didn't realize just how wet your ground was. And it's just night and day difference. And what I didn't realize is how much more timely it made every operation throughout the year. You can plant more timely. You can sidedress more timely. You can spray more timely. You can harvest more timely. It's just incredible.

And it catches you off guard because you got so used to how many days or hours sunshine and wind it'd take the dry out a farm. And you go out there to look, and everything else is wet. But that field you tiled is dry and it's ready to go. You're like, "Holy cow. I got to get on the stick." It's just amazing. Between the no-till and the tile, it's unbelievable how well that ground will dry out, especially, I mean, we're no-tillers so we don't hardly ever compact it. It's amazing. It's almost magical.

Frank Lessiter:

How much do you think it costs to a tile acre?

Kelly Cheesewright:

Well, it's gotten at least to 1000 bucks an acre probably and maybe more. Luckily for us, we started back in '05 and did a little bit. And we liked just how it fit. And in '06, 2006, the same company came out with a deal where they would pay for the mains if you bought a system, a 40-foot tile system, off of them, they would pay for the main.

Frank Lessiter:

Wow.

Kelly Cheesewright:

So, I had no intentions of doing any more tiling. And I called them up and said, "Is this for real?"

Frank Lessiter:

Yeah.

Kelly Cheesewright:

So, we ended up doing another 550 acres that next spring. And it was the best thing I ever did. That was back when I think we ended up paying I think $367.50 an acre to get that three-inch tile that got it in on 40-foot centers. So, we bit the bullet and dove in. It's the best thing I ever did.

Frank Lessiter:

Do you encourage landowners that you rent from to tile their ground? How's that work out?

Kelly Cheesewright:

Oh, absolutely. Yep. Yep. One brother and sister I farmed for had 144 acres. And after seeing the benefits, I got them on the farm, and showed them what we could do. And I was willing to pay for a third of it, or 40% of it. And so, they agreed to it. So, we did a 10-year contract. And everybody's happy.

Frank Lessiter:

Oh, that's great.

Kelly Cheesewright:

They're happy with production. And we're happy to have a farm that's better, more productive and easier to farm.

Frank Lessiter:

Yeah. When we did a story on you a few years back, you said you were guessing tile was worth 10 to 15% more yield. That's still held up?

Kelly Cheesewright:

Yeah, I think so. Yeah, it's pretty incredible.

Frank Lessiter:

Yeah.

Kelly Cheesewright:

It really is. You just flip the farm. I mean, every year is different though, Frank.

Frank Lessiter:

Right.

Kelly Cheesewright:

In this weather. I mean, and really dry years, you may lose a little bit.

Frank Lessiter:

Sure.

Kelly Cheesewright:

Which is very rare. I've seen it happen maybe once or twice. 2012, you probably lost a little bit from not having that excess moisture. But that's pretty rare. The other 18, 19 times out of 20, it's going to be a positive.

Frank Lessiter:

Right.

Kelly Cheesewright:

And some really big.

Frank Lessiter:

Let's move into cover crops. And one of the things you mentioned earlier I'm going to come back to is how you diversified your rotation. And you're producing some cereal rice seed now, which it's going to help you push up your harvest. So, on those acres you can put in a cover crop earlier than you would otherwise with just corn and soybeans, right?

Kelly Cheesewright:

Absolutely. So, our plan is to put some legume package, frost seeded. We'll do that in February. I mean, red clover, maybe some another clover or two. And then my plan is to come back sometime in June, and then plant a warm season package as well to get this diversity. So, that's kind of what we got in mind.

Frank Lessiter:

Back up here, explain this again. Go back to February and tell me what you're doing.

Kelly Cheesewright:

Okay. Well, yeah. In February, you frost seed just like you would in wheat. People have done that red clover thing for years.

Frank Lessiter:

Yeah.

Kelly Cheesewright:

We'll frost seed some kind of a legume package. It'll probably include red clover and maybe another clover or two. We haven't figured that out exactly yet. But we'll get those started. And then come June, we'll probably put another package, a warm season package together with some grasses. And I'm not sure what all yet. We haven't decided that yet. But we want to get an eight-way, seven-way, eight-way mix growing on those acres, and get ready for corn production the following year.

Frank Lessiter:

Tell me about what you put cover crop in after corn and soybean harvest, what you're doing, when you get it on?

Kelly Cheesewright:

Yeah. It depends on when we get the beans out. We're doing, this year, we did a mix of triticale, hairy vetch, balansa clover. I think we put some radishes in there, and maybe a couple other things. If it's early enough. You got to get that done fairly early. Mid-September's cut off for a lot of these things. So, we tried to plant earlier, maturing soybeans, so we can get these mixes planted, which corn will follow. Behind the corn, if we fly it on early enough, which we did some. We did a package of oats, cereal rye, radishes, and rape.

So, we flew that on. So, it got established well. And we usually use that package on stuff that we're going to harvest late, like the white corn. We usually plant it first and harvest it last because its hard end is firm. It's really heavy test weight corn. And it dries down very slow in the field and in the bend. So, we always harvest it late. So, almost too late to get a good cover established and get any benefit out it. But the rest, a lot of the other corn acres we'll just plant cereal rye. And we do that in front of soybeans. We'll follow that next spring.

Frank Lessiter:

How late would you put a cover crop on your corn ground? Into November? Or, you have to go there late?

Kelly Cheesewright:

Oh, yeah. Yep. Cereal rye you can plant 12 months a year. It's the most incredible cover out there. I mean, it's amazing. So, you're not going to get all the benefits maybe of recycling nitrogen, or you get a lot of rain in the fall. But this fall we didn't have much rain. So, we probably haven't had that much loss in any excess nitrogen.

So, we went ahead and seeded all our acres even though we were late. The ground only has to be 34 or 35 degrees and cereal rye will germinate. So, get it out there. We had the seed. We grew it ourselves. So, get it out there. And it won't do anything good in the bag. I don't know how many times I've seen where cereal rye planted December will come up the last week of February.

Frank Lessiter:

Wow.

Kelly Cheesewright:

You'll get the benefit out of it. I don't know how many times I've seen that happen. In these warmer winters we've had, it germinates. It'll germinate above 34, 35 degrees. So, we get something on every acre. And you'll get some benefit out of it.

Frank Lessiter:

What would be a normal cereal rye seeding rate?

Kelly Cheesewright:

On our conventional acres, our GMO acres, we plant anywhere from 50, to 60, to 70 pounds typically, depending on the seed size and the variety. Some of the yellow ball and the brewstick are a lot smaller seeded variety. So, you can get by with maybe even a little less. You could probably even get less than 40 pounds, 45 pounds. Our organic acres, we're doing a higher rate. We've done up to two bushels before. But we're also counting on that to be all our weed control, whether we're roller crimping it, or what we're doing mostly now, I mean, the roller crimping works somewhat okay most years, but there's been some struggles with it. So, what we're doing for our organic beans, we have a John Deere air seeder, it's on 7.5 inch rows.

We're going to plant our beans in 30. So, we plugged off one row out of four on our seeder. We blocked off five rows on one side, six rows on another side. So, we have a 30-foot seeding pass. Our drill is 36 foot. So, we wanted to keep it 30 and 30 because our planter is 60 foot. So, we're 30 foot. And we're leaving a 15-inch gap where we're going to plant our 30-inch row soybean. So, we got three rows of cereal rye between each soybean row. And what we'll do, we'll let that rye come up. And when it's ankle to shin high, somewhere around boot stage, we'll go out there and plant our soybeans in that 15-inch gap. All right?

Frank Lessiter:

Okay.

Kelly Cheesewright:

So, we won't roller crimp that rye. We're going to let that rye grow to maturity. And sometime about the third week of June, we're going to roll in there with a combine. We'll take our floaters off our combine, put on a set of duals. And we'll drive down between those soybean rows and harvest that rye. Those beans will be about knee-high. We've done this couple three different years here prior.

So, we know how well this works. The rye does a great job holding back the weeds, and the grass, especially mares tail. I mean, cereal rye, I don't know how it magically does it, but makes mares tail disappear. So, we'll harvest this rye. We'll have our own cereal rye seed to plant back this coming fall for our covers. And then we'll let those beans grow up out of that stubble. And then we'll turn around this fall and harvest the beans.

Frank Lessiter:

Gosh, it sounds like double-cropping relay inner-cropping.

Kelly Cheesewright:

Yep. Yep. Yep, sure is.

Frank Lessiter:

Let's move over to the organic side. You've said for a number of years the corn you raised for Frito-Lay has been your most profitable revenue stream. And you were doing well. You were doing well than just being regular no-till. So, what encouraged you to go organic?

Kelly Cheesewright:

This son of mine had just graduated from Purdue, decided five or six years ago that he definitely wanted to farm. So, I'm okay, land prices are over 8, $10,000 now rent, $300, $400.

Frank Lessiter:

Sure.

Kelly Cheesewright:

And it's very, very competitive in my world. And I've never had a desire to farm 5 or 10,000 acres.

Frank Lessiter:

Right.

Kelly Cheesewright:

So, I'm thinking, "How am I going to get my son into the farming business without having growing horizontally?" I figured that the trek we've been on since 1984, we started no-tilling. The mid '80s, we started using cover crops. And 17 years ago, started using manure. And then oh, 10 years ago, I started composting manure. And we did all this tiling. So, we were always looking for a new way to do things better, grow better food.

And the organic system just seemed to be on this path that we are on. And plus, if we get this figured out, it allows us to farm the same number of acres or less acres and actually have enough income for two families instead of one. Five years ago, decided to plant those covers and anticipating that Keaton, my son, getting out of college three years later. And here we are three years in a certified organic 1000 acres. So, so far, so good.

Frank Lessiter:

So, what, this corn and soybeans, organic?

Kelly Cheesewright:

Yes.

Frank Lessiter:

Okay. How do you market them?

Kelly Cheesewright:

Well, that's pretty easy. Growing them is the hard part. Marketing in the organic world, marketing's the easy part. As long as you know you're going to have it, I'd recommend not sell it before you got it.

Frank Lessiter:

Yeah.

Kelly Cheesewright:

We've had some challenges with that in the past. But if you've got it in the bin, it's pretty easy to market because there's a pretty big demand for it.

Frank Lessiter:

Yeah. It's a US market, or overseas?

Kelly Cheesewright:

US market.

Frank Lessiter:

You got 1000 acres now. I assumed you started out small. Or, how many acres you start with the first year or two?

Kelly Cheesewright:

Well, I would recommend people to start out small. But I'm a little stupider or braver than those. I started out with a seven-year plan of transitioning the whole farm. So, we did 400 acres the first year.

Frank Lessiter:

Wow.

Kelly Cheesewright:

But I wouldn't recommend that to anybody. That was just a little brazen. But I wouldn't recommend that. That's pretty challenging. So, I guess I call it obnoxiously optimistic.

Frank Lessiter:

Right.

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Frank Lessiter:

What were the surprises you got the first or second year that other people ought to be aware of if they were thinking of going organic?

Kelly Cheesewright:

Oh, man. Surprises, there's lots of them. You got to have lots of plans. You can't just have plan A, B, C. You better have the whole alphabet. Mother Nature's always go throw you lots of surprises. Do your homework. You can't study or learn enough. If you're doing it like we're wanting to do with cover crops and no-till organic, you've got to have lots of backup plans because like the fall of 2021, Mother Nature didn't let us get our cover crops planted very well. So, we had a lot of ground that didn't have a cover crop. So, then what are you going to do? If you're counting on a cover crop to be your weed control, then what are you going to do?

Frank Lessiter:

Yeah.

Kelly Cheesewright:

So, there's just lots of challenges with the covers and the weather. Foxtail is a huge problem for us. We're trying to figure out how to control foxtail. Hopefully, this cereal rye that I told you about a bit ago, about planting three rows of rye and one row of soybeans, that's going to help control our foxtail because it's relentless. This foxtail is just incredible how it will grow in dry, loose dirt. And it's amazing, the pressure.

So, that's been the biggest challenge for us is grass, controlling the grass. Weeds, we don't have too big a issue with. We have some, but not that bad. And then we also have a weed zapper that we can use a last ditch effort to get rid of the weed seed. With waterhemp being so aggressive, we can control waterhemp very easily with the weed zapper. It's just it's a relentless weed too. But we just haven't had that much pressure in the last couple years with our broadleafs. It's mainly grass.

Frank Lessiter:

I'm sure we got some readers that know what a weed zapper is and some that we don't. Can you explain what the weed zapper is?

Kelly Cheesewright:

A weed zapper is a mounted bar that goes on a front-mounted, three-point hitch. And you carry generator that's on the rear three-point hitch generated by the power takeoff. And you're generating about 15,000 volts. And you just got the lead running from the back of the tractor up to the front, and this copper bar you run above the soybean canopy. And all you have to do is touch that weed and it'll annihilate the cells, the cell walls of that plant and kill it instantly.

It's so gratifying. It only takes about three seconds to go from where you touched the weed to where you're looking down from the cab looking at it, and it'll be wilted immediately. So, if anybody has a waterhemp problem, that's such a gratifying process. It's pretty impressive how quick it'll kill that weed. Horseweeds, cocklebur, mares tail, does a great job of killing. The only weed that we have a problem with killing is velvetleaf. It's got a woody type stem that doesn't conduct electricity very well. So, it's really tough to kill. But all the other weeds that we have, seem to be controlled fairly easily.

Frank Lessiter:

But it takes a pretty big tractor to run this with. And you need power for the generator, right?

Kelly Cheesewright:

Yep. Yep. We have a 320 horse factory tractor. And we have a 40-foot zapper. So, we had to go buy a chip, and get another 80 horse to get that thing to 400 to run that generator, and not pull it down so it didn't burn it up. You got to keep a certain RPM so you don't burn up your generator.

Frank Lessiter:

So, you're certified organic. And certification, lots of paperwork, a pain in the butt, or okay to do?

Kelly Cheesewright:

No, it's a pain in the butt. It's a pain in the butt. Lots of record keeping. Got to meet with a certifying agent. And you got to have your I's dotted and your T's crossed, or you can get yourself in a jam. Yeah, definitely any products you ever want to use, you want to get them approved prior to buying them and prior to using them. And there again, a lot of homework a guy needs to do to get up to speed. And you just got to accept there's going to be more paperwork.

That's all there is to it. We've hired a person to help us with all this paperwork. She's pretty amazing. And she helps us keep on track so we don't do anything we shouldn't. And she helps with the certification process, the interview that you have to do annually. So, that's been a big help. I'd highly recommend finding an additional source of guiding through all this process because it's a pretty stringent process. And it's a hard thing. It really is.

Frank Lessiter:

So, what kind of premium is being paid these days for corn and beans that are organic?

Kelly Cheesewright:

Pretty good size. Feed grade yellow corn's probably in the $10 to $12 range. And food grade white corn was probably in the 12 to $14 range. So, there's double the price right now. Soybeans are somewhat, they've gone down there recently some, but they're about double the price as well. They've been much as 2.5 times the price of regular beans. Pretty good premium.

Frank Lessiter:

You're producing about 150 bushel corn. What about soybeans?

Kelly Cheesewright:

We'd like to be growing 50, 60 bushel beans.

Frank Lessiter:

Okay. Tell me how fertility? You got turkey litter. You got cover crops. Then what?

Kelly Cheesewright:

We've been using the micronutrients. We hooked up with a real good consultant that's very familiar with organic production and is a genius when it comes to minerals. He's helped us get our zinc, and our manganese, and our boron back where they should be, or at least we're working on it. It's very expensive to do. So, there are certain potash, I think it's potassium sulfate you can use in the organic world. But it's expensive. You can rock phosphate. It's not cheap.

But it's a high premium product. And nitrogen sources. We've used some liquid fish. We've used feather meal. There's several other products on top of the manures. So, there's things you can use. They're just more expensive. So, I recommend you get a really good consultant that understands all the relationships, and to get your nutrients somewhat balanced. So, one shortfall of one nutrient may create shortfalls on two other nutrients.

Frank Lessiter:

Right.

Kelly Cheesewright:

So, there's lots and lots of relationships between them that takes someone smarter than me. I've been trying to figure it out for 40 years, and haven't got there yet. So, I went out and sought additional help. And that was very good decision.

Frank Lessiter:

Weed control with cover crops, roller crimping, weed zapper. Are you satisfied with what you're getting for weed control?

Kelly Cheesewright:

Broadleafs, yes. Foxtail, no.

Frank Lessiter:

Okay.

Kelly Cheesewright:

We're struggling with that one right now. I mean, we have some theories. We've located people that have theories of why that is. So, we're working on that process. We got people like Dan Desetter and Rick Clark working on. They're good friends of mine. They're working on this as well. They're also having the same issues. So, we're all trying to figure it out.

Frank Lessiter:

Right. This has been great talking to you. Right now, you split 1000 acres, 1000 acres. In five years, will you have more acres of organic, you don't know, or what?

Kelly Cheesewright:

We plan on it. We quit transitioning this past year just because we've reached our limits, our labor.

Frank Lessiter:

Sure.

Kelly Cheesewright:

We have one full-time hired man. Me and my son, of course, full-time. We're looking for another full-time person. We need him. But also, if we figure out more diverse crop rotation where we're not harvesting everything in the fall and do more in the summer, we can broaden, go more acres. So, I mean, that's our plan. We want to be 100% organic.

Frank Lessiter:

Okay.

Kelly Cheesewright:

That's the goal.

Frank Lessiter:

Yeah.

Kelly Cheesewright:

And that may mean a few less acres, which I wouldn't have a problem with.

Frank Lessiter:

Yeah.

Kelly Cheesewright:

I don't care to farm the world, or the township, or the county. I just want to make a good living, and my son make a decent living.

Frank Lessiter:

Right.

Kelly Cheesewright:

And it's all good.

Frank Lessiter:

How much more time do you think organic takes per acre?

Kelly Cheesewright:

Lots. Lots of management, and lots of scouting, and lots of patience. It's not for the faint of heart.

Frank Lessiter:

Yeah.

Kelly Cheesewright:

I'm telling you. You better be prepared. Yeah, it's grilling. The first three years are pretty tough. So, start small. Do lots of studying. Have lots of plans. And seek out lots of help. There's just an endless amount of information out here, podcast. Just great things going on in this world. A lot of regenerative movement. We've been on this path our whole life. We never called it that. But that's what we've been doing.

Frank Lessiter:

Sure.

Kelly Cheesewright:

And it's a great path to be on. We've seen our soils respond. We've got amazing soils now. We're trying to crank this biology up, and get back to where Mother Nature intended these soils to work. We want soil, we don't want to farm dirt.

Frank Lessiter:

Right.

Kelly Cheesewright:

There's a lot of dead soils out there, and we don't want that.

Frank Lessiter:

Next on today's podcast, we're going to take a short break to offer another little known fact about no-till. Growers in South America have developed an organic system that relies on no-tilling green manure crops as soon as possible after harvesting no-till cash crops. With this system, sunflowers and sunn hemp are knocked down with a knife roller, which lets farmers no-till into the dead mulch without needing herbicides for weed control. I thought this was really good today since Kelly's talking about his organic no-till program. But imperative way with the cover crops controlling the weeds, these no-till farmers boosted returns by $15 per acre with more mulch, higher organic matter in the soil, and less nutrient leeching.

US growers don't yet have the kinks worked out for making a no-till organic farming system practical and easy. But refinements are coming, such as you're hearing today from Kelly Cheesewright. That's it for this episode of the No-Till Farmer Influencers and Innovators Podcast. Thanks again to our sponsor, SOURCE by Sound Agriculture for helping to make this series possible. You can find more podcasts about no-till topics and strategies at no-tillfarmer.com/podcast. A transcript of this episode will be available there shortly. If you haven't already done so, you can subscribe to this podcast to get an alert whenever we release a new one. For our entire staff here at No-Till Farmer, I'm Frank Lessiter. Thanks for listening. Keep on no-tilling. And have a great day.