“Yeah, I can grow 250 bushels of corn, but that doesn't thrill me. The thrill is being able to grow something with absolute bare minimum and competing cash flow wise.”
— Loran Steinlage, 2023 Conservation Ag Operator Fellow, West Union, Iowa
No-Till Farmer’s 2023 Conservation Ag Operator Fellow Loran Steinlage of West Union, Iowa, and No-Till Legend Dave Brandt from Carroll, Ohio, have been thinking beyond yield for decades — focusing on soil health, doing more with less, and lately, producing high nutrient density crops that could be used as medicine in the future.
In this episode of the podcast, brought to you by Yetter Farm Equipment, Steinlage and Brandt talk about the challenges of being an early adopter in conservation ag, the importance of having a fluid management mindset, their pursuit of high nutrient density crops and much more.
In early February, No-Till Farmer managing editor Michaela Paukner visited Steinlage at his farm and met a host of his special guests at his house that day, including his son, Rolan, who was featured in this recent episode of the podcast.
No-Till Farmer's podcast series is brought to you by Yetter Farm Equipment.
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Welcome to the No-Till Farmer Podcast, brought to you by Yetter Farm Equipment. I'm Michaela Paukner, managing editor at No-Till Farmer. In today's episode of the podcast, No-Till Farmer's 2023 Conservation Ag Operator Fellow Loran Steinlage of West Union, Iowa, and No-Till legend Dave Brandt from Carroll, Ohio sit down together to talk about the challenges of being an early adopter in conservation ag, the importance of having a fluid management mindset, the pursuit of high-nutrient-density crops and much more. Loran starts off this episode. You'll hear him reference heading home from a meeting and talking with doctors. He and Dave met with a group of doctors in Iowa the day before our conversation to talk about using nutrient dense crops as medicine, so keep that in mind as he's talking.Loran Steinlage:
We're always looking at the bigger picture, trying to figure out. The last two days I sat in awe of the people we were with. I told Dave on the way home last night, I think I held my own.
Like I said, that's all I ever care to do is hold my own and help people learn. Right now, it seems the minute some people start getting a little attention, the fame and fortune kicks in, and I worry about them. Brenda's went with me for quite a few of the events, but now all of a sudden we're hitting the next frontier of life and the grandkids take a little priority so she's not with them as much, and people notice that. No different than the first time Dave and Kendra showed up here. Was that 2014, or '15, something like that when Dave Brandt shows up on your farm? I think we've had a pretty good relationship ever since then.Dave Brandt:
Good relationship since then.Loran Steinlage:
I think the ultimate high was this summer when I got promoted to brother status.Dave Brandt:
Oh, very nice. I know earlier on, Loran, you said that you've gone through this period where first people are ridiculing what you're doing and now they're holding you up as the example of what you should be doing. What are some of the things that you've encountered where people have done that to you, and how do you keep yourself motivated as you're going through that tough part?Dave Brandt:
I guess to me it's real humbling to have people you work with or your peers acknowledge what you've done because I feel I just plant the seed. We do a lot of talking, we do a lot of field days, and my point of call is to get the people we're working with or the producers to think outside the norm. You don't have to be hard up to change. You just have to be able to adapt to what you're trying to do. And I guess we've been ridiculed ever since we started. We lose ground, we get ground. Lately the pressure's been on because we had some equipment failures over the past and we just didn't get things done. And you get weeds coming in the field and then the landlord gets all upset because the neighbors fields are green and no weeds in it.
When you reduce 95% of the herbicide rates and 95% of the fertilizer rates, and you're trying to explain to the landlords what's going on, and you got this one foxtail weed or one Johnson grass weed in the fields, they're all upset and don't understand it didn't affect the yield. Yes, it sometimes makes it a little tough to harvest. You just have to slow down or do something different. But it's just hard to convince landlords that's not ever farmed. They buy these farms because it's a tax shelter or something and they were trying to farm them or they're development farms and we're supposed to be the experts. Well, I make more mistakes than probably any conventional farmer ever made because they're able to put all the resources they need to be successful. And right now I'm figuring out probably 20% of them in the world's being able to add the water now.
But my point of call is I really want us to learn to produce better quality food. And that's been my point for three or four or 10 years. Let's find out how we can do this and make it more nutrient-dense and being able to feed our consumers with higher quality grains that in essence should make us all more healthy. Now, I don't know whether we can prove that yet or not, but there's something to be said about having more protein or more amino acids and more micronutrients in a crop than what we see from conventional. But I just like to talk and plant the seed and then when people call you to help, I want to help them. I shouldn't even be here.
I should be home trying to help the grandkids get things done, but I'm so excited about trying to help people that I'll spend a lot of time away from home. And it's a lot easier now, with two grandsons on the farm, to get away. It was fun when I had a mate to go with me, but it's not as much fun as it used to be that way. It's always fun to have somebody navigate you, and you holler at them because they made the wrong turn.Michaela Paukner:
It's your fault for getting lost.Dave Brandt:
Sarah don't like that very well.
I think as we progress and learn things and everything's changing, but I think as we can work with producers and keep them excited about what we're doing and show them how to improve, if we could save one guy or one producer, all producers 10 bucks an acre, what would that be? Or if we could eliminate 50% of their erosion, what would that mean? And that's what I'm trying to show people is how they can reduce inputs, make the soil better, not lose the soil and teach them how important it is. And it doesn't matter whether he's a 10 acre farmer or a 10,000 acre farmer. We all can improve. Loran and I have tried to improve every year that we're doing something. It's just great to have that, I'll call it camaraderie or whatever, when you can meet with people that's doing things and help you to support, make you feel better.
There's days that I just got to call somebody in Canada to make him laugh because that's what it's all about.Loran Steinlage:
I think he's addicted to that.Dave Brandt:
I think he is, yes. Or you call somebody in California, or people that we've met, and for some reason it seems like that the organics, or regens, or whatever you want to call us, seem to want to share. Loran will tell everybody there's his secrets, and I'll tell everybody my secrets, and grandson's trying to learn. He's talking about putting in place spike closing wheels back on some of our rows. If it works that's fine, but we've got to keep these young people involved. And I think with regenerative farming, that's where we can do it. That's how I feel about it.Michaela Paukner:
And talking about the producing that better quality food that's more nutrient-dense, what do you guys have to do when you're going through the season to ensure that you're getting the better quality crop?Dave Brandt:
Well, I think what we have to do, and we're doing it, and most of us are trying different things that work, and then you have to follow it through and see if it really worked. We plant various corn plots, various bean plots a year in probably the toughest soils we have just to see how it's going to respond. When we look at 15 to 18 different varieties in a plot and we see protein goes from 4% on this variety to 14% on this variety, that's what we're looking for. Because today we're not having any research done from any source, whether it's private or public, on what we're doing because they're doing it all on the best ground they got to tell you how much it's going to yield. Now I guess I'm really concerned. I don't mind 600 bushel corn or 500 bushel corn or 400 bushel corn, but if it doesn't have the nutrients to feed the world, what are we going to do?
And as we keep wearing out the soils... And sometimes I like to pick on my Iowa farmers because that's where the buffalo roamed, and they got lots of dark-colored soils, and it's pretty flat and pretty big. And when they could take it from where it was when the buffalo roamed from about 14% of organic matter down to four in less than 200 years, what's the next 200 years going to do? So if we don't learn to conserve and have it covered and try to do the right things to the soil, and I hate to say this out loud, but will Iowa become a desert? Let's just face it. Why is the Sahara desert over there?Loran Steinlage:
Sahara Desert was one of the most fertile regions in the world.Dave Brandt:
That's right, at one time. I don't say we'll ever get back to Garden to Eden, but as we learned to keep the soil covered, things to get easier. But it takes a whole lot more management, and I don't think a lot of the producers want to spend that time to manage. And I think that's what separates all of us. The most of us that's doing regenerative ag like to manage.Loran Steinlage:
Well, and part of it comes back to conversation we were in the last couple of days is when you truly start understanding nutrient density, the key is you end up eating less food. Me and David are both pretty good at converting food.Dave Brandt:
Is that the PC way to put that?Dave Brandt:
That's a pretty easy way to put it, yes.Loran Steinlage:
But when you start realizing the nutrient density of the foods back in the 1940s and thirties and stuff like that, they actually had to eat less to get the same benefit you do today. Well, what comes with all that extra food we're eating? Back to Rolan's story, one of the first things we learned early in his story is the sugars. That's what drives anxiety. And some of the people we were talking to last few days, they're dialing in on some of that stuff. How do we get more farmers and doctors and medical professionals working together on this stuff?Dave Brandt:
That's why I feel, the two days we spent with these doctors that we were at, it was a real privilege to sit around, to me, and to talk to these people and to see them understanding that as we look at plants and keep our plants healthy, how we can affect health of even animal population and human population. Because the things they're looking at, it boggles my mind.
I'm a simple-minded person. But when we can talk about a corn that has more zinc or more magnesium or more selenium versus another hybrid. When we started looking at micronutrients and mineralization of a plant, I couldn't believe how much difference there is between A, B and C. I just expected a corn plant to always have the same, but they don't. So we're looking at that on our farm and we're trying to do that research to feed the healthcare industry to understand if maybe they have a patient that needs something, we could find this variety of corn that they could utilize or variety of wheat or whatever it is. It could even be a soybean to help them out. And I think that's going to be part of the way for the future. So I think as we regenerative farming is taking off and we're getting more and more people to do it, we'll find niche markets to help us out just like organics do.Loran Steinlage:
That's the next frontier. We all need to be working together trying to figure out how to market that product together because as of right now, we can't get paid for what we're doing. Unless you go to the organic side, but even there you're not getting near as much benefit as the potential. And hopefully we're working on closing them gaps. There's ideals on the table. We'll see if they gain traction. But for me personally, the aha moment I had here a couple of years ago was with the beers that we're working with and stuff like that.
We had one beer came out called Regen Beer. Now the area it was exposed to and that it should have been an easy sell, but the people in that community called it Regan Beer. They didn't even know what. So that's a big disconnect I see right now and why we're trying to reach out with the chefs and the doctors and stuff like that. The education is going to become way beyond what any of us thought was going to entail. And the chefs get it because they know what it's like to work with the food. And if we can get them to help relate to the consumer, why is this better for you, that's a pretty slick avenue if we can really start helping people understand through the food what we're doing.Dave Brandt:
Well, it'd really be neat if we could get them to understand in the school systems and stuff like that to eat little better food quality. Why do we have to have Pepsi machines and sugar-coated stuff to keep the students happy?Loran Steinlage:
Some of the biggest things is I know we can do a lot more than what we've done to date. The future is going to be the multicropping, the companion cropping. We've got to figure out what works best together here. Net-zero is probably a big thing that I'm really focused on right now. Everybody else is focused on carbon but if you take it all the way to net-zero, that's when you start factoring in your fount source, your potassium, your water quality, the energy use and all that. Well, that's where we're going to start getting a consumer-driven mindset and just the consumer-driven aspect together. I want to get to where we're actually growing more food on farm. We all talk about it, but good food and wholesome food and stuff we can actually eat.
Number two yellow corn, I can eat a few handfuls throughout harvest probably as you sample a little corn. Maybe real small handfuls at that, but it's not what whets my appetite. The cereal grains and that that we're doing, some of the other stuff, the oil seeds we're looking at growing and stuff like that. Bad part is we got to quit killing our plots. But that's part of the learning experience. What over winners here in Iowa is going to be the challenge. What overwinters in West Union, Iowa is going to be way different than Waterloo, Iowa. That's only 45 miles away. We learned that way back when we first started with the interseeding and that.
I'll never forget, Steve Groff was in Waterloo at the height of the Cover Crop Solution days. He's like, "Yeah, annual ryegrass will work here." And I'm like, "Steve, I've used it for," I don't know what it was, like eight years at that point. I was like, "We've never had it overwinter." But things have changed enough now. We've learned a few things that we can pretty predictably get annual ryegrass to overwinter. With that said, I don't think this winter is going to be one of them because we just had that long bare spell in December, got down to sub 30 or whatever it was, negative 30. But that's part of the mindset we have acquired.
I don't have a clue what our actual rotation is this year yet. It's going to flex as we see spring unfold. So back to topic, what do I see as keys is flexibility. I guess the way I've described it is a fluid management plan. We're constantly adjusting. I'm a seedsman nightmare anymore. Chemical guys don't even want to talk to me just because we've got to have several different plans as we see things unfold throughout the year. And I'm telling people right now, if I got to have surgery again this spring it's going to change things drastically. I'll probably safety up on a lot just so me and my wife can handle it as much as possible. Hopefully I get a little help, but I always focus on what we can get done ourselves and adjust from there.Michaela Paukner:
What is your timeframe for making those cropping decisions while still being flexible with what you're going to do?Loran Steinlage:
Timeframe on making decisions? Hour by hour,Michaela Paukner:
Hour by hour?Loran Steinlage:
Minute by minute.Dave Brandt:
I was going to say day by day.Loran Steinlage:
No, just part of the relay cropping mindset and all that is we don't know the day. We'll have a pretty good idea of when we'll plant the bean into the rye. But just what we learned this year already, or this past year, that decision might not be made to harvest exactly what we're doing. We thought we learned quite a bit, and we thought we knew what we were doing. But this year was a prime example of we've got to maintain flexibility. Just my stupidity last year, charging into harvest and relay of the rye. We would've been better off not harvesting the rye.Michaela Paukner:
Why is that?Loran Steinlage:
We should have just let the rye grow. Well, we seen the beans flowering already. If the beans are flowering when we pop that rye out of there, they go to maturity, they're done. 15 bushel an acre relay of beans and we're supposed to know what we're doing is pretty humbling.
Now on the flip side, the beans that looked good in the later-maturing beans should have been some of the best relay beans we ever had. But then mother nature says, "Hey, you're not done learning yet." This mid-September freeze there again was pretty humbling. Now everybody's like, "Oh my god, what are you going to change for next year?" Well, I know I'm taking the three oh and the three two beans out. And in Northern Iowa everybody thinks I'm nuts growing three five to three nine beans because we do have... Our biggest concern on cropping is this frost in the spring and the frost in the fall. I've showed it many times. We have lucky years, we have 140 days of growing season. Well, I don't know what we're having anymore because last year we froze them out on the front side. This year we froze them out on the backside.
So right now I'm not changing anything on the later beans knowing that was a three week earlier than normal frost. If we'd had a one week more, we'd have probably had 70, 80 bushel really beans. You can't make knee jerk reactions, you just got to go with what you've learned over the years and trust it. And on the flip side, in the spring, I'll plant the relay bean in there knowing full well we might terminate it. If we're going to go hot and dry, depending on which farm it's on and if we've got the water holding capacity or if we got the moisture, we might let her ride. But it's hard with crop insurance and all that stuff. That's a whole separate discussion.
The group we're a part of help fight for the waiver program on the relay cropping and all that. So we charged in last year, "Hey, we got the waiver, let's just see what it rides out." Thought we asked all the right questions, but that again was educational when you start dealing with government programs. "Oh no, we never told you that." Well, now they're disappointed when I told them this year I will not be doing a waiver program just for the simple fact they combine our relay beans with the commercial beans and it's like if I was double crop area, they'd keep them separate. But apparently with the waiver program, beans are beans. But why do we have to keep them all separate, the record separate and all that? There's a lot to learn on this stuff, and the advice to the younger folks listening would be keep asking questions. And the minute you start making hard decisions early in the game is probably the death knell. Keep that fluid mindset where you've got to learn and adapt to make this work.Michaela Paukner:
So as it stands now, are you able to get more money for your corn that you can prove is a better nutrient density? Or do you have to go seek out a market?Loran Steinlage:
You have to seek out the market.Dave Brandt:
We have to seek out the market, yeah.Loran Steinlage:
Last summer there got to do a presentation just on some of the off-farm stuff we're doing. Beyond the Yield was the name of the meeting and really wanted us to focus on what we're doing off-farm to better that position. And the way I would describe it to anybody is: for every minute we're going to save with our farming practices, you need to focus that minute on your marketing. And it's not easy. When you start dealing with the general consumer public, you are never going to guess where they're wanting to be, what they need and how they want it. You just constantly have to keep building that rapport.Dave Brandt:
Well, I think the internet has made it a little more easier to do that as you can do information there that they could understand where their food comes from. We started milling just about a year ago, so we're doing more farm-to-table things. We're milling ancient wheats and ancient corns. And it took a long time to get people to understand what we were talking about and doing, but in the last month we've had quite a influx of people ordering things through the internet. The housewife seems to be a little more concerned about where her food's coming from because of the COVID virus, when they went to stores and shelves were empty. I'm afraid there may be a lot of empty shelves coming up because there's hardly enough commodities to keep everything going. And that's the trouble we have when we start talking about trying to help the medical field is that there's really no place to go to get quality food.
Because it says it's organic, that doesn't mean it's quality a bit. And I think we've made that point with those medical people the last two days that there is high-quality organic foods, and then there's unhigh-quality, if you want to say it that way, organic foods. Just because you took the fertilizer and the chemical away, if you till that soil all the time and disrupt it and don't have enough root systems or enough cover there, the quality of that grain goes downhill quite immensely. When we can work with organic producers and have them use cover crop, that quality jumps way up way fast. So I think we may start seeing regen organics as a way to show that that topic is better quality. And that may go against what organic people want to hear, but I really think it's time to put the truth in the pudding.Loran Steinlage:
And that's over the last, how many years. I think 2014, 2015 is first time we had nutrient density testing done on our grains. To date yet we really don't know what that all means. But now by bringing the doctors in, they can tell us, "Well you need this, you need that." The next step is going to be, can your body utilize that? So it's the deeper you get into, you figure out the human biome is no different than the soil. Just because something's in the soil doesn't mean the plants can use it. So if we can help connect the right people together... There was two guys yesterday in the meeting. It's like we need to get these two guys together with Lance Gunderson and Mitchell Hora because they're doing the human side of what Lance and Mitchell are doing on the soil side. So if we can somehow connect them two, and all of a sudden they're working together, we might be able to speed some of this up.Michaela Paukner:
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How did you guys get connected with this group of doctors to begin with?Loran Steinlage:
Beating on doors.Michaela Paukner:
Oh, really?Loran Steinlage:
There's some pretty cool stuff on the horizon if it all comes to fruition there. Like I said, it's been a long journey. That why I told them yesterday, I'm like a bull in the china room there. But yesterday at one point all the time and effort that's went into this deal it's like, "Okay folks, what's our plan B?" Because everything we're working for is in sight, but if it doesn't happen here we need to be looking over here or over there so we keep moving forward. And hopefully soon we'll know.Dave Brandt:
And I think that's the basic how we farm. You try to start something and if it don't work, I won't say you back up, but you slow down and say, "Now where could I go to improve this or change it?" Because the challenges there is to show that you can handle the diversity. And I think that's the thing that we've learned to do. We've learned to handle diversity because...Loran Steinlage:
Through adversity we've learned to handle the diversity.Dave Brandt:
There's your tagline.Dave Brandt:
Yes sir. Because I remember when I was younger and that's... I'm up there. But I remember when we first started with no-till, you could count on the weather. We got nice little rainfall events for 24 hours, and you got rain when you needed it, and it was a piece of cake there back in the seventies and eighties. Now we get these deluges of five and six inches and then no rain for a month.Loran Steinlage:
Here in Iowa it seems the latest greatest thing is derechos. Every time we turn around, boom, hurricane force winds. They were just talking, it was the anniversary of the one south of here and it's changing my perspective of what crops actually want to grow. Anybody that's harvested corn knows it's not fun picking up off the ground.Dave Brandt:
They used to not be able to grow corn in Nebraska and South Dakota and there's places where it's hot, Oklahoma. And now it seems like the climate, I don't know, they call it climate change. Something's happened that it seems like they're able to grow more of that kind of commodity. Whether it's because of all the development going on. It's fun to be here at Loran's and never see an automobile on the road when you're driving and look at big fields. And you get east of Mississippi, it's just houses and developments and everything. So maybe we've made our own climate problems. That's what I look at.Loran Steinlage:
Like we addressed yesterday, if it wasn't for climate change we'd be sitting under a glacier right now. We got to get that on the table first. But it goes back to, I mentioned earlier about the three young ladies that we were talking to at that meeting about scale. It turned out, I didn't know it when we stepped into that meeting, but it was a climate change meeting. They wanted to figure out what it's going to take to get farmers to talk about climate change. And I use that example right there. There's undeniable fact that we were sitting under a glacier once upon a time. So climate's been changing for a long time. Now we got everybody on a level playing field. Let's work up from there instead of accusing somebody for causing something. No, it's been happening. Let's figure out what's happening, how we can deal with it. I guess over the last several years, just on our farm, we've seen the difference we can make.Dave Brandt:
Yes, that's right.Loran Steinlage:
We've got test data that shows we can infiltrate and hold more water than up to the 50% level. We can mitigate flooding potential by 50% and stuff like that. Now on the flip side, why are we having such a hard time maintaining funding to keep that test data coming in? And that's some of the frustrating things we're seeing right now is the more of this stuff we're doing and starting to prove that we know what we're doing a little bit, the hurdles keep getting in front of us. So how do we get the consortium in place to combat that? It's easy to do replicated data in a university setting, but real world would tell us we're not in a university setting.
I've never seen two years the same. So that year to year stuff that we've learned over the years, that's when that starts coming into play and help us. You asked earlier how we make decisions. It's by sitting back and everybody talks. You got 40 years of farming. I ain't going to quit in two years because I'm at 38 this year, if I remember right. This is now when we should start knowing what we're doing, and that's why hopefully we know what we're doing. We can show other people what we're doing, and it makes sense. But most people don't understand it. When you don't have a hard plan that scares a lot of people. Business sense would say you build a plan, you go with that. But all the business classes I've always been to the first thing I say, "Well if you take the time to put it down on paper, that means you're locked into that." You've got to have that fluid mindset. My business plan is up here. It's constantly changing. Probably not hourly like the cropping system, but we're going to juke and jive with the best of them.Dave Brandt:
Loran's just right. My son's a polymer chemist and his wife's also a polymer chemist and she's running our seed business and grandkids are there, and they want to write up a plan of action. This is what we're going to do today, or this is what we're going to do. I don't mind the plan or the goal, but I keep telling them, you got to be flexible enough. If it's raining, you just don't go in the house and sit down. You got to do something else to make that work, and you may not get it done. So you have to have that plan to Z to figure that out because I think when you talk to people like Rick Clark, he's always got 300 things he's trying to figure out to do. And that's why we talk about small alphabet and some low alphabet because you may start with a letter A and end up with a small letter Z in that same field that year.Loran Steinlage:
We're old enough we might bring back cursive.Dave Brandt:
But that's the fun thing that I see that keeps it interesting for me.Loran Steinlage:
But on the same train of thought, the challenge is what drives us.Dave Brandt:
That's right, absolutely right.Loran Steinlage:
It's fun when you start trying to figure out, well what'll fit here? What'll fit there? One of the worst case scenarios is what do I got left to sell? What could I make good out of that? And this spring Rick and I were out in Nebraska together and talking about a few things and all of a sudden, boom, he is trying. Yep, that worked. Okay, now I know that that can be one of my backup plans. And that goes back to the camaraderie we've got. We're talking all the time and sharing ideals and trying to figure out how can we help each other? "Hey, I did this. Try that." Them little things are what helps us. And I've described that before.
One of the first things, back to Rolan's deal, I thought my farming career died at that moment. Everybody wants that son that's going to take over the farm. And I'm not afraid to tell people if it wouldn't be for Rolan's deal, none of you probably would've heard of me because I was a very close-minded person at that point. But I realized that day we're not selfish and we've done a few cool things at that point already. Might as well share it because I'm not going to take it to the grave. And quickly, the more we started sharing, the more people started sharing, it's been a hell of a ride.Dave Brandt:
Well it's just like if you get an idea, back in the seventies and eighties, if you got an idea there was nobody talked to. I mean there was just nobody. And of course then you didn't have any equipment either. I mean everything you had to do, you had to modify. The drills they brought to us when we started no-tilling was a conventional drill with maybe 10 55 gallon drums of water on it to make it go in the ground. The greatest thing that I have that I think is so much fun, if I'm thinking of something in the combine or the tractor or even laying in bed, you can get up and you can call one of your friends somewhere and say, "Is this a stupid idea?" And they may say no, but they're saying that guy's an idiot, but they'll let him try.
It was interesting, I was with Rick Clark one month or so ago and we were talking and I says, "We had a soybean spill in the field a year ago because grandpa forgot to shut the door on a gravity bed," but we cleaned it up as best we could. And then this summer we saw there that the cover crops in that area was a third taller and a third darker, bigger seed hedge. And we took a sample and just for an example, the CEC in that circle where the soybeans were was 24.5 CEC. So we took the sample in the field, the big field, and it's only 7.7. And then we looked at the phosphorus and potash and I don't remember what it was, but the calcium was what stuck in my mind because the calcium in that circle was 4,830 pounds where the field was only 1,420.
So I got this big wild hair and I was sitting there with Rick and I says, "We have a seed cleaning business and we got lots of split soybeans, and we don't have any livestock to feed it to, and you can't hardly sell splits to the feed mill." I says, "What do you think about pulverizing that and putting soybean meal in a row with maybe a little bit of sugar?" And he says, "Why not David? Go ahead and try it. Let me know how it works." Those are the things that motivate you. So it may work. You never know till you try.Michaela Paukner:
And that's going back to you're doing more with less. You're using what you have and making it work.Loran Steinlage:
Well just an instance we saw this summer on, I'll call it my problem child field this year. We had some pretty smart people out here trying to figure out what was actually going wrong and a shovel would tell you better than what any test could ever tell me. And then son-in-law talking with him. And that's what I would impress upon anybody. What is the three most important nutrients we have in our soils for cropping today? It's not nitrogen, potassium, phosphorus. Air, water, and carbon: that's probably more relevant to what we're doing. And as that field played out this summer, carbon's the big word everybody wants to talk about right now. When it was all said and done, we did a total digest on that field so we know exactly what nutrients are left in the field and all that. And where the corn was good, we had 10,000 pounds more carbon in the soil than where the corn was bad.
Now is carbon company going to pay me that? Oh, by the way, I'm not eligible for that payment. So oh we're not going there today. But what it all come down to is we've seen things happening in that field, and I could guarantee you that in the fall there when we were harvesting the corn off that field, if you've seen a bad stalk, the soil collapsed. If you've seen a good stalk, the soil was the most perfect looking soil you could ask for. It had air in it, just nice fluffy soil. And the yield monitor went from 300 bushel an acre to under a hundred. And there was like, "Oh what'd you do wrong there?" I was like, "I didn't have the cover up front." The sad part is that field was not supposed to be corn this year.
Back to that management style we talk about, I was going to put our spring cereal in that field so we didn't put a cover there last fall. Should have probably seen what was going wrong in that field. When I had a news reporter out there and I was so proud that day. I was like, "Here you go. You can see what roots do versus no roots." It was just like pudding on that side. That should have been my aha moment. It was no-till, soil health off the charts. But that one little hiccup crashed the system. When you hear Lance and them guys and Rick Haney talk about the refrigerator ain't and empty. We've seen it firsthand now. Now I've learned...Dave Brandt:
How important it is.Loran Steinlage:
How important it is on my own farm, even yet. We're supposed to know what we're doing. We can crash the system pretty hard. But back to that fluid management style, we were going to put a spring cereal in. Well we didn't get in the fields till May 15th, and all of a sudden you started seeing a hundred and some degrees forecast within three weeks. I was like, "Well that ain't going to work." But I was so hell-bent this past year that I wasn't going to plant corn, I didn't even get my corn planter out. I just got to the mindset where I can compete with the relay and the rotation or whatever you want to call what we're in. I can compete with up to 250 bushel an acre corn, very low input, very low risk. I'm going that direction.
Well, Rolan came home from Tulsa. We had to run him back to Tulsa because his is doctor appointment and the way things worked out, Brenda's like, "Hey you want to go with to Tulsa to help take him back?" I was like, "Sure, call the neighbor. Can you plant that field of corn?" I never should have did that knowing what I know now, because what happened is that soil collapsed. It suffocated the corn roots in them areas. Everybody goes, "Oh what's your soil test?" I'm like, well it's there. Identical here, identical there, everything. Nothing made sense until you took the shovel out there and dug. A lot of people have a hard time understanding that it's that simple. Now, simple-minded Loran, we get along pretty good with simple.
We don't try to overthink things. And yes, I just told you earlier, I constantly am thinking, but don't overthink it. You'll be looking for the answers, but be looking for the right answers. I see too many people trying to read into the what's not there and they try to assess blame, and then that's when they start, "Oh geez, this is wrong. That's wrong." Common sense tells me what we saw. We should have probably applied phosphorus, but the testing we had, unfortunately we had month-old soil samples and that just showed us we should have had enough phosphorus available. It looked good. But it just does do no good to have the nutrient available if you can't access it. It takes roots to do that. Well if we can't grow roots. But it takes roots to grow roots, and that's that little hurdle a lot of people have getting over. So many guys, they want a winter killed cover crop. It might work.Dave Brandt:
It works.Loran Steinlage:
To an extent, but if you're going to start pushing the envelope, you need that living root out there to keep that carbon flowing and the nutrient cycling and all that feeding the system. We were froze up from November to last year, we were froze up almost till April 15th. So in less than two, three weeks she consumed out of house at home. In that corn by V4 it looked like it was tilled dirt. Now if I told you the whole rotation history on that farm, most of the people are like, "How can that be?" The reason we're doing the relays and stuff like that is number one, we've got the extra moisture. My goal is we're going to grow the extra moisture out, but we're also creating extra biomass. That's what feeds our system.Blake:
[inaudible 00:43:45] soil, right?Loran Steinlage:
Well, the nutrient cycling and all that, we're after all that because the harder you push the system, the harder you got to push it. And one little hiccup sets you back. How are we going to fix it? Roots. More roots. Roots not iron in that.Blake:
Roots are like the [inaudible 00:44:09].Loran Steinlage:
Hashtag roots not iron. There you go, Blake.Michaela Paukner:
So what are you growing as the cover crop or whatever it might be to keep the roots living when you have such a long period frozen?Loran Steinlage:
That's our biggest challenge. We're addicted to cereal rye. We had plots out this winter, camelina, rape and stuff like that. But we're actually looking at them more as a cash crop. But now all of a sudden, in that instance it's like if we can get them to over winter as a cash crop, well we can get them over winter as a cover crop then. So if I ever want to do spring grains again, we're going to throw out the broadleafs. And the neat part with the camelina on that, it seems we can do that pretty late and still get a take till somebody sprays it with 2,4-D. We're not perfect.Dave Brandt:
Another oops.Loran Steinlage:
When juggling a lot of balls, stuff like that can happen. So how are you going to react? Anybody that knows what happens here, last fall it got to be a circus and had a kid out there running a sprayer and all of a sudden, guy I work with said, "Hey you probably better spray this field that field." And I was like, "Spray it all." Oops.Dave Brandt:
Not thinking. Not thinking.Loran Steinlage:
Now they're in our plot, I got the feeling, and it happens. But good news is we're part of a pretty good study on that. So hopefully I can pull from the other people that are, and that's the beauty of the network. If you have a little failure you can pull from somebody else. That's the same with the grains now. That's why a year ago I went to Dave's. And I want the same genetics on corn he's running, so if I have a failure here I can call him up or I can call somebody somebody else that's grown the same genetics and we can pull from that inventory. As we've been talking the last couple of days, if we can start helping each other more that way. Couple clean outs ain't bad on the combine but when start doing a lot more...Dave Brandt:
Right. A couple's okay, but 10 it's not.Loran Steinlage:
So that's just all little things we're figuring some of that out's going to be the long-term fix for a lot of headaches we've been incurring,Michaela Paukner:
Somebody I talked to at the no-till conference, they were saying, "Everything I hear with diversity of crops, it means I have to go direct to consumer and do that type of marketing." And they're like, "I don't want to do that." So is there a solution to that, or is it just something that you're going to have to accept if you want to try and improve your soil in that way?Loran Steinlage:
Well if you're going to go for the premium price, you're going to have to market. If you're comfortable getting commercial pricing and stuff like that, which we're doing it now.Dave Brandt:
Well the nice thing about some of that is if you're growing corn and soybeans, it still has a value. You can still get rid of it. But if you're starting in the ancient grain business or something, you can't sell soft red weed in a hard wheat market. So you have to be cautious. And I think eventually, and it's coming sooner than I think, or I hope it's coming sooner than I think, that as we get these people involved in doing these specialty things that we want to do that we can create a market. The only way you can create it now is just get on the internet and tell somebody you got it. It's like building a ball field and they'll come. Well, if you got 10,000 bushel of freaking blue corn and your producer falls through because he don't like the price you best be on somewhere finding out where you're going to go with it. Now if you only had 200 bushel, you wouldn't worry about it as bad. But when you got 10% of your crop involved in something special, you will find a market.Loran Steinlage:
Well building that, it's a relationship-driven business at that point. Building them relationships is going to determine if you're successful. And case in point is the brewery that we've worked with for several years here. We started early in the game. We've built the rapport with them. They know us. They trust us. To date we've never talked price. They've always treated us fair. They know we're going to be there for them. I'm pretty confident they're going to be for us. Now everybody else is hearing how great this is, so they're approaching that same brewery. "Hey can we grow for you?" "No, Loran's taking care of it." So that's goes back to what I said.
For every minute you save on with the farming practice, you've got to be focused on the marketing. Them relationships are what's going to help you move forward, and it's not going to be easy. Lot of what we learned on the marketing side comes from the hair salon industry, if that scares people, and customer service. And that essentially that's what we're moving into is a customer service driven model. I guess I would describe it the service industry model. And it's when we built the hair salon back in them days, I was like, I think to date one customer came there because of Loran Steinlage. The rest of them came because of my wife because she was a good hair stylist. We've got to build that same mindset in our products.
The reason people are going to come back to us is because we got a damn good product. And in the same regards you can go from food grade to feed grade quick, so how you react in them instances is going to help you sell with salvation and stuff like that. And for young guys looking at getting into it, the cover crop market has been our hidden asset, I guess I would call it that way. Focus on quality, and if you learn how the malt barley stuff and that, that's what helped us on the seed side. If you learn to grow quality malt barley, you're going to have some pretty good cover crop germination rates and stuff like that. So learning them little details helps you take it to the next level. It's getting entertaining.Michaela Paukner:
So when you talk about net-zero, and that's your goal, how do you define net-zero?Loran Steinlage:
Net-zero is the combination of your carbon emissions, phosphorus reduction, the potassium use. It's just the overall efficiency of your operation, I guess it'd probably be the best way to describe it. My introduction is through the dairy industry, and it just started making sense when you started hearing it and understanding it. Mitchell Hora, we've worked quite a bit on a bunch of this stuff trying to... The parameters aren't really set yet, but that's the perfect time to get in the game. Help people understand what we're capable of. Our biggest carbon offsets right now is what we use in nitrogen and the trucking. Well that's where corn really has a downfall. We're high in nitrogen use and high in trucking use. You take them two out of the equation, we can set. It might scare folks if they do a net-zero audit on my farm right now, but that's what I'm pushing for. Yet, don't be in despair because last fall there working with Mitchell there's net-zero corn growers out there right now. So it can be done, but how do we get that to take us to the next level?
Des Moines watershed lawsuit was kind of my call to action when I really started speaking out on some of this stuff. We need to be working with the communities that embrace this stuff, not the ones that sue us. But take the time to step back. We were in Des Moines this last weekend here. We're trying to reach out to legislators now and trying to take it into our own hands. Let's show them what we can do, not wait. What's the best old saying I heard? If you want to control something, you legislate it. If we don't take charge, that's how they're going to control us. But if we take that away from them, we're empowering ourselves. City of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, they're very proactive on this. Dubuque, Iowa is even better, and they have the funds available to help us understand what we're doing.
Some of the data that I mentioned earlier, now that's starting to go to Ashley Hinson. She's bringing FEMA into the game, and for years Corps of Engineers wanted a lot of the data that we can provide. Well, if we get all that starting to head towards that net-zero goal. The best story I would probably put it for folks to understand is the carbon initiative was brought to you by venture capital. Industry has taking us towards net-zero. If you really start looking into a lot of these companies, they have a net-zero initiative. They got a little carbon deal, but that's only a part of the big picture. That's why I'm so focused on that because I'm not afraid. I know we can do it. But there again, it's hard to get them solid numbers that we need to start telling people what we're doing, and that's why I'm pushing so hard.
I was promised a year ago they were going to come and do a net audit zero on our farm. Bear in mind, no nitrogen on the home farm here for two years. I think we're going to set a pretty good number. Proud moment last fall, I was still using a $1.75 diesel fuel all the way through harvest. What that should mean to most of the listeners is we've got very efficient on the fuel use and stuff like that. We're watching almost every aspect of what we're doing. We're taking accountability on that stuff and hey, if I don't need to bead doing that, don't do it. And the saddest moment for me last fall was when my combine burned up. We had just filled it up with 300 gallons of $1.75 diesel fuel. That hurt.
But it's just bigger picture. It's beyond me thinking. I know the further we get into this, John Q Public, as they're paying attention, they're going to tell us what to do if we ain't out there leading. And it seems to me the net-zero is what they're telling us they're going to pay attention to, so that's why I'm focused on it. I can grow 250 bushels of corn, but that doesn't thrill me. The thrill is being able to grow something with absolute bare minimum and competing cashflow-wise. I don't want a mortgage anymore. I don't want debt payments. I don't want a lot of stuff. The little grandkids you hear in the background, I want to be able to take time with them. And the only way I'm going to be able to afford to do that stuff is I'm not paying a bank. Best compliment I got this January 1st was the banker told me I'm costing him money. I like that position.
I still have a banker, but it's more I keep him there number one for advice and social. Me and him actually have some pretty good conversations. No longer, "How do I pay my debts back?" But, "How do I react when I see this happening? What's your advice on that?" It's more of a mentor advisor role than, "Hey, can I get a hundred thousand because I'm a little short?" Them conversations are never fun, especially now as we're starting to look at higher interest rates and stuff like that. Go back to when I started farming was right in the heat of the eighties. We were talking to some young farmers' conference in Des Moines there last weekend is where we were. And it's neat to see all the youth and excitement, but that same youth and excitement is going to be hard on them. I always called up the neighbors.
I remember going into the eighties, I was just old enough to know what the neighbors were saying. The old guys that Dad respected. "Keep your powder dry. Batten down the hatches." I was fortunate enough, my dad was paying attention. Came through the eighties pretty solid, and I was 16 years old when I signed the formal business agreement with my dad. At one point, I wasn't even going to graduate high school. I was just going to drop out and farm. Only reason I graduated was to prove a point that I would commit. And that right there is a good conversation if you're ever up for it, how I actually graduated with enough credits. But it's just them situations that has helped build us into what we are today. But they're always going to be there. And I'm worried there's a lot of young guys that don't have that person cautioning them right now. And that's the other thing I think we can offer to these younger people is council, what to watch for, what not to do. That's as important a conversation as what to do. And it's easier to figure out what to do than it ever is what not to do because them lessons that you learn when you do take a wrong step are going to be lasting.Michaela Paukner:
Thanks to Loran Steinlage and Dave Brandt for today's conversation. If you missed the first part of my interview with Loran, which features his son Rolan, catch up at no-tillfarmer.com/podcasts. All episodes and transcripts of each episode are available there, too. Many thanks to Yetter Farm Equipment for helping to make this no-till podcast series possible. From all of us here at No-Till Farmer, I'm Michaela Paukner. Thanks for listening.