YORK, Pa. — When it comes to making soil health choices on the farm, Bob Buser consults the experts, records the data and compares to decide what practices to continue.
Over the last 10 years, Buser Farms LLC has trialed splitting nitrogen, prescription nutrient applications, cover cropping, diversification, cutting manure ammonia and GPS equipment to grow the largest and most profitable yield possible.
“Every now and then, you know how things are, you get a little bit disgusted with the technology, when you’re trying to plant corn and you can’t pick up a satellite or whatever. I told my boy, I said, ‘We might as well go get two six-row corn planters and buy two 40 John Deeres and start planting corn that way again and get rid of all this stupid technology.’ But it does pay off in the long run,” Buser said.
Since 2012, the farm has had all of its equipment — planters, sprayers, harvesters — set up with GPS guidance. This helps the Busers work around the large number of wells and streams that surround the 52 properties they farm.
But the main attribute is the maps. By matching up the maps from planting with the ones from harvesting, the higher performing crop variety can be identified.
Which is especially important as Buser tries to diversify his planting.
“They say you gotta become diversified,” Buser said.
This is his first year for sunflowers and sorghum. The sorghum is to help with deer and geese damage that he has seen on other crops. The animals haven’t affected the new plant.
And the sunflowers are helping with compacted soil on an old horse farm that Buser purchased a few years back. The plant roots 7 feet deep, he said.
Cover cropping is also new for the Buser farm, having been started three years ago. The cover is intended to hold nutrients in the soil longer.
It has been a learning process. After having one successful year, this past year wasn’t as lucky.
Buser didn’t get the cover burned down as early as he did the prior year. That, combined with the dry weather, means the crop isn’t doing as well.
“I think cover crops are good. You just got to learn how to manage them,” Buser said.
In addition to diversifying across the farm, he is looking at multi-species cover crops. The York County Conservation District’s cover crop program pays higher for fields with multiple species.
Hog manure is the primary nutrient applicant on the farm. Buser’s nephew, Kieran, manages hog houses for Wenger on an adjoining farm.
Being close to York city, the Busers looked for a way to reduce the odor from the houses. They implemented Pit Pro eight years ago.
While cutting down on ammonia, and therefore smell, the product has also helped improve nitrogen count in the fields. The manure went from 35 pounds of nitrogen per 1,000 gallons to 65 pounds, Buser said.
Nitrogen applications are split across as many passes as necessary, sometimes getting to as many as four across the season. He’s been doing it for over a decade to make sure the plant gets the nutrient when it needs it dependent on the weather and season.
“The plant, it doesn’t need it all up front, and nitrogen either goes down or it goes up. The plants only get so much of it,” Buser said. “Farming is different every year. One year you’ll get the rain; it takes it down. Next year, you’ll get the heat, and it takes it up.”
Buser tills the top 2 inches of the soil to work the manure applications into the ground since he doesn’t do manure injection. Otherwise, he would consider the farm no-till.
This year, the farm is trialing prescription fertilizer applications.
A local mill came in with a sled that performed biometrics on every acre of the fields. Each acre is then doctored with the nutrients it needs to even out the land.
The service is supposed to be good for four years, Buser said.
Soil health is something Buser monitors regularly with tests. He estimates that the farm does from 150 to 200 soil tests a year.
Each field is tested at least every three years, but he will also perform tests as needed, including if there is a particularly good harvest.
“If you’re pulling that kind of a crop out of there, you’re taking something out of the soil. You got to keep your pH right,” he said.
For soybeans, the fields have gotten to the point where he does not need to apply fertilizer to get an 80-bushel-per-acre yield. Using a pop-up bar drill, Buser places micronutrients in the ground near the seed, and that is it.
And the crops are testing well. The soybeans always get high numbers in oil during contests, he said.
Wheat has also seen improved falling numbers in recent years, being between 320 and 360, Buser said. Protein numbers are also between 9.2 and 9.6.
“I think soil health has to do with it,” he said. “Soil health, I know it has to do with yield, but it also has to do with the quality.”