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“The researchers don't see the benefits of multi-species mixes because they're in the reductionist mindset of a researcher — you break everything apart, but you don't factor in that symbiotic relationship. Everybody talks about mimicking mother nature. Well, what is the tallgrass prairie? Tall grass with forbs underneath. And the Forbes underneath is probably the most critical part. The tall grass provide your biomass, but the diversity under there is what helps build the soil.”

— Loran Steinlage, No-Till Innovator & 2023 Conservation Ag Operator Fellow, West Union, Iowa 

Ahead of his capstone presentation at the 2024 National No-Tillage Conference, 2023 Conservation Ag Operator Fellow Loran Steinlage of West Union, Iowa, has been putting the focus on farmer-to-farmer learning through a series of free monthly webinars.

In this episode of the No-Till Farmer podcast, brought to you by Yetter Farm Equipment, Steinlage shares a harvest update, takes your cover crop questions and much more.

Click here to learn more about Steinlage’s sessions at the conference, and use code PODCAST when registering to save $50.

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Full Transcript

Michaela Paukner:

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, we're sharing the October Ask the Operator Webinar with 2023 Conservation Ag Operator Fellow Loran Steinlage. The no-till innovator from West Union, Iowa gives us a harvest update and answers the audience's many cover crop questions.

Loran Steinlage:

Hello, good morning, everybody, and thanks for joining us again as we wander down this journey we've been doing this year. Hope we haven't bored you yet. I told Michaela to make sure we have plenty of questions today because my brain is running a hundred miles an hour as usual right now. So, good to see people on here from around the world. I see we've got Netherlands, France, where else am I seeing?

Michaela Paukner:


Loran Steinlage:

Iowa. If you do want to ask questions, get your hand up, or we'll open up the floor and you can ask questions. I know Michaela asked how far we are in harvest right now. We're 50% on corn, corn yields are very respectable for the year we've put them through. If I look right, we've had 10 inches of moisture since planting, which is about probably 15 under normal. What's the first question here?

Michaela Paukner:

Are you faring better than neighbors in drought?

Loran Steinlage:

I would say definitely, yes, that's probably why we're in no hurry on soybeans right now. I mean, we were running beans the last couple of days for neighbors in custom work and that's all done. We've got my beans left, I pulled into my beans. We went from 10% beans up to we had 10% to 20%. So, we could have probably blended them, but we had so many yellow butter beans and stuff like that. We pulled out corn, the rest of it, I'm in no hurry.

The first half went to feedlot ground as ear corn. And cover crop-wise, we have every acre seeded already this year, first time I could say that we've had that done by October 1st in a long time. One thing I would say is I think already we might've learned, we made one major mistake already on our seed mix. I didn't factor in that we had a residual product on our soybeans this year early, and with the minimal rain and that, some of the covers are struggling.

Should have thought of that sooner, but the way my season's been going this year I don't have much time to focus on the farm. And got my cover crop seed from the same guy I got chemicals and that from, so I was hoping he would... He usually marks us up for that stuff, but I guess it's lesson learned. We didn't even think of stuff like that.

But reassuring this year, first time I've used EQIP or PFI's cover crop program because we did try a lot of new things on the cover crop side this fall. We called an audible there going into fall. I've seen the pattern changing, so we had majority of ours flown on with the drones. 

And probably one thing we are seeing... The reason we changed a lot of the mixes and that is on our cereal rye covers we're starting to see a nematode issue starting to pop up that we lost several acres of rye that were supposed to be relay rye. If you watched the planting video that field got terminated, the one right across the road got terminated just for the simple fact all of a sudden, we had what I would call self-terminating cereal rye because it just started dying.

And then we ran nematode tests and all that and started seeing that we do have a nematode coming up and I'm starting to wonder if that's as we're bringing corn back into the rotation some here, we're starting to see some issues there. So, with the drones there the reason we ran the drones was we had a very heavy brassica mix and that to get the glucothylsinosates or whatever that is that's supposed to help control nematodes. So, there's plenty of food for thought. What's Bob's question?

Michaela Paukner:

He was asking about how you applied the cover crop.

Loran Steinlage:

How did we-

Michaela Paukner:

[inaudible 00:04:19] all drone?

Loran Steinlage:

Yeah, we had... Well, majority of it was with the drones. We flew a five-pound mix on our soybean acres that was camelina four pounds, half a pound of [inaudible 00:04:33], and half a pound of mustard, and that put us over a million seeds per acre. And where it took, we've got a very nice stand already.

And it was the perfect window there. Like all mine we had three inches of rain within a week, week-and-a-half after or during the application, I guess I should say it that way. That was the surprising part. The neighbor field that did the same thing, he only had a half-inch rain, he's got a beautiful stand where ours is sporadic. And as I started looking and thinking, that's when it hit that we had the dual.

And then on corn acres, going to soybeans next year, we just flew rye on with the drones too. And then one of the farms took ear corn off. I rolled that one flat, and we drilled the cover crop or the cereal rye in there for relay possibly, but that was the first field my son-in-law's ever drilled and he was all nervous about it. And I told him, "Hey, at this point it's cover crop. If it looks good, we'll call it a relay crop, if not, it'll be a cover crop."

So, I mean I keep telling everybody I'm probably a little too open with what we all tell everybody, what we're all doing here, but I want people to understand that we are in flux right now. For the last two, three years I've been talking about the transition. Well, some of it is starting to happen finally and everybody's like, "Oh, jeez, I thought this was happening." I was like, "Well, some of the stuff we've got to just take our time and ease into it."

The way we farm is a little different and getting people to understand that takes a little thought process and help people understand that. I'm not going to force anybody into it, I guess, and just we're going to take it as we go. And for me personally, if you didn't know, as of this spring we took on a few consulting gigs and then I run a farmer trial network for Ag Venture Alliance.

And farming has taken the backseat for me, but I told my wife one day, "I still love farming, but I'm getting to love not farming just as much as I love farming." The reason I'm going to be as open and honest about all that is I've seen too many people ride it over the cliff and they get to hate what they're doing. I don't hate what I'm doing. I still love what I'm doing and my body's telling me to change. I've always been one that's not afraid to embrace change so here we are. Sorry I went on a tirade there, Bob, but you're used to me.

Michaela Paukner:

Well, to follow up on that, in terms of your son-in-law running the drill for the first time, what were his concerns and what were the tips that you gave him to make him successful with that?

Loran Steinlage:

Well, the biggest thing is they're so worried about not pleasing the guy, I guess I'll put it that way. And anybody that knows me it's like, "Hey, let's do the best we can, and we'll make it happen." But some of this that's happening right now has been building for the last four or five years. When I sold my other drill that was the mindset where I hurried up and built the box drill because I wanted something simple that anybody can hop in and go. Even if my wife wants to hop in and run it, she can now.

And the neat part is Joe, he went to GIS school and all that stuff. And I mean he's a shop foreman at the DOT now, but his education is GIS. It's like running monitors and all that stuff is right up his alley, so here he was worried about nothing. Now he's learned that turning autosteer on and that's no different than what he's been trained to do.

He can run a dozer with auto grade and all that stuff, but the stuff we're doing in the farm's not any different. It's basically the same technology just in a different format and package. Sunday there we got him running. We had another kid in here drilling wheat at the same time. I was just having fun being tender and my combine was running 20 miles away and two drills running and trying to keep everybody going was entertaining.

Emily, do you like the drone cover crop seeding? How is it working versus other seeding methods? I would say the drones we've been using them for, I think, four or five years now. I like what the opportunity is, but you've got to have... I guess probably the best way to put it is I've always said I want to have the answer before the question's asked.

And watching the forecast and all that was the perfect time. That's why we're comfortable pulling the trigger that quick on a few things. We know the seed suppliers we can work with who will get us seed quick, so we don't make the decisions until we see the window open. And I've said we nailed the window, and the day they got done here, I bet I had 10 phone calls calling wondering who I had and how do we get a hold of him. And it's like, "Come on, folks, you missed the window now."

The last field they did for the neighbor there the leaves were dropping already, and I was shocked how good the Histand is for a half inch of rain. So, we got lucky on that one, but the rest of it I went out and checked the other field that we harvested ear corn on. Well, the drones were heading out there and the guys told me said they're starting to chop. I was like, "Well, we better switch fields there," because drones with choppers in the field probably wouldn't have been good at that time.

But they chopped it and the next day the drones went out there. I could have easily went out there with the drone, but for what the drones were charging me, I didn't figure I could run a drill this year. And as I said, my focus is on other avenues and 13 to $15 an acre for a drill, and it's done. We saved the one field, we did do that with a drill, but other than that it looked like it worked pretty good other than herbicide issue.

Michaela Paukner:

So, just to follow up on that question, what is the ideal window for the seeding with the drone?

Loran Steinlage:

For me, on soybeans I want the leaves yellowing but not dropping yet, and that was a very big challenge this year with all the... We went a little earlier than I probably should have, but I'd rather err on the earlier side than the late side. And I said with all our soil types, I mean this year you can definitely see the soil types out there and that's what's making it hard to combine on the soybean side.

But on the corn, black layer. So, red and black layer if you can be dropping it in there. As I said, black layers when they're snapping ear corn, and the chopper was running the same time as the drill and shouldn't have been running. But we let them go because I knew the manure trucks were coming right after that and then the neighbor ended up fencing that off and putting cattle on it.

And then it was all through yesterday it's almost beautiful out there. Nice green cover on the whole field, the cattle's out there grazing now, and a big pile of manure right in the middle. So, that field's going to get a genuine treatment this year. 

And I got criticized, a lot of people were like, "Oh my gosh, you're going back to corn and you're chopping it all off." Well, when you're working with feedlot that needs to get rid of manure, that's a fair trade any day. We're selling ear corn and most of it's going off as ear corn. This year they didn't harvest any whole plant silage off my fields. That might change next year, but the deal we got worked out, we're getting manure in trade and that, so we're getting fertility back and removal rate's pretty minimal, but-

Michaela Paukner:

Our next question is by holding off for now on bean harvest, are you concerned about too much green biomass causing harvest issues?

Loran Steinlage:

No, the greener the better. I mean I've harvested in six-inch tall rye, and right now the tallest, even on the relay field, that's something we should probably talk about. This is not going to be a poster child year for relay cropping. I mean if it tells you how serious it got around here, feedlot did polling with the chopper and made a couple of swathes just to see what the feed value was on the relay field.

But there was rain coming... I mean we did catch just enough rain, I think... I put the $200 limit on there and the feedlot guy was offering me $150 an acre, and I was just like, "Well, we're going to ride this out now and we got rain." I was out in that field yesterday. The covers look beautiful out there, that's probably some of the best-looking cover crop rye we got right now. But I've cut beans into cereal rye that when you got done it smelled like you were mulling haylage, and it looked like we mowed a golf course.

That's one thing I would say, I finally fell in love with the Draper this year. So, I'm looking forward to cutting the relay beans. We've always had the aerial and stuff like that. Last year after my combine burned up, we did get a Draper in to finish off and I've seen that does work rather nice for the relay. And I got lucky last winter when I was buying the combine back and ended up with the Draper now.

So, that'd be my sales pitch for a Draper. I was adamant I needed aerial and all that stuff, and for what we all do. And I would still say if we run the Draper for the rye, we might need that on for the blocker guards, it just makes them work better. But all the relay rye this year we didn't harvest with the row crop head because the Draper I did buy needed a lot more work than planned.

And my repair bill at John Deere this year is not going to be a pretty one. That's the sad part is normally I do all the maintenance and repair myself. Well, this year with my knees and that, the one day it was bad enough I had a hard time putting the PTO shaft on the head. And you don't have power in your legs, it's hard to do stuff.

Michaela Paukner:

Yeah, that's tough for sure, and obviously a factor to consider when you got all the other stuff you have going on too, but... So, what's some of the type of maintenance that you were checking for and that you needed to do on the Draper head before it was ready to go?

Loran Steinlage:

Oh, on the Draper head, we found a lot of cracks and welds broke, and then the whole right-hand side just wasn't acting right. And we found one of the major subframes was cracked, and I guess I'm at a point in life if we're going to fix something, we're going to fix it right. And so, it involved tearing the whole right-hand side of the head off.

Then we had everything working, but we've seen this little window coming through the weather here, so we hurry up. I had John Deere here the other night to... Probably the scariest thing on the combine we've found so far is the parking brakes, or not the parking brakes but the regular brakes.

So, the other night when I was on probably a 24 or 25-degree slope and [inaudible 00:16:04] downhill, and all of a sudden there's a wagon below me and the brakes go [inaudible 00:16:09]. That could have been ugly, but them little things, them don't even show up on a pre-harvest. So, it's my old combine, we had that thing maintained to a fine tune. I like going into a season knowing the machine's going to run all season without major hiccups or breakdowns.

So, we probably spent a little more on repairs than your average person, but when you're doing them yourself, it's not near as hard. But it is also refreshing to get an extra set of eyes in there to look at stuff. The kid that normally used to help me do some shop work and that, he got married this summer, so he was a little unavailable. So, I ended up getting John Deere in to do a lot. He did the inspection, they did the inspection, and then the day the neighbor came to grab my combine to go do his beans, the first thing we see is a cracked belt.

Michaela Paukner:

Oh, no.

Loran Steinlage:

So, it's a machine, you're just going to keep finding more stuff, but always be on the lookout even through the season. Then you can time your breakdowns versus having them major ones in season. Like I said we try to catch all the belts, I mean every day when the guy does his service and that, we try to grease pretty regularly just laying stuff like that. As you're doing that, just make sure your belts are all snug and look at them every time you're stopped or something.

If you see a crack or something like that, it's a lot easier to take time when you got time, not in the heat of the day. Bearings are going to go out whether they like it or not, but if you got somebody that can take a pry bar and stuff like that and check a few things. Simple old thing to do, go through and other thing we've always been pretty hard on is on a rotor, make sure you level your concave stuff like that.

Makes setting it a lot easier, and a lot of times we're not afraid to change the grates or have the inserts or whatever we need to throw on there. That's probably one of the things that I was trying to get away from the inserts on soybeans. I was going to go to a large wire for soybeans this year, but I didn't, and I'll probably have them for next year.

We always ran the inserts, on the Deere machine you run them on three and four for when you got them green pods. Then it just helps clean up your sample, and like I said feeder house chains all that, go through that, check that, make sure your tension's right.

Michaela Paukner:

So, with the benefit of the large wire versus the grates, what is your [inaudible 00:18:55]-

Loran Steinlage:

No, traditionally, when you're on a Deere, you run the round bars, which works good for corner beans. For beans, we would always throw the inserts in there because that just gives you a little extra surface to thresh them green pods or that hard-to-thresh pods and that. Because that three and four is right where you return dumps, and then before we had enough acres of small green, we'd move them to one and two. And then do the same thing on your small greens and help create that [inaudible 00:19:21] and you get green-on-green crushing stuff like that early.

The sooner you can get it threshed out in the rotor, the easier it's going to be to clean it and less damage and stuff like that. We just cleaned out the rye bin the other day and according to what the trucker said, they said that was the cleanest rye they had all year. And the sad part is we tried something with... Or the organic field and then the outside of the relay field we windrowed that this year because I wanted to do field maintenance around there.

And just as an experiment, then found out the kid that came and did all that, he just had the large wire or maybe he had round bars in an older Case IH machine. And his sample was not exactly ideal, but that was the funny part. I was apologizing for the dirty sample, and here they're-

Michaela Paukner:

He said it was clean. The cleanest for this year.

Loran Steinlage:

Generally, anything I seed for myself, we know the seed, we know where it came from, weed-free and all that. So, I'm not worried about running it through a cleaner to keep the weed seed out. I mean generally, majority of my seed would go directly in the drill. That's how clean we usually try to get our sample. I've said that in the past, when we're doing the relay, I'm not afraid to blow a little bit over. 

It's like our cover crop, and after a bit here, if we get time here, we'll go down look in the hayfield. You can see the nice cover that's coming already, and you'd be amazed what a quarter bushel an acre seeded in end of July, or first part of August can do versus fall [inaudible 00:21:01] with the tailoring and stuff like that. 

But then that brings you seeding. We're seeding generally so late, that's why we generally run higher seeding rates than Europe, and that's one of the things I've learned over the years. We rely on about 10% tiller, where Europe relies on 90% tillers from what people have told me over there.

When you're thinking about seed quality, that's something you've definitely got to pay attention to because I've heard in the past people, "Oh, gosh, you can drive on the cereal crop whenever, wherever." But it seems to me every time you drive on it, that's when them little things come around, that delayed maturity and stuff like that all shows up. Everything we try to do on the relay and that comes around to seed quality. And that's why we evolved to the 20-row setup. That came from the interseeding and stuff like that, but that's why it's there.

Michaela Paukner:

So, when you're seeding in July versus around this time, how do you keep it from competing with the cash crop?

Loran Steinlage:

Cereal crop or winter rye or winter wheat, until it vernalizes, it won't go vertical. So, basically, it's a ground cover. And like I said every time we've done a count out there, it's a quarter bushel an acre. So, it's not thick, but by the time... Now, when it breaks canopy, now is when it's new and it's tillering and stuff like that. So, now is when it's filling out the canopy, and by the time we harvest, it'll look like a lawn out there.

Them are just little tidbits we've learned over the years. The easiest cover crop to make pay is the volunteer one that you didn't pay for. No seeding expense, no nothing. I would say that's probably the biggest thing we've probably learned over the last couple of years is I've been gearing up to where we're going now is I would call what we're doing low-impact farming. And the less time and effort I can spend out in the field the better.

That's where the drones and all that come in for all that five-pound mix with two T40s was costing me $13 an acre. I can run my drills for that, but not many probably can. But then you factor the time and effort in there.

I hear everybody hyping return on investment anymore, and that's one of the things I keep thinking about. The most important investment most people don't factor in anymore is their time. And you can figure return on investment on money, but how do you figure it out on time?

That's getting to be the critical part for me, I guess. At some point, I want to be able to enjoy going and doing other things. And at one point the farmer in me know I got to run the farm for whatever matters. That might be the best way to do it.

Michaela Paukner:

Yeah. Yeah, I know that's something that we are focused on a lot at No-Till Farmers, the ROI of making some of this stuff pan out. And something that comes to mind with that is, I know you and I have talked about this before, and some of the people who are in our No-Till discussion group have probably seen this, but last week we were talking about the ROI of a mix, a multispecies mix of cover crops versus a single species.

Because there's a study going around that found the soil health benefits of using a multispecies mix are either the same as or worse in most cases according to the study, as using a single cover crop. But I know, Loran, you've said that you haven't experienced that.

Loran Steinlage:

No, I mean and when I read all the responses, it seems the farmers see it, but the researchers don't see it. Because the reductionist mindset of a researcher, you break everything apart, but you don't factor in that symbiotic relationship or whatever you want to call it.

I've talked to Jay Fuhrer and all that, I've heard about the experiment over in Germany and all that. We've seen it on our farm, and I guess the way I would put it is I'm not smart enough to know exactly what's going to grow where. Some of the testing I'm involved in, one of the coolest tests we ever did was we did a weed seed bio essay I think is what they called it.

So, they went in and counted exactly how many weed seeds are in a cubic seed of soil. When you're in the millions and you can look at them and you don't... I don't know how they were counting them. I took the sample, and I didn't see a single seed in there, but they counted two to three million seeds per square foot or whatever it was.

And then Nicole Masters talks about it a lot, and I've talked about that in the past, when you got the succession chart and all that. How many people have dug up an old foundation, what's the first thing to come? Button weeds. Where the heck did they come from?

Some of the buildings stood there for a hundred years, but that seed stayed there. What triggered that to germinate now? Our corn seed and bean seeds are dang delicate. If you don't caress it just right, it'll rot. But how do some of these seeds survive? And I guess where I'm going with that is when you throw a mix out there, and last year we saw it really in the cover crop mix.

We had three or four fields we seeded a high biomass cover crop mix. Basically, I cleaned out my seed pile [inaudible 00:26:51] that was on three different fields where we baled the straw off last year. Each field looked like it was a total different mix.

What was really eye-opening is when you got to a gap where there was no cereal rye. You could see right to that little spot different seeds germinated there than elsewhere. If you start thinking about some of that stuff and that seed is there for a purpose and something triggered that to grow. And weeds are generally there to fix a problem. I'm not smart enough to know all the answers on that stuff, but the yellow weeds are telling you one thing, the blue... And you go by the blossom on that.

I think yellow is yellow sulfur and I forget what blue is, but I mean it's telling you what your soil wants and needs. We need more smart people like that to be talking that stuff, and like I said I was going down that part a while, but then I started to remember I'm better at iron and steel than I am at some of that stuff. And trying to figure that out, like I said the people are there, we just got to get them connected. Nicole Masters is probably one of the better ones I've seen and heard on that stuff.

Michaela Paukner:

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So, when it comes to the multispecies mix, what are you typically using, how many different species? Because I know that multispecies can mean three, it can mean 15. What does that look like for you?

Loran Steinlage:

I would say the last couple of... When we were doing the interseeding corn and all that, we were getting pretty wild. I mean we have up to 30-some seeds in our mix, and everybody's, "Oh my God, what are you spending on the seed mix?" And the most I've ever spent on a mix like that is $14-15 an acre. 

And Jeremy Wilson in North Dakota probably has some of the best information on some of that. He starts looking at seeds per square foot. If you're going to start doing some of those, that's where you really got to start looking. And ideally, in corn, we don't push the... We might use annual ryegrass, but then that's cool-season grass with a warm-season grass, so we've got that covered.

But we would generally push the clovers and stuff like that, the legumes and that. The brassicas, they're great, but you want to use very low use rates because they will smother out... That's your warm season, cool season broadleafs right there. The clovers and that would be your cool season. We got mixes in there, but like I said, it's been a couple of years since I focused on that stuff.

But get a good seed guy would be my advice and start understanding the basic principles there. You want to crisscross your warm season, cool season, your broadleafs, and your grasses, and back to why we chose the seed mix we did this fall was just we were focused on the nematodes and that. So, that's why we went heavy on brassicas, not to...

I know some people would say, "Well, jeez, you're not [inaudible 00:30:29] friendly and all that." Well, if we're trying to solve a problem, we're going to have to bend a little bit and get all... Seeing what I've seen now, it's like, well, I should have probably threw in a little annual ryegrass in there just so if it was the dual or something, that diversity probably... 

One of them plants could have probably did the workaround on the dual or something because I'm trying to figure out when I was out there scouting yesterday, I got cereal rye popping where we didn't seed cereal rye. So, I don't know if it's a little carryover from the delayed termination on the cereal rye this spring, but it shouldn't be because we terminated majority of our rye early this year. So, like I said, it's going to be interesting riding in the combines seeing what we actually have out there.

Michaela Paukner:

We got two comments, one from Bob who says, "I give you a big amen on the self-adapting with your first cover crop mix." And then Keith says, "A bit late. Weeds and what they tell us is a nice primer."

Loran Steinlage:

Yes, like I said, if I remember right, you had that guy speak at the conference there two years ago, three years ago, something like that. When I go to conference, that's the kind of people I'm going to be looking out for and listening to theirs and... But I'm also getting to the point where I need that younger mind around here to answer some of them questions. Fat boy's getting lazy.

Michaela Paukner:

Speaking of the conference, Loran is one of our featured speakers at the 2024 National No-Tillage Conference, which is January 9th through 12th in Indianapolis. Loran is going to be on the general session stage and in a classroom, so you want to give the good people here a preview of what you're going to be talking about.

Loran Steinlage:

I think we turned that. Just in case you're not sick of me yet.

Michaela Paukner:


Loran Steinlage:

But no, I think the big stage we're doing with Jimmy Emmons, Rick Clark, and Jay Brandt's going to join the Three Amigos on that one to honor Dave Brandt a little bit. And hopefully, we can recreate the magic we had there, what was that? Three years ago. I mean and it'll be the no-holds-barred approach again. I mean we'll introduce, but we like questions anymore, and it's fun when you can get up there and help people and get them aha moments versus stand there and talk about a bunch of stuff nobody wants to listen to. I guess it's why I love [inaudible 00:33:01]. Sorry, I'm getting old and cranky and [inaudible 00:33:04]-

Michaela Paukner:

Yeah. Oh, no, you're putting the pressure on the other speakers, I think.

Loran Steinlage:

That's the beauty of when you get people together like that. Push each other and that was how stumbled upon that at Louisville that year. The year before when we won the innovator there, we laid everything on the line the year before, and when you're asked back it's like I hate giving the same presentation twice. Once you're done, if somebody wants to see it, go watch the video.

Let's talk about what's relevant and what people want to talk about today. That was the whole idea behind this series, let's talk about what people want to talk about. That's how I judge other speakers. Can they ask the hard questions? But I'll also remind people I don't know is a viable answer.

And yeah, that goes back to the first one of these did. I think the first question we had last spring was, "What cover crop mix should I use in Delaware?" I don't know, but I know somebody that did know, and afterwards, we connected the guy with Jay Baxter out there, and hey, they're 15 minutes away from each other. It's like he got a lot better information than if I decided to BS him. That's the beauty of the network some of us have built together. We trust each other and we'll help each other, and if you got a problem here, call a guy that actually knows that area.

Michaela Paukner:

Ron has a comment, "Color of weed flowers tell us about our soil."

Loran Steinlage:

Is that a question or a statement? 

Michaela Paukner:

It's written as a statement, but if you would like to elaborate on where someone might find resources if you know.

Loran Steinlage:

Yeah, I'm trying to think of who would actually be a good reference, but I mean just actually some of your gardening books. And that is back when we were focused on that, that's what took us down the succession planning chart and all that stuff. If you really start thinking about the gardening aspect and where our cover crops might fit into that.

I used to share a chart many years ago that showed the vegetables, what follows and how you should go, and the sequence and all that stuff. That all came from gardening, and then if you say, "Well, this plant's close to that cover crop," and try to tie all that stuff together.

I know John Kempf is a good source on a bunch of that stuff. Klaas Martens is the first guy that really clued me in on that. Klaas is in New York, organic farmer. He was actually one of the focal points of the book The Third Plate by Dan Barber. I don't read many books, but the ones I do, I pay attention to. Emily's got another question, what's this one?

Michaela Paukner:

She says, "What was the herbicide and cover crop injury you saw the [inaudible 00:35:59]?"

Loran Steinlage:

Generic dual is what I think we had out there, and then with our brassicas and that, it seems we got a very poor... According to what I've seen on the neighbors and even the relay field that had zero residual on, the standout there is phenomenal compared to what we're seeing. Maybe I'm overthinking it already, maybe it's there just all the leaves on top.

I mean we've got residue out in the bean fields that blew my mind when we were out there playing yesterday. Maybe when it grows through that, but when you rake back the residue or go out there before harvest, I just don't see it like I did my neighbors either that or the other thing it could be is our biology buried the seeds. So, maybe it's taken our seed a little longer to come up because it's actually in the soil.

I can go out in my field and just stick my hand out and probably get six inches without even trying. Right now, some of the fields we're in, as dry as it is right now, [inaudible 00:37:09]. I haven't spent much time out in the field with a shovel this year, but Farm Progress Show we had a busload of Ukrainians come up here and that was the first time I dug any roots all year out in the cornfield.

Pretty cool when you got confidence in your soil, you can just go out and [inaudible 00:37:26]. And that's what I was hoping we were going to do today because that was the first day I got comfortable thinking, "Hey, we might have a corn crop." Two weeks later they're out there chopping and the yield estimates on them fields was pretty healthy.

So, like I said, 10 inches of moisture and probably the highlight for me is on corn we ended up, on them fields we ended up .35 and .36 pounds and per bushel this year. You can talk yield all you want, but when you talk efficiency of that. Iowa State's still at the one pound per bushel and we're done, the .3, .5. And I mean that's overall, and [inaudible 00:38:06] other guys, "Oh, gosh, we're lower than that." Well, then they factor in all the manure. There was no manure on that field for three, four years.

Michaela Paukner:

So, and that's all due to the cover crop you're saying that you're able to get-

Loran Steinlage:

Well, that was another one of those little instances that was a learning opportunity this year because that field was actually supposed to be a relay field, and with everything that happened last fall, it just didn't happen. And then I called the audible there. We were going to spin everything on after harvest. Well, that didn't get done until March, and the wild part is when I planted the corn that day, you could barely see the cover crop.

It's there, I ain't worried about it. Non-GMO corn, so we went in there and terminated. When we put down our residual for the corn, well, then with the sporadic rains we're having, some more rye germinated after the herbicide was applied. We had a nice flush there. The only weeks we had when we applied a second pass of herbicide was cereal rye basically.

And then fast-forward, you were there when you've seen all the fun we had planting this year. But we still don't have that figured out. But wherever there was a little gap where the planter acted up, we had a very nice flush of rye. Absolutely no weeds, just nice smattering of rye.

But then the day I was out there with the Ukrainians, even though we didn't plan interseeding this year, we had a nice interseed mix in there just with the rye. It self-terminated in the canopy, but the roots were there and the structure's there. Then after harvest, that's what I'm trying to figure out now because that's the field we drilled for relay for next year.

But there is a nice healthy crop of volunteer... I'd call it volunteer now, but it's what we spread in March coming through now. So, it's like, "Huh, maybe we should be spreading rye in March and get some out there early but spread some in March." Erin Silva's done a lot of that with the unvernalized rye because it goes back to what I said earlier, if it doesn't vernalize, which is the freeze-thaw, it'll just be ground cover.

I'm going to watch that field coming next spring now. I said that might be why it doesn't end up rye or as a relay field because if there's a good enough stand, I can't see my rows out there. It'll be entertaining.

Michaela Paukner:

Yeah. What about the symbiotic relationship with plants and soils, balance in soil microbes? Do you feel this is important?

Loran Steinlage:

Definitely. Do I know why it's important? Definitely not, but I've been around this game long enough... My son-in-law the other day when I was showing him how to run that drill, he started asking them questions. Why we went down this path, why do we do this, why do we do that? My education comes from my elders. My dad was a dang good farmer, but my grandparents actually were too.

So, when I try to learn and focus, I always ask what grandpa would do because that's a lot of what my dad tried to learn, educate, and... We all talk cover crops now and how they're a fad, but back then they were green manure. And if you know my history, we were heavy into the livestock up until '06. We never grew a soybean until I think it was '08 the first time we grew soybeans.

So, we were heavy corn on corn, that's why we started with the interseeding and stuff like that. I started in '06 when I stumbled into that. That was the path I kept hearing people talk about the diversity and stuff like that. That's why we started down that path. I started reading the late 1800s the University of Tennessee still has some of the best information on interseeding and that.

I figured that was my avenue to get diversity into our mix, and I guess for me, it was a simple... Everybody talks about mimicking mother nature, well, what is the tall grass per? Tall grass with the forbs underneath, and the forbs underneath is probably the most critical part. The tall grass provide your biomass, but the diversity under there is what helps build the soil in my mind.

And I've been criticized because we tend to use a lot of lagoons and all that stuff. But when you got the high biomass and you start thinking about the carbon and nitrogen ratios and stuff like that, if you're going to feed it the high biomass, you got to have the nitrogen there too. And what's the best way to get nitrogen in the soil?

We've got fields pushing 6-7% on organic matter now. For me, I don't know if we even put any thought into what we're doing until I think it was 2012 when NRCS came up here the first time wanting to do a training for Ray Archuleta who was coming to Iowa the first time.

And I'll tell this story to anybody, I still think that day I was going to be the whipping boy on what not to do. Because my home farm surrounds the office, but people in the office never realized what was going on right across in the field. And they asked if we would host them that day. They were going to go to a couple of other sites, and they wanted...

I figured with us being corn on corn at that point, we were the what-not-to-do factor. I tend to get a little sarcastic about a few things and they did soil health studies that time that took a lot of deciphering to understand, and that's how I got working with Jill Clapperton and that the way we did because the Dräger-Tube test and that, that they did, that was the predecessor to the Solvita test and all that.

We started understanding our carbon, CO2 exchange, and that stuff, and in 2012 we had fields that were blowing off the church at Solvita. And we got called into the office the next morning to do the review, and they're like, "You don't use anhydrates, do you?" Well, at that point, we still were. When they made that comment, I was like, "Well, matter of fact we do, and if you really want to blow your mind, we use it spring and fall."

It was at that time we were putting [inaudible 00:44:51] down in the fall, and then we were side dressing in the spring. Split-rate nitrogen back then [inaudible 00:44:59]. Then they go, "How can that be?" And the sarcastic side of me comes out and I was like, "Every fall I put out a signup sheet for the earthworms, and to date, we've had no takers."

And they were like, "Well, what's the signup sheet for?" And I was like, "Well, if the earthworms wanted a gas mask, we would provide it." And that goes back to some of the preconceived notions, and it's back to the meta-analysis that you're talking about. If you singular select one thing, you can prove any point. There's enough data out there, you can make any point. But you got to listen to reality and the farmers. Farmers are going to vote with what's actually working.

And back then I would defend anhydrates at that point because everybody's like, "Oh my God, anhydrates is killing the earthworms." Well, the Ohio State had research data, I think it was Dave Brandt that helped me find it that time, that actually proved within six weeks of anhydrate's application, you would actually end up with a net gain on your earthworms because it provided such a... When you killed that zone with anhydrates, it would provide such a nutrient-rich environment that the worms would just thrive and reproduce and you'd end up with a net gain, but in six weeks.

So, it was hard to say. You had the argument always anhydrates is... That's what they used in World War II to make runways. Well, if you started researching and learning the use rates, yeah, when you start popping tanker loads per acre, that's the use rate they had, it makes a difference. 

What really finally got to me, I think, was John Kempf the time when we started talking about it, and he started explaining, well, the biggest thing anhydrates actually does to the soil is it chemically changes the properties of the soil and liquifies the soil. So, here we're doing all this stuff to build soil structure and then we're using something that liquifies it.

That was my aha moment why we don't use anhydrates anymore. But I understand why farmers still use it. I'm not going to condemn somebody for using it, but it's our job to help them understand them little hurdles. It's them baby steps that are going to help other guys versus the hard and fast rule.

Michaela Paukner:

Continuing on the thought about the nitrogen, Emily says, "Love the nitrogen per bushel of corn focus, wish contest did a category for that. Can you share a little about what the factors have been helping you get yours down so low?"

Loran Steinlage:

Luck. How's that? I don't know, that's... The original plan this year, and then I guess I would say if I'm going to credit anything we did, it would be our adaptive management style. We've backed off to everything is Y-dropped anymore if possible, and we can time the nitrogen. This year I thought we were actually a little too late. We were actually seeing a little nitrogen stress on corn, but it's hard to get excited about putting nitrogen on corn when it's looking like it could be a disaster.

So, we held off probably almost too late, but then, again, it looked like we were having a window. I called in the guy with the Y-drop, got it in there. We snuck in 90 units I think is what we ended up at, and original plan was we were going to come in and put 30-40 more units on late depending on how the season went.

Well, we never got rain, so it's like, "Sorry, I'm not going to spend the money." And when you can start running 250, 260 corn on 90 units of nitrogen, and some of that, I would attribute a lot of that, I think, is to the salt load. Salt takes water. If you're not putting the salts out there, you're not going to need that much extra water.

I mean there's a lot of data out there on that stuff, and I mean everybody wonders how we do what we do, take your time doing it. I guess that's the biggest thing. I used to be able to hide a lot more what we're doing, but now there's so many people around here I can't hide a lot. Everything looks like it's fast-forward to a lot of people.

Michaela Paukner:

I'll get to our other two questions here asking, "I may have missed how you're planting your relay, but are you planting a solid stand or row width of each crop? Someone I listened to is drilling the rye and then drilling the beans."

Loran Steinlage:

What we've evolved to... I'll go back to our interseeding setup is what led to our relay crop setup. I had a comment there for a while, "How do you afford such nice equipment for doing what you do for no more acres in your farm while we're pushing over a lot of acres?" Back to 2015... I think it was '14 when we stumbled upon the twin-row setup for the interseeding and all that. And then all of a sudden, I think the year before is when I met John Kutz and that and started seeing what he was doing and I was like, "Huh, we got the same equipment basically." We just had to figure out the harvest, but he had that figured out already.

That's why we went down the twin-row setup for the relay and that, and the biggest thing the twin-row setup allows us is room to maneuver with the combine. As I said earlier, my goal is we're never going to drive on the cash crop. To make the bills around here, you've got to have seed quality if you're going to play the cereal rye and that stuff. 

And we've even got to the point where, as I alluded to earlier, we'll solid seed right now and bale straw to make cash flow. But if we can go seed quality and all that, we can compete even at a $400-an-acre cash rent environment. That's the other thing. When I hear a lot of people talk, they don't bring up... If you're going to play a lot of these games, you've got to be able to make the rent.

$50 rent somewhere else is a little different than $400 an acre rent. Corn is what sets the cash flow around here, and you better be able to compete with 250 corn anymore. So, there, the other day last Sunday, the reason we backed away from winter wheat and that is just we couldn't get the cereal crops in early enough. So, we were down to pretty much cereal rye was our option.

Well, this year, all of a sudden, we've seen a window and figured out how to get the corn off earlier. Boom, it's like, well, we're back to setting up the relay on corn acres where the last couple of years to get the rye in early enough, we were running the relay on bean acres. And just trying to use them windows that mother nature throws at us, and then the winter wheat we seeded the other day, that actually went on alfalfa.

And the landlord there wanted us to take them farms organic, and I use farms loosely on this because one field is .47, one is 1.3, one is five acres, and then the other's 14, 15 acres. The reason I wanted them fields is the brewery we were working with, it'll set us up perfectly for isolation and stuff like that.

So, hey, we got 4.7 acres of Rouge de Bordeaux wheat, and we've got four acres of... I'd have to ask Jay Brandt. Phantom or something like that. And then the 1.5 is Red Fife. That was one of the projects Dave and I were working before his passing is we want to start sharing genetics so we can back each other up and stuff like that.

If we're going to start chasing these markets and that, that's been the biggest hurdle I've seen is trying to have a backup plan in case of evercrop failure stuff like that and keep the genetics alive. That played out this spring. With my health issues, I knew I didn't want to take the time and effort to plant corn, so I was just going to back up with Dave, and that's when the [inaudible 00:53:37] and all that came with Dave's corn, and I was like, "This is going to work." But now with Jay, we're going to try to keep that all going and keep working forward on that stuff, so-

Michaela Paukner:

What do you do to support soil microbes? You mentioned cover crops, is there anything else?

Loran Steinlage:

That's one of those interesting avenues I was going to pursue this year, but I just... For me, build it and they will come. And go back to that 2012 when I told you about the NRCS and that, that was the first year we tried a biological product. And every time we've ever tried one since, we saw yield reduction. That year and every time we've tried a biological product since.

Now, I'm very intrigued by the compost teas and all that stuff. I had some ordered this spring, but when you got a bum knee and all that, I had knee surgery in February just like, "Yeah, we're done." Simplify everything and... I like it, but I want to see people show results, I guess.

I'm a little worried a lot of people that are seeing great things out of it are utilizing legacy fertility and stuff. I want to watch Brandts and that. I know they've been very limited, they're doing the IMOs and stuff like that. I think they've got a couple of other ones they're trying.

I'm watching Rick Clark, I know he was doing something this year. I don't think he's seeing much for results. The guys that have been at it a while, if it starts working there, then I know it's the real deal. And like I said, I think there's great potential, but I want to see the results.

When you've got the biological activity up there, everybody's like, "Well, what's your numbers?" I don't test. If somebody wants to run a test on our farm, as long as they share the data, come pull samples. We were doing quite a few Haney tests there for a while, and we always pulled them end of... That would be my Memorial Day weekend, Monday I'd go pull samples and send them in, so that was my consistency factor.

I don't want to pull a sample when it's warm and active. I would say if you're going to do some of that stuff, consistency is the key. With that said, we have this year with the dryness, we've seen a lot of K deficiency and stuff like that. Somebody give me answers on that, I'll be listening.

To me, some of that's a little, "Well, if we've got that nematode issue and that going on, I think that might be more of a problem." Because according to Haney test, our fertility's there, just for some reason we weren't getting it in the plant. Well, if you got a nematode eating the roots off-

Michaela Paukner:

Would be why.

Loran Steinlage:

That might be why. So, like I said, I try to bring things down to the simple level and... Well, that was the fun part when the Ukrainians were here. They were like, "What level of education are you at?" I'm like, "I barely graduated high school." So, that might be why my grammar sucks and my writing sucks and a few other things, but-

Michaela Paukner:

This is last call for questions, so get your questions in now. I'll mention once again that Loran is going to be at the National No-Tillage Conference on the general session stage, and then we're doing essentially ask-the-operator in the classroom. So, bring your most out-there questions and see what you get as an answer. So, I invite everybody to join us in Indianapolis this year in January. You can go to to register and see who's on the program.

Loran Steinlage:

This is what it's about. It's one thing to learn and know stuff but to share it and help other people learn it is probably the most important thing.

Michaela Paukner:

Thanks to Loran Steinlage for today's conversation. A video and transcript for this episode are available at Loran is taking your questions during a general session and classroom presentation at the 2024 National No-Tillage Conference in January. Go to to register and use code PODCAST when checking out to save $50.

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.