The switch from potatoes and dairy production on Ted Logan’s Morrow County, Ohio, farm to no-till and cover crops has been a radical change — especially for the clay loam soil on the gently rolling fields.
“Up until about 15 years ago, we milked cows and were a commercial potato operation. Potatoes require moldboard plowing every 3 years. Then we switched to basically no-till corn and soybeans for the labor savings and got out of the potato and dairy operation,” Logan says. ”Since then, the soil has completely changed. When you till it frequently like we used to do, the soil just gets very hard. The organic matter levels were down to 1% or lower and it was just very difficult to have any kind of mellowness to the soil. Organic matter is up to 3.5% to 4% now. I feel that can tide you over in the dry times and the soil is so — resilient — is the best word I can use.”
It has taken time, but the soil has put the farm in a better position for profitability with lower input costs.
“It’s been a long process. It’s not a couple year venture. It takes many years, and it’s very rewarding to see the soil tests and see the organic matter at that level because you know that’s what’s needed in the soil. It doesn’t seem like much number wise, but it’s pretty significant,” Logan said. “It’s mellow on the top. Those conditions make it much easier to plant in the spring.”
Nearly all of the farm is pattern tiled, and erosion is a concern in some areas. Cover crops have helped with keeping the soil in place and improving its quality.
“When we had potatoes and would moldboard plow, I would try planting cereal rye right after the potatoes and then no-till soybeans into that,” Logan says. “That was somewhat successful, but it just takes time, multiple years, to be able to get your soils healthy again with much better soil structure. I was having problems with tractors getting stuck, but now that we’ve no-tilled long enough, the soil has structure to it so it can support tractor weight. Once we stopped growing potatoes and went strictly no-till, it’s just gradually become a much better situation. For probably 10 years I've been putting cover crops in, mainly cereal rye, on all of my ground. My neighbor who does my tiling comes in and plows in tile lines and he’s still bringing up big, huge chunks of soil. So, I think I’m still dealing with compaction from 15 or 20 years ago. I try my best as far as planting deep rooted cover crops, but I think it’s still just going to take time. I’m not the type of person to go in and deep rip. That just seems counterproductive to me as far as wanting to continue on with no-till and cover crops.”
Logan plants corn and soybeans into green, living cover crops, which can be challenging, but also has proven benefits with weed suppression, soil health improvement and moisture retention through the growing season.
“It’s rewarding to see the whole farm green in the spring rather than bare ground. I’ve planted it green for the last five years. It’s a challenge but you just try to make it work. It’s nice when you’re harvesting corn and soybeans and you still see some of the cereal rye there that’s protecting the soil. That’s a great benefit, I believe,” he said. “It has been easy planting soybeans green. It’s just a no brainer because it seems like the soybeans really enjoy that environment. We drill the beans at 7.5 inches. I’ve heard that if the cereal rye is dead, certain closers can wrap, but that just has not been an issue for us. When we plant green, wrapping and tangling is just not a problem.”
Planting corn into actively growing cover crops has been more difficult.
“I’m sure my neighbors will remind me about all the yellow corn that I’ve had trying to grow it when planting green,” Logan says. “I’ve learned to put on plenty of nitrogen in the planter and broadcast after. When you’re planting green into cereal rye, it seems like all the nitrogen is in the rye, even though you kill it. It just takes a long time for it to break down. Even later in the season I don’t know that the nitrogen is available, so you have to put on plenty of nitrogen. There are also concerns as far as the shading of the cover crop on the corn. It’s different than soybeans. The corn just doesn’t like that competition. I’ve tried rolling with limited success. I think this coming year I’m going to maybe put 2,4-D down early with some residual to try to slow down the growth of the cereal rye so it’s not so tall and I’m planting into foot-tall cereal rye rather than 3- or 4-feet tall. Maybe that’ll help me get by. I guess, technically, that might not be planting green, but at least it’s not dead where I take the risk of having a large rain after you kill it and then taking a long time for the soil to dry out.”
The growing cover crop can really help when conditions are on the wet side for planting but can be a problem in a dry spring like 2023.
“It was dry this spring,” Logan says. “I had a good stand of corn and soybeans in the cereal rye, but the rye just took all the moisture out of the ground and the crops kind of sat there for a long time. This year I probably did lose some yield just because there just wasn’t enough water.”
Logan has also worked to maintain a diverse cash crop rotation.
“I tried ⅓, ⅓, ⅓ as far as corn, soybeans and wheat but in the years that I planted a lot of wheat, we’d have the problems with a week of rain when the wheat was ready to harvest,” he says. “I’ve cut back to only 150 acres of wheat and then corn, soybeans and alfalfa I still grow for my neighbor’s Amish horses. Sometimes I go a little bit heavier on soybeans because I do a little bit better job growing soybeans than I do corn. Then if there’s 2 years in a row of soybeans, that’s when I plant wheat. After the wheat, I plant a cover crop and then no-till corn into that thick cover crop the next spring.”
Getting cover crops planted after corn can be challenging, depending on the field conditions.
“I usually harvest corn pretty late, so I have either a high boy or an airplane fly on cereal rye, usually the first part of September,” Logan says. “This past year was difficult. September was the driest in history, so when you don’t have any rain after you fly on a cover crop, you get a much poorer stand. But I still do have the earthworm middens — they build little volcanoes down on the ground. That keeps the soil loose and the cereal rye just really takes off and grows on that. It’s not as thick as I’d like it to be, and it’s important to have rain, but I still have a stand out there even with the dry weather. If you till the soil too much, this clay soil over here just kind of seals over on top and that would be very difficult to get a successful stand if you’re flying it on.”
After soybean harvest, Logan either plants wheat or drills cereal rye. He also adjusts cover crop planting based on the specifics of the situation.
“This year I had some disease problems in my alfalfa, so I killed it the first part of September and then drilled cereal rye into it,” he says. “In other years, I’ve tried to no-till in alfalfa, and I just remember a bad year where it was very dry, and it was very difficult to get the planter into the ground. That’s been an ongoing challenge for me to try to do it the best way.”
Another important part of improving soils on the farm has been the use of poultry litter.
“We have been using 2 tons of chicken litter after wheat, and that’s really the only phosphorus and potassium for the past 5 or 6 years that I’ve actually applied to the soil,” Logan says. “If the soil is undisturbed and I plant cover crops, the microorganisms can recycle and make available the potassium and phosphorus in the soil. That’s saved a lot of money in the past few years and soil tests are staying in an adequate range. M&W Farm Supply comes out and stockpiles it and then just spreads it with their monstrous spreaders.”
Logan has also been cutting back on other inputs.
“I follow Extension’s advice about fungicides,” he says. “I feel like they are a 50-50 proposition. Sometimes they improve yield and sometimes they don’t. I’ve never sprayed fungicide. I’ve planted untreated corn and soybeans for the last few years. I just don’t have problems with pests. I don’t know if I’m just lucky or perhaps the insecticides on the seed treatments might be killing beneficial insects. I have not had a slug problem for many years.”
The journey from moldboard to 4% organic matter has taken time, increased management and trial and error but has put the farm in a better position for profitability with improved soil health, significantly lower labor and input costs and steady yields.
“Now when I see tilled ground, to me it’s damaging the soil,” Logan says. “If you can keep it undisturbed there’s just so many microorganisms, earthworms and things like that that can really help with soil health and make your soil much more resilient. I tell people that I feel semi-retired now that I don’t get up early to milk cows and stay late to milk cows. When I was trying to manage the dairy and potatoes and corn, soybeans and alfalfa, I was always kind of behind. It was just a constant grind. Now it’s much easier to be able to get out and learn new things. You can always learn something. I’ve heard many times that I should be grazing livestock, but then I just remember too many times cows getting out in the middle of the night. I’m not interested in chasing livestock late at night anymore.”