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“At the National No-Tillage Conference, everybody talked about how easy it was to plant green and what a great idea it was. So I took my Kinze planter, made a few changes. In 2019, it rained quite a bit in Indiana. It was a very wet spring. So I learned about sidewall compaction, I learned about smearing, I learned about wrapping. I had a lot of lessons right off the bat, and I had corn acres that turned into soybean acres. I had soybean acres that I planted and then I replanted, and in the end, I had 400 acres that I didn't plant at all. It was just too wet.” 

— Joe Hamilton, No-Tiller, Muncie, Ind. 

When Muncie, Ind., farmer Joe Hamilton decided to switch from conventional tillage to no-till, everyone told him he’d be crazy to make the transition on 1,000 acres during his first year.

“I decided that if I was going to make this work — and if it was going to work — I was going to do 1,000 acres,” Hamilton says.

In today’s episode of the podcast, brought to you by The Andersons’ Over Pass Lineup, Hamilton shares the lessons he learned in year 1 and beyond. 

Watch a recording of Hamilton’s 2024 National No-Tillage Conference presentation here.

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   Full Transcript

Michaela Paukner:

Welcome to the No-Till Farmer Podcast, brought to you by the OverPass lineup by The Andersons. I'm Michaela Paukner, managing editor at No-Till Farmer. In today's episode of the podcast, we're sharing one of the most popular sessions from the 2024 National No-Tillage Conference. It's a presentation from Joe Hamilton who talks candidly about his switch from conventional tillage to no-till in 2018 on his Muncie, Indiana Farm.

Joe Hamilton:

My name's Joe Hamilton, and I'm six years ago this No-Till Conference was in Indianapolis. And it was my first conference. I came to it, and I knew very little about no-till or cover crops. And if you would've told me that I'd be standing in front of you presenting today six years ago, I wouldn't have believed it. I still feel like I have a lot to learn, and I'm very thankful that I'm able to come to this conference and learn from everyone here.

My family farms 2,500 acres in Muncie, Indiana. It's about 40 miles from here, northeast. We've been 100% no-till since 2018. I've been doing cover crops since 2019. And we're using mostly poultry litter for our soil amendments. Operation background, my family moved to East Central Indiana in the 1850s. Before that, they were in Virginia and Maryland.

And to see if I had the genes to cut out to be a farmer, I traced it all the way back to the 1600s, and my family was in Salem, Massachusetts in the 1600s. I'm not sure if they were preachers or witches, but it was a hot time to be in Salem, Massachusetts. And they didn't stay very long. Both of my grandfathers had small dairy farms. Their total farming operations were less than 200 acres. And they supported a family on that. In the 1980s, it was a tough time for farmers, but my dad stretched himself thin and grew the operation to 2,000 acres. And most of that was leased then, and most of it's still leased now.

An interesting thing about this picture, this picture was taken about 1974. And this is my grandfather. He's holding a ear of corn in front of his John Deere combine. He's pretty proud. And in 1974, in October, corn was $3.95 a bushel. And not only that, in 1974 my grandfather bought a new Chevrolet truck. And he paid $3,200 for that new Chevrolet truck. And comparatively, in 2020 corn was also $3 95 cents a bushel, but a new Chevrolet truck cost $49,000. And I was farming. I sold my corn for $3.95, but I didn't buy a new truck.

This is my background. In 1998, I graduated high school. And I grew up on the farm. We had some livestock. A lot of my memories with livestock were broken fences, frozen waters, and early mornings in the farrowing house. And when I graduated high school, there wasn't anything that I wanted more than to leave the farm and get as far away from farming as I could so I went all the way across the state to Purdue and I studied mechanical engineering. While I was at Purdue, I designed and built a race car. I was a co-op with an automotive supplier. And I decided that this was a whole lot better than farming.

I left Purdue in 2003, and I moved to Detroit. I worked for Chrysler. I was a young car enthusiast. It was a dream job. I drove new cars, I traveled around the world, I worked in manufacturing plants, I designed suspension systems, I designed electronic systems for brake controls. It was a great dig until 2008 and the economy crashed, so I quit. 2009, I moved to Chicago. I got a job for a defense contractor, and I designed aviation electronics. I did that for four years in Chicago. I worked with brilliant people, and I really sharpened my skills as an engineer.

On long weekends and holidays, I was traveling home from Chicago to help my family with the farm. And it was a five or six hour drive to come home and help. And I couldn't do it every weekend, but I did it when I could. And I had an opportunity to transfer to an engineering center in Cincinnati. That was two hours from home, and it was a good move for me. When I transferred to Cincinnati, I started coming home every weekend and helping more.

My dad was getting older. He was having some health problems. And it was at that point that I decided that I could probably come back and farm and take over the operation, but if I didn't, the operation was going to have to downsize. And I decided that I'd probably have another chance to go back and be an engineer, but I wouldn't have another chance to go back and farm if I didn't take it, so in 2015, I quit my job.

I moved back to the family farm, and when I came back it was much like what I remembered it in the '90s. We ran a chisel plow in the fall as soon as we got done with harvest. In the spring, we ran one or two passes with a soil finisher. Not only the soil, but the economics of the farming wasn't very good. The ground had been deteriorated and depleted. We had a labor shortage. The co-op was doing most of our fertilizing and doing a lot of the spring. And it worked. We were getting by, but we were spending a lot of money on fertilizer and chemicals.

And when I came back, most of the advice and peer pressure I got was from the coffee shop crowd. Those guys there, their advice was if it costs too much and you're not making money, you need to work harder. You need to farm more acres if you want to make it work. That really wasn't the advice that I was looking for, but their stories of the coffee shop were big farmers, big tractors, a lot of tillage, and conservation was for tree huggers. That was the story.

Not only in 2015 did I quit my job, get a new... move, change careers, but I also got married. I had a new wife. I still have a wife. I shouldn't say it past tense. But she was a successful attorney in Cincinnati. And she had a high stress job. And she was my girlfriend at the time. And I said, "I'm going to quit my job. I'm going to quit my engineering job and go be a farmer." And I expected her to say, "Well, see you later. That's been nice knowing you." And she didn't. She said, "That sounds good. And I'd like to move back to Indiana." And part of it's my fault. I painted a rosier picture of farm life than what it really was. It was probably more like Green Acres, the stories that I told them, than what it was really like. But she came back to the farm.

I had an aging workforce. I had sustainability questions, not only environmentally but economically. I'd read enough about sediment in the Gulf of Mexico and what happened in the Dust Bowl that I didn't really think that we were doing a great job farming, and there had to have been a better way.

Back to 2016, all this put a lot of stress on my marriage and my family. If you're comfortable, a lot of times you don't make change. And I wasn't comfortable, and I was looking for a way to make a change. In 2017, I was trying to get out of some of these problems, and we reduced tillage. I went to vertical tillage. And it sounded a whole lot better than the chisel plow brigade that we've been doing. I did that for a year. I tried to improve nitrogen timing. Prior to this, we'd been spreading dry urea for all of our nitrogen needs. Before we planted corn, I started using more liquid nitrogen side dressing. Had a self-propelled sprayer, but there was never a whole lot of time to use it. My dad did the spraying, and his back hurt. He was tired; had a lot of things to manage. And by adding a tender trailer, I was able to triple the acres that I sprayed and get that done by going... By doing my own spraying, I went away from a lot of the name brand herbicides and started using generics that were more cost-effective. And I leveraged existing equipment. We had a no-till planter. We had a no-till bean drill. And I was able to use those to get started.

And the last thing was cereal rye. I think this is the gateway drug into cover crops. I went to a extension meeting for PARP credit. And I sat in the back row of that meeting. And the only reason I was there was to keep my private applicator license. But a guy got up at that meeting and he talked about cover crops. And for some reason, that caught my ear and I decided that I'd give it a shot. A lot of people told me it wouldn't work, but I did 50 acres. This is a picture of me planting cereal rye and cornstalks in the fall of 2017. I did about 50 acres.

2018, my little cereal rye experiment went pretty well. All the neighbors thought I was crazy. They thought it wouldn't work. They'd heard about this, but no one had tried it. And it did work for me. I committed to no-till. I said, "Vertical tillage, that was good for a year, but all it did was it was a great way to seed all those weed seeds that were sitting on top of the ground." And so I went to no-till in 2018. I came here, and at the No-Till Conference, I talked to people in the hallway, I talked to people in these classrooms. I heard from people who were doing it. And getting away from my neighborhood coffee shop did me a lot of good.

I also found some specialty soybeans in 2018. The economics of the farm weren't great, and we were planting Xtend soybeans at that time. It was before Enlist. We had weed problems, but I was scared to death to spray dicamba on my soybeans. There's a lot of tomatoes where we live. It's close to Red Gold. And I knew that if I sprayed dicamba in season, there was a pretty good chance that I'd injure if not kill my neighbor's crops.

I also found out about cost share applications. I don't think I would have jumped into the cover crops as quickly as I did if cost share wouldn't have been available. I applied to the NRCS for the EQUIP program. I had a great local conservationist that helped me. I had a soil and water conservation district that had cost share dollars available; there weren't a lot of guys in my area that were taking advantage of it. And that helped me out a lot.

In the spring of 2018, I submitted my applications for the EQUIP Cost Share program for cover crops. By the summer, funding was approved. Our operation is divided into two different partnerships. One is my mother and father, the other is mine. The only reason that's important was the NRCS had a cap of 500 acres per person. And if you divide your farm up into two operations, you can get 1,000 acres and not just 500. Everyone told me, "You're crazy. Don't do 1,000 acres your first year," but I decided that if I was going to make this work, if it was going to work, I was going to do 1,000 acres, so I did.

And I hired a custom applicator. This is his high crop cedar. It's a converted walker sprayer. And I talked to him, told him what I was doing, told him about the cost share. We came up with a seed mix that we thought would work. He came and he drove through my soybeans in September. And you have brown soybeans out there in the field and a sprayer with these funny tubes hanging on it driving through. The neighbors, they were lining up for the auction. They thought that this was going to be the beginning of the end, or maybe closer to the end than the beginning.

The last thing on this was one thing that I learned early on, the NRCS approved my seed mix. I'd worked with the applicator, and he said, "I'd really like to do annual ryegrass cereal, rye, barley, rapeseed, all these things in a seed mix." And it's worked well for us in Ohio. And I ran up by my NRCS conservationist in the county, and he said, "Yep, this looks good. It passed the calculator. Let's do it."

After I'd applied it on 1,000 acres, the NRCS at the state office said, "Well, actually, that doesn't meet our calculator requirements. We've had trouble with people terminating annual ryegrass." Because if you plant annual ryegrass and cereal rye at the same time, the cereal rye gets green, the annual ryegrass isn't growing. You go out and spray it and you kill the cereal rye, and now the annual ryegrass grows all year, so we're not going to pay you for your EQUIP money that you thought you were getting." And I appealed it. It took three months, but I did finally get paid. And I think that if that payment would've been denied, I would've had such a bad taste in my mouth that I probably wouldn't have stuck with it. But anyway, it worked.

Here comes 2019. I've been to the No-Till Conference. Everybody talked about how easy it was to plant green and what a great idea it was, so I took my Kinze planter, made a few changes. In 2019, it rained quite a bit in Indiana. It was a very wet spring so I learned about sidewalk compaction, I learned about smearing, I learned about wrapping. I had a lot of lessons right off the bat. And I had corn acres that turned into soybean acres. I had soybean acres that I planted and then I replanted. And in the end, I had 400 acres that I didn't plant at all. It was just too wet. It was bad, it was bad. Things were flooded, crops didn't look great. Wet spring. I had 400 acres that unplanted. It dried out in the summer.

And there was a cost share opportunity additional. I still having my hand out looking for money any chance that I get, and I jumped on it. And I planted three and a half pounds of radishes in July. I took my Kinze planter and I modified it. It was a CCS, central fill planter. I changed it so that I put radish seed in one side and then I put a mix of legumes and grasses in the other side. And I alternated rows. Every 30 inches, I had radishes, every 30 inches, I had this other blend. I'm an engineer; I like to tweak things and play with things. And it was a great project for me.

I knocked out these 400 acres in July. If you plant three and a half acres of radishes into fertile soil in July, they really well. In the last presentation, they talked about Dave Brandt holding this radish that was six inches in diameter and three feet long. I had 400 acres of that. The radishes did what they're supposed to. They sequestered nutrients, they penetrated deep into the soil. They froze in December. We had an early freeze that December. The ground got cold, the radishes froze and died. And then we had a warm end of December, and then the ground got up to 50 degrees. And if you've ever smelled a rotting radish, it stinks. If you've ever smelled 400 acres of rotting radishes, they really stink. And I had some people that described it as a smell of rotten eggs. I had other people that said that it smelled like a natural gas leak. In fact, I planted a field next to a Walmart, and the fire department got three calls a day for two weeks because people thought it was a natural gas leak. No one came to me and thought that it smelled good. The neighbors, they noticed, the reporters noticed.

I made a Facebook post. My neighbors were asking me, "Why are you planting these radishes? Why aren't you tilling the ground? Why didn't you pick your radishes?" I had lots of questions, so I made a Facebook post. And I explained the benefits of soil health, why that I did this. And it wasn't just me, it was farmers all across Central Indiana had planted radishes in their mixes, and they were dying and stinking. And I had an Indianapolis reporter that came up and said, "You did a good job of explaining this. 1,600 people shared your post." A lot of people wondered what was going on. And they interviewed me. And I hope that my interview educated a few people that didn't know anything about agriculture or cover crops and told them what was going on. And the reason I share this is there are a lot of farmers here who are doing great things, and I think it's important that we do share what we're doing. Whether you do it through Facebook or the newspaper or just your neighbors, it's very important.

I got through 2019. Come through 2020, I hired two independent agronomists. When the co-op was spreading our fertilizer and handling a lot of our spring, lime often got pushed back. It was the last thing in the budget. And when we ran out of time or money, we'd push lime to the next year. And that had been happening several years before I returned. And I came to the No-Till Conference and I learned about the importance of soil balance and nutrients and the things that I were missing. I hired these two agronomists. They came in and they soil tested my ground. And we needed lime bad. And I hired a custom applicator, and we spread 2,200 tons of high calcium lime in 2020.

And I also insecticide from my soybean seed treatment. We'd been applying neonics on all of our soybean seed. And if you know seed treatment, when you plant soybeans, you plant about five times as many soybeans in the ground as you do corn, so you're getting five times as much neonic load. And when I ask, "Why are we putting insecticide on our soybeans? What are we controlling?" I couldn't get a good answer.

I had signed up for the NRCS Conservation Stewardship program, and for that I did a nutrient management plan and a pest management plan. And the agronomist told me, he said, "The NRCS would really like to see you get rid of seed treatment from soybeans," and so I tried it. And I expected a plague of locusts to carry away my crop the next year, but it didn't happen, and it still hasn't happened.

I tried roller crimping rye. This is one of the things that I tried that seemed like a great idea. I heard about it here. And I borrowed a roller crimper, and I did 300 acres. Again, I probably jumped in and did too many at once. But it was a bad year for that. It was a dry spring. I planted VNS rye. It matured a different rates. The roller crimper was fairly ineffective at killing it. I damaged a lot of the soybeans. They were tall and lanky. Because of the weather pattern that we'd had that spring, I had a lot of grasshopper pressure. After I terminated the rye, I saw a 20% yield decrease in the soybeans. And the reason I say that is a lot of times you come here and every story you hear paints a pretty rosy picture of what could happen, and I want to be transparent. I did that once, and I haven't tried roller crimping anything since then.

I also switched to poultry litter. I decided that Map was expensive and if I could get the same phosphorus requirements by buying litter and get some additional benefits from micronutrients and biology. It was a good thing. 2020 is the first year I did litter.

2021, more changes. I planted corn on 60 inch rows. And the neighbors didn't have enough to talk about all the wonderful things I was doing, so I did this. And I kept the same population, the spacing in the rows twice as dense. I didn't use any residual herbicide, I used verdict and glyphosate and came up with a mix that would provide an environment that cover crops could grow in. I interseeded annual ryegrass with [inaudible 00:19:28] clover, rapeseed, and purple top turnips at V four the same time I was side dressing.

When a lot of people talk about 60 inch corn, I think that their goal is to produce the same yield that they do off 30 inch corn. We've had years and years of development for the hybrids that we plant on 30 inch rows, and I don't think that you're going to plant 60 inch rows and get the same yield. If you're doing it, do it for some other reason and reduce your expectations for yield.

I harvest the corn. And then all those stories that I told about frozen waters and broken fences and getting up early to go to the farrowing house and having angry sows, I said I was not going to have livestock on the farm again. That was one thing that I said in 2015 when I came back. And in 2021, I bought some cattle. And I bought Angus and Herefords. And the idea was is I'd turn them on this cover crop mix after I harvested the corn and maybe sell some premium freezer beef.

2020, all this is working. With the NRCS Conservation Stewardship program, I planted 20 acres of monarch and pollinator habitat. This was productive crop land that I took out to enter into this program. And we're on a migration path for monarch butterflies from Mexico to Canada. Anyway, gave the neighbors something else to talk about. I also did field borders and filter strips to try to keep the nutrients that I was applying out of our waterways. I increased the grazing area. The four cattle turned into nine cattle. I added another nine acres to what I was going to graze.

And for the first time in 2022, I planted 100% of our farm to cover crops. 2023, I continued to make improvements. I got an NRCS grant to do high intensity grazing. I put in high traffic pads for the cattle, I put in interior fencing and water distribution. And my plan is to take productive crop land out of row crop production and do high intensity summer grazing with it.

I changed herbicide timing. I'm always tweaking the herbicide. I think that's one thing that I struggled with when I first started doing an O2 on cover crops was figuring out the herbicide mix. And I'm no way near where I need to be right now, but it's improving every year. And corn fertilizer, for two or three years I tried a very expensive program where I put on in-furrow starter. And I came in with multiple foliar passes on my corn. And I really liked the ideas behind the programs, but they were expensive. And I did 100 acres of 80 inch strips this past year, and I couldn't make it pay. My yields have increased every year. I made a lot of changes all at once. But this is one thing that I haven't been able to make pay.

More labor challenges. Everybody you talk to that has a small business, including farmers, are having labor challenges. I have an aging workforce of retired truck drivers that I feel like I do as much for their marriages as they do for my farm when they come work for me because they're not at home bugging their wives. And more specialty soybeans. Plenty of soybeans have really exploded in Central Indiana in the past few years. And ADM has been a great partner to work with. They're giving me premiums to grow specialty soybeans. I'm still growing non-GMO soybeans to. And ADM's really encouraged regenerative farming, which are the practices that I wanted to do anyway, and now I'm getting paid for it.

These are my cover crop mixes. You guys can take a picture of it, ask me questions. I'll email it to you. This is what's worked for me. And when I'm going from corn to soybeans, this mix of cereal rye and barley over winters, well, the oats grow fast in the spring... or in the fall and stimulate mycorrhizal activity. The rapeseed and the clover provide a little bit of diversity. And if you're expecting to see a dense stand of rapeseed or crimson clover, it's probably not going to happen. But you do see it here and there. And I think there are some benefits.

Right now, I'm having everything flown on. That applicator that I hired with a high boy sprayer got rid of his rig. And I'm using an airplane right now. It works. I can cover 1,000 acres, or he can cover 1,000 acres in two days. But I see a lot of opportunities for drones in the future and applying by cover crops.

One thing about this mix is it has to be seated by September 15th. If you want the NRCS to pay for it, you have to play by their rules whether the soybeans are green or gray or brown, it gets flown on about September 15th. The best way to do it is fly it on right before a quarter inch of rain. But if you have an aerial applicator that will come apply based on the weather forecast and not his schedule, let me know. I'm looking. I've had some years that have worked very well, I've had other years that it didn't work hardly at all. But the cereal rye always comes on through the winter. And even if it's November and it doesn't look like you're going to have anything growing, don't give up on it.

This is my cover crop mix that I've been flying on into soybeans before corn. It's very similar to the last mix, but I use annual ryegrass instead of cereal rye and barley. Annual ryegrass isn't as impressive on the ground. This picture was taken about a month ago in one of those fields. It doesn't look like a golf course, but when you start digging up the roots, annual ryegrass does a lot below the ground. Again, this is less than $41 an acre. You can buy the seed and get it flown on.

I also do quite a few acres with... I drill it on with an old 750 John Deere no-till drill. People have given up on those in my area for planting soybeans, but they still do a great job of planting cover crops. And I can stick somebody in the tractor. It's not a real difficult job. And you cover 10 acres an hour. And we covered almost 1,000 acres this year with two 750 drills and old tractors.

Here's an herbicide program. When I started down my no-till cover crop journey, the NRCS didn't want to give up any herbicide recommendations. They felt like there was too much liability. They didn't want to give conflicting information or get somebody in a bad position. When I came to the No-Till Conference, I had some information, but every year I've changed my herbicide program. And this is a lot of generics, a lot of modes of action. It's a lot of herbicide. But I think it's better to start on the heavy end of the herbicide and then back it off. As you get a good stand of cereal rye and it keeps the weeds out, you can get rid of some of this. You can cut down your rates. But in non-GMO soybeans, you get one chance to terminate your cover crop. And I do spray some Clethodim after planning that's select. It helps get rid of the cereal rye, but it's very slow to kill it.

This works for me. It's relatively cheap, I think. Less than $50 an acre for all this. Timing is important. I plant my soybeans grain in the cereal rye, and then I spray it a day after I plant. I have to get that sprayed with glyphosate before the soybeans come out because they're non-GMO.

Michaela Paukner:

I'd like to take a moment to thank our sponsor, The Andersons. Prolonged nutrient availability is essential for crops, ensuring they get the nutrients needed for growth and development throughout the season. The Andersons OverPass products are a slow release product designed to deliver nitrogen over an extended period, reducing leaf interaction and meeting plants' nutritional needs effectively. Contact your territory manager today to learn more about the OverPass line from The Andersons.

Joe Hamilton:

Here's my corn plant. I plant into terminated annual ryegrass. I have planted green in the cereal rye with corn. I've planted green in annual ryegrass. I've learned a few things. If you're going to plant green into cereal rye, you better have at least 60 pounds of nitrogen on it planting, otherwise the rye is going to it up... or is going to tie it up. And the corn doesn't really like being next to growing green rye when it emerges.

The one thing that I would encourage anyone is if you plant annual ryegrass, especially if you're planting non-GMO corn, be patient. Wait till your neighbor mow grass three times. Don't wait on yourself to mow your grass three times if you're like me because in the spring you're busy and it's probably too late. But watch your neighbor. When you mow three times, it's time to spray your annual ryegrass. Because if your annual ryegrass isn't up and growing and green, it's not going to take in the herbicide and terminate it.

Some litter lessons after doing it for a few years, if you spread poultry litter before non-GMO soybeans, you get a lot of weed pressure. In my case, it's water hemp. And I don't know whether to blame the weed seed that's in the poultry litter or the extra nitrogen that's on the field, but water hemp has been very difficult for me to control if I spread litter right before non-GMO soybeans. I'd encourage you to do it before corn or maybe even before traded soybeans, but not before non-GMO soybeans.

The moisture content of litter really influences the value more than what I realized. I had someone that offered to give me free litter. I built a manure storage building 60 by 120. And I packed it full of sopping wet 70% moisture, pullet litter this spring. Somebody gave me the litter for free. I thought it was a great deal, but after I paid to move it twice and hauled it around and had it tested, because it was so wet, it had a relatively low phosphorus content, I had to reevaluate that. And I don't think that I gained anything by taking free litter in the spring. I'd be better off taking dry litter in August and putting it out in the field, stockpiling it and soybeans, and then spreading it before corn. We variable rate our litter one a half to three tons per acre. I do that off of soil test phosphorus levels. If my phosphorus is above 40 parts per million, I don't put any litter on. I'll wait two more years and retest it and reevaluate.

The last thing is neighborhood relations. Hauling a steaming load of chicken poop next to your neighbor's house isn't great for your neighborhood relations, especially if it's your landlord. I would encourage you not to do that. Take that from experience. The best thing you can hope for is the applicator shows up and the weather's already cold, everyone has their windows shut, and the wind blows away from the houses. But much like the aerial applicator, sometimes the timing is difficult.

Some things about my planting equipment, I've had a few questions about what I use to plant. I have a John Deere 1770NT Planter. It's older. I've made a lot of changes. I run a Yetter spiked closing wheel. This has been good for me in less than ideal conditions. It's not always that perfect crumbly soil when I go out and plant; sometimes it's a little bit sticky. And those Yetter closing wheels zip the soil together.

When I started, I had lots of disc opener bearings with the John Deere planter. I don't use a no-till coulter, and it puts a lot of stress on the disc openers. The original equipment openers, either the rivets failed or the bearings failed, but I was replacing them two or three times before I got 1,000 acres planted.

The other thing was is the disc openers would get dull very quick. If they were brand new, when I started planting. By the time that I got to the end of my 1,000 acres, they were just mashing the rye down in the row. And if you get a piece of rye straw or annual ryegrass or just residue next to the corn seed, it doesn't grow very well.

I switched to prescription tillage technology, SCP openers. They're a serrated opener, saw tooth. One side's bigger than the other side. It's a leading edge, like a case planter. And I really like those. The bearings are better, the disc openers stay sharper, and they do a great job of slicing through residue.

I use 60 pounds of nitrogen. I apply 28 and ammonium thiosulfate. And I move my John Deere single disc openers over four inches away from the seed trench. I do that because some of the soil that we farm is heavy clay. It's 25 exchange capacity. But some of it is sandy and gravelly and single digit, like six or seven exchange capacity. And if you put 60 pounds of nitrogen two inches away from your seed in sandy or gravel soil, it's going to go over and affect your seed and reduce your germination.

Hydraulic downforce is something that I added two years to my corn planter. And this year it will be on my soybean planter. It's expensive, but in no-till and cover crop conditions, depending on your residue and soil type and a lot of other factors, the density of your soil and the resistance to the planter changes as you drive through the field. And I had a lot of trouble keeping consistent seeding depth with pneumatic downforce. I think that hydraulic downforce, I know it pays in corn and I hope it pays in soybeans.

This brings us into the last part of my presentation. And this is nutrient stratification. Two years ago, I came and I heard Marion Calmer talk. And he talked about nutrient stratification in some of his fields. And he talked about going back to moldboard plowing and turning the soil over to try to get some of these nutrients that are hanging out on the top of the ground down where the roots are. And when I committed switching to no-till, I didn't really want to go back to moldboard plowing or chisel plowing or anything else so what I'd hoped was in my fields where I'd been doing cover crops and litter and all these other things that I had a much better story.

I took cores in two inch increments, from zero to two inches, three to four inches, four to six inches, and then the last three inches, six to nine. And I had Brookside Labs analyze those. The first two fields were very similar. They were in corn last year. They've been no-till since 2018, cover crops since 2019. They've been in a corn and soybean rotation. They're silty loams, Crosby soils, the type, 12 exchange capacity, and 3% organic matter. These spots that I took, the samples, they've been growing 240 bushel acre corn and 65 bushel acre soybeans. And both these fields had 3,000 pounds of high calcium, low magnesium lime fine grind spread in 2021. And we've had three crop cycles since that lime was spread.

And here's what I found. This is base saturation at different sample depths. And the red lines on this graph represents my calcium target of 68% base saturation and my magnesium target of 12% base saturation. And I came up with these numbers from Neal Kinsey's book. He has a very good book. And it's about balancing your soils. And I learned a lot from reading that book and decided that... I won't get real far in all of his reasons, but my targets for base saturation are 12 for magnesium and 68 for calcium. And the first two inches look great. This is pretty close to where I want to be. But when we get down to the next two to four inches, they're about the same as what they were three or four years ago when I soil tested. I still have a long ways to go on calcium in this field. And same thing; all the way down to nine inches, I'm lacking calcium in this field.

And this is the other field, the other sample location that I took. It's a very similar field. And I put this in here because on this field, magnesium levels are below my target. And the crops do need magnesium to do well. And I'd really like to see my magnesium levels above 10%. What's important for this field is to come in not with high calcium lime next time I spread, but this spot will get dolomite lime, which is high in magnesium, and try to bring those magnesium levels up a little bit in this case.

Here's phosphorus. It's been two years since I spread litter on this field. It hasn't had any Map for several years; five years. But my phosphorus levels are still pretty high in the first two inches. And 40 parts per million is my target for phosphorus in this field. If it's above 40, typically I wouldn't apply any litter. That's enough for the next crop or even the next two crops. But when you get down to four to six inches deep, there's not enough phosphorus. That's a low level of phosphorus for the crop. I don't strip till, but I think that this is a reason that a lot of people go to strip till. It's to get that phosphorus down in the soil below the corn roots where the corn needs it.

And here's potassium. Both of these fields were fairly high in potassium all the way down through the soil profile. 170 parts per million is my target for potassium here. And I won't spread potassium on this field for at least the next two years. You do get some potassium from litter as well, but I test for potassium, and anywhere that is lacking, I spread potash.

This is the second location. This is, again, the same picture that I took. It was soybeans last year. It's been in cover crops since 2018, no-till since 2017. This was one of my fields that got flooded out in 2019. It's not a very well drained field. I rent it. And it needs more drainage tile. It needs to be pattern tiled every 20 or 30 feet, probably. It's high CC soil. T the whole field's above 20; some of it's as high as 25. It's higher organic matter; 5% organic matter, high clay content. And because of how wet the field is, it doesn't live up to its yield potentials. It raises 230 bushel corn and 60 bushel soybeans.

Here's a nutrient stratification for this field. An interesting part of history about this field is it was next to a dairy farm. They kept the cows here, and they would bring them up into the dairy for a number of years, but that ended about 1960. After that, the owner raised alfalfa hay on it. In our area, we have dolemite lime that's about five miles away, or you drive 30 miles away to get high calcium, low magnesium lime. And with alfalfa, they spread a lot of this dolemite lime to get the calcium. But every time they spread it, they added magnesium to the soil. And they increased the magnesium content of the soil up so high that the clay particles break apart from each other, and they form this layer of muck or almost impenetrable clay. And this is a great candidate for gypsum. This year, this field will probably get 1,000 pounds a acre of gypsum. And the idea behind that is my calcium plus magnesium base saturations add up to above 80. And when I apply the gypsum, the sulfur will pass through the soil profile and hopefully strip off some of that magnesium and improve my soil structure. But this field did receive 3,000 pounds of high calcium lime in 2021. And you don't see the stratification in this field that I saw in the other fields.

Here's phosphorus. This field has plenty of phosphorus on it. I'm planting corn in 2024 in this field. And I won't put any litter on. This field won't have any phosphorus on it for four years as I pull down my phosphorus levels. But same thing, it's been three years, and you do see higher phosphorus content in the first two inches of the soil.

There's an NRCS soil scientist at this conference. Stephanie McClain helped me a lot. And I talked to her last night about what I was going to talk about today, and she said, "This is all great. Your results are interesting, but you didn't test a tilled field." And that's something that I need to do. I need to go out and find a good tilled example and take soil samples and see what this nutrient stratification looks like in those fields as well as my no-till fields.

Here's potassium in this field. This is interesting to me because potassium is high enough in those first two inches, but it's not when you get down to two to four inches and below. And I don't think that if I spread potash on this field it would be very effective at getting down into those lower levels.

My goals for 2024 and beyond, I still have a lot of correction to do for calcium and magnesium. That's first on my list is balancing my soils and getting those levels where they need to be across the whole 2,500 acres. I'd like to further expand my grazing area. The labor issue is a big problem here. I have 15 cattle right now. I run cow calf and some freezer beef. I keep the steers and sell them off for freezer beef. I breed the heifers. But I need to find a retail outlet for premium beef. I don't have time to go to a farmer's market and hawk my steaks or drive around in a van and knock on my neighbors' doors. What I'd really like to see is someone that sees a good story with people in my area that says, "These cows were born and raised in Central Indiana. And don't have hormones, they're not overly medicated, they're not raised a feed lot, they're out on pasture. They're good genetics. They're born, bred, butchered, and processed right here in Central Indiana." It's a good story. "And this is why you should pay more for these than you do the steak you buy at Walmart." But I haven't found that yet.

The other thing is integrating small grains with warm season cover crops. Corn and soybeans aren't a diverse crop rotation. And there's a lot of opportunity there, but I'm running into labor issues. I think this is where autonomy comes in. If I can free myself up in the summer while I'm right now making passes over the sprayer with my... or passes over the soybeans with my sprayer, maybe I could raise some wheat. And I could follow that with a warm season cover crop mix. I'd like to continue to leverage any regenerative programs that are offered. There's a lot of money being thrown around right now, and if I can get paid to do the things that I want to do to improve my soil health, I'm going to take advantage of it.

And I also put on here shifting production to market demands. A lot of farmers that you talk to, they take a very firm stance, and whether that's organic's a bunch of crap or, "I really believe in GMO, so I'm going to plant GMOs." No matter what your personal stance is, I think as farmers, it's important to us to shift to market demands. And we have a younger generation of consumers that's more informed and more concern about what's been going on in agriculture. And if there are opportunities for the market on me growing something else, I'm more than glad to do it.

We don't work 80-hour weeks and give up vacations and make less money than what we could be making at other occupations for no reason. This is my daughter, she's four, standing in the cereal rye this year. And I feel like that part of the reason that I made these changes and I'm doing this is for her, is so things will be better for her than they would have been if myself and all of you wouldn't have made these changes.

And I really want to thank everyone that supported me. I'm only five years into this, but when I started, I came here with a lot of stupid questions, and a lot of people took the time to answer my questions and talked to me in the halls, and I'm really thankful for that. I also volunteer in my community. I went to the Soil and Water Conservation District when I was looking for cost share dollars and figuring this out, and they gave me some money, gave me some support. When they had an opportunity on their board to serve, I stepped up and I did it. I volunteered for my Farm Bureau Board. I still feel like that as far as lobbying and standing up for farmers, they're still the most important tool that we have. You may not agree with everything they say, but I'd encourage anyone that if you have the opportunity to serve on your farm bureau board, do it.

And the last thing is my contact information. If any of you have questions and want to email me, do it. Come see me. I'd be glad to share anything that I did good, bad, ugly, my mistakes. I'm an open book. Any questions?

Michaela Paukner:

At this point in the presentation, Joe starts taking audience questions. Some of them were a little hard to hear, so I'm going to read them for you. The first is asking about Joe's field with less stratification. What role did the radish cover crops play in that?

Joe Hamilton:

I absolutely believe that it had a role. One thing I didn't talk about was in 2020 after I planted those radishes, I went out. And my plan was to plant the corn right on top of where the radishes had been. Those radishes, they turn into a soft mush. And you have this spongy, white yellow plant matter in the ground. And it's full of earthworms. Everywhere that there was a radish, there was 15 or 20 earthworms. And those earthworms going up to the surface and picking up residue and taking it down into the ground, they create channels. And I think that that had a lot to do with reducing the stratification in this field. When I talked about doing a small grain and following it with a cover crop mix, I'd love to put radishes or turnips back in it and get more of those earthworms carrying that phosphorus, potassium, and calcium down deeper into the soil. Great question.

Michaela Paukner:

When you're taking the soil samples in the 10-foot radius, how are you deciding where to focus?

Joe Hamilton:

The question was how large was the area that I covered with the soil samples? And I did a 10-foot radius. I sampled a total depth of nine inches. And I did all the samples for each location in a 10-foot radius.

When I hired those two agronomists, they take very different approaches. And that's why I hired them, because I wasn't sure which one was right so I figured, heads or tails, I'd win half my acres. One guy does grid samples on a two and a half acre grid across a over 1,000 acres. The other guy, he takes a different approach. He looks at old fence rows and management plans and historic images and soil types. And he does zone sampling. And so we do both ways. One is zones, which may be as small as one acre or as large as 20 acres, the other is two and a half acre grid. I don't know which is right. They both seem to be working.

I always try not to pull right from the row. Not only do I put down in-furrow starter fertilizer, which is going to throw the results off, the corn roots take up a lot of nutrients. And when I plant my soybeans the next year it's going to be on 15 inch rows, and I'm going to go at an angle across the corn rows. When I'm taking those samples, I wanted to better sample what represents what the soybeans are going to take up, not what the corn had already taken up.

Michaela Paukner:

What insecticide and seed treatments do you use?

Joe Hamilton:

I do use soybean seed treatment. And I really believe in it. I use ILEVO or Saltro, and then I use a fungicide and I use inoculant. I just leave out the insecticide. My seed dealer treats my soybeans, and every year he treats mine first before he starts using insecticide.

Michaela Paukner:

What were the results of your interseed cover crop?

Joe Hamilton:

I learned that it's a great way to build soil health. It's a great way to provide winter grazing for cattle. I've been very successful some years, and some years it's been pretty weedy. I think that applying too much nitrogen as sidedress for those interseed rows is a good way to encourage weeds to grow as much as cover crops, or even more than cover crops. You're creating an environment without residual herbicides; that's great for cover crop growth, but it's also going to be great for weed growth.

I like it. I haven't been able to make the economics work on a large scale. Part of that is selling the cattle. The reason that I'm doing it is to feed the cattle. Now I need an outlet for not two or three cattle a year but for 40 or 50 cattle a year if I'm going to increase across the acres. I would love to be able to take a small portion of my crop land out and do warm season grazing on it with high intensity grazing with cattle, and then take another portion and plant it into 60-inch rows and every five years run cattle across it. It's a great plan, but I haven't been able to make it work on a large scale.

I've done as much as 24 acres in a year, but that's as much as I've done. There were some people that asked me why I didn't do a large test plot with 60-inch corn and not interseed it but just take my conventional planting methods and do 60-inch corn at the same population. And I don't really know what I'd learned from that. I'd learned that the yields are probably less than my 30-inch corn. And I don't think that I need to sacrifice a bunch of bushels to convince myself of that.

Michaela Paukner:

What was your nitrogen management plan for your 60-inch row corn?

Joe Hamilton:

So I do 60 pounds of nitrogen at planting, and then I do the remainder at sidedress. And I raised 165 bushel acre corn on that 60 inch corn and I applied about 150 total pounds of nitrogen to that field. And because I have cattle grazing on it in the summer, my plan this year is to cut that down to about 100 pounds total of nitrogen.

I use a knife. I use an Unverferth applicator. I use as a culture and a knife. I'm 15 inches from the row. It's the same applicator that I use for my regular corn, there's just no rows of corn in between every row on the applicator. If you're planting 60-inch corn and you're sidedressing every 15 inches, you're still at a maximum 15 inches away from your corn row, and there's still the same number of plants per acre. I'm not going to disagree that banding wouldn't make a difference or an improvement, but I don't know that sidedressing with liquid 15 inches away is any worse than side dressing, 30-inch corn every 15 inches.

Michaela Paukner:

Thanks to Joe Hamilton for today's conversation. A video on transcript for this episode is available at Many thanks to the OverPass lineup by The Andersons 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.