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NAME: Keith Kemp

LOCATION: West Manchester, Ohio

YEARS NO-TILLING: 30

ACRES: 1,700

CROPS: Corn, soybeans and winter wheat

No-Till fascinates me. It appeals to the part of my personality that likes a challenge.

I got my first taste of no-till more than 30 years ago. I went to some meetings on ridge-till, and the benefits of earthworms and soil life, and I just got excited.

I loved the idea of managing our soils as a living thing. They’re not just dirt, like so many people think. Those farmers just go through the motions. I like to dig in and see how our soil life is doing, and manage with that in mind.

I started small with no-till, dedicating just 100 acres to experimenting with it. I had concerns about how to manage the residue, and if I could even raise no-tilled corn.

I just kept playing with it and researching, and then row cleaners came out. We put those on the planter and went 100% no-till almost immediately. Now I’m not sure how farmers are able to farm profitably without no-tilling.

Handling Residue

We definitely had our challenges early on. Before adding row cleaners, we struggled with residue and all the issues that went with it: cold soils, wet soils, hairpinning, disease and insects. Once we got row cleaners, a lot of those problems went away.

Our Yetter row cleaners clear a 6-inch path to plant into. They help warm the soil up and get us in the field faster in the spring. Before row cleaners we had problems with insects like cutworms. It was amazing how much row cleaners helped with that.

Once we were all in with no-till, we just kept working at pushing our yields and our soil resources. One thing I track closely is soil organic matter. It’s what dictates our water-holding capacity and availability of soil fertility.

One of the reasons I raise corn-on-corn on 20% of my acres is because it leaves a lot of residue for my soil microbes and contributes to soil organic matter.

When I first started no-tilling, soil organic-matter levels ranged from 2.3% to 2.9%, which isn’t too bad. In the early years of no-till, my soil organic matter would increase 0.1% every 3 years or so.

Now that our no-till system is more mature, we’ve seen almost a 0.1% increase in just 1 year. Our soil organic-matter levels are 3.1% to 3.9% now. That pays off because my soils retain more water — that comes in handy when we have dry years.

While residue plays a positive role in my operation, I still look for new ways to make it work for me instead of against me.

Corn-on-corn practices leave us with a lot of residue to deal with, and corn stover usually sticks around for at least 2 years. My goal is for it to be incorporated back into the soil by my soil microbes and earthworms in just 1 year.

Earlier this year I purchased and installed a Yetter Stalk Devastator, a roller that is mounted underneath the combine header. It smashes the stalks down and breaks them up without chopping them.

I don’t want my corn residue chopped, because it forms a mat of residue that blankets the soil and makes warming and drying of the soil difficult in the spring.

By smashing the stalks into the ground and breaking them up, I’m hoping to provide more entry points for microorganisms to get at the stalks and break them down faster.

Soybean Strategies

Planting

Everyone talks about corn, but we like to push our no-till soybean yields, too. In our onfarm test plots, we’re shooting for 100-bushel soybeans and we’ve achieved 82 bushels so far.

We take strategies that work in those plots and apply them to our production acres on a larger scale. About two-thirds of our acres are planted to corn, and 40 acres to winter wheat double-cropped with soybeans, and the rest to soybeans.

We call soybeans our cover crop, and there’s definite value there. With soybeans selling in the $12 to $15 range, our double-crop wheat and soybean acres have been our top-grossing crop.

Prior to planting soybeans, we variable-rate apply a combination of potash and pellet lime according to prescriptions created by data from grid sampling and yield maps.

We’ve really seen an advantage with the pellet lime. The soybean plant seems to utilize it to help fix more nitrogen, and it helps the herbicides work better. I’ve seen a 2- to 4-bushel increase in soybean yields. Soybeans really use the potash, too. A soybean plant uses 1.4 pounds of potassium per bushel produced. If we want to raise 100-bushel soybeans, we need to make sure there are 140 pounds of potash available to that plant. It’s necessary for us to reach top yields.

I still drill my soybeans in 7-inch rows using a John Deere 1560 no-till drill. Yields are better for us with the narrow drilled rows than the split rows.

Because soybean planting doesn’t always occur in the best conditions, I’ve equipped my drill with spider-type closing wheels. If conditions are a little wet, those wheels can close the seed trench without creating a lot of compaction. It gives us a little more flexibility and is more forgiving.

Our soybean populations are a little high by most standards. We plant around 180,000 seeds per acre. It’s more standard to plant 120,000 to 140,000 per acre, but I see it as cheap insurance.

The goal is to harvest 150,000 to 160,000 plants per acre, so by planting a little high I can lose a few plants to residue, insects and disease and still hit my mark. Those that go with lower populations like to count on the soybeans branching out and producing more, but we’ve found that we get our highest soybean yields with the higher populations.

Our in-season management includes diligent scouting for pests and fungal diseases. If we need to spray, we will. We also like to give our soybeans a little kick with a foliar feeding. A 5-13-8 plus zinc, copper, boron and manganese micronutrient blend and a little nitrogen is mixed with our last glyphosate application of the season and is applied when the soybeans are about 6 inches tall. It seems to give the soybeans a little boost and offset any stress caused by the glyphosate application.

Our corn-heavy rotation seems to work in our favor when it comes to soybean yields, too. We get our best stand of soybeans when they’re planted after 2 years of corn. It seems to do a good job of breaking up the disease and pest cycle, and we see a 3- to 6-bushel yield advantage.