Diversity, Technology Boost Fertility Use, Crop Performance
Working in the Lake Erie watershed with heavy clay soils, no-tillers Les and Jerry Seiler are increasing productivity with their dedication to no-till, crop diversity and precision technology.
That much variability in soils — most of which is heavy clay — on 1,300 acres can be a lot to handle, but the Seilers say their no-till system makes it manageable.
“They all respond a little differently, but they all respond positively to no-till,” Les says.
The variable soils are also responding positively to the crop diversity the Fayette, Ohio, no-tillers have been integrating in the last 5 years. Organic-matter levels are climbing and yields have also gone up — last year, the Seilers had record corn yields on some of their fields, with a 190-bushel average overall, Les says.
Now the Seilers are focusing on improving their system even more by having most fields covered with either wheat or a cover crop during the winter, and using precision technology to boost crop performance.
Working With Wheat. The Seilers, who are in their 28th year of continuous no-till, began transitioning to a more diversified crop system 5 years ago when they added wheat to their corn-soybean rotation and followed it with cover crops.
They took a soil test on one of the fields before it went into wheat, and have watched organic matter climb 0.70%. It confirmed to Les that growing just corn and soybeans, and leaving the soil fallow in between, was never going to build their soils.
“I see now we go backwards with just corn and soybeans,” he says. “When we plant corn we bump organic matter up like 0.40%. And when we plant soybeans, it seems like it takes away that 0.40%. The days of thinking that corn and soybeans are going to be the only crops may be over, because doing that is going to mine the soil.”
The Seilers say adding covers and wheat is having a positive effect on the following cash crops. Les has seen corn following wheat jump 20 bushels per acre in yield, and the soybeans that follow wheat also seem to be better than beans produced in the corn-soybean rotation.
He admits it’s still a learning process, though. In 2012, some areas saw a 10- to 20-bushel yield drop in the corn that followed wheat. Les thinks drought conditions that year affected soil biological life.
“We harvested that corn crop in the 2012 drought year and there was wheat straw left in the field,” he says. “The microbes just couldn’t consume it. In a regular situation, there’s no evidence that wheat was even planted there usually.”
But one poor year hasn’t scared him away. This year the Seilers harvested 140 acres of wheat, and Les aims to seed 200 acres this fall. His goal is to have corn, soybeans and wheat each covering one-third of their acreage, but they’re not at that point yet.
“To do all this, we have to plant an earlier soybean because with the late group 2.0s and early 3.0s, it’s really hard to get wheat in,” Les says. “Based on what I see this year, the wheat we planted in late September last year seems to be the best from a yield standpoint.”
Blend Benefits. Another benefit to adding wheat is the cover-crop mix the Seilers seed after wheat harvest.
Using the split-row Kinze planter set to 15-inch spacings typically used to plant soybeans, they seed a blend of 6 to 8 species of covers. Because the pusher units (mounted row units) are out front, they put the smaller seeds in those, and seed them with a blue milo plate at a rate of 2 to 3 pounds per acre. Larger seeds go in the row units on the back of the planter, and are seeded at a rate of 20 to 30 pounds per acre.
Les says they often use Austrian winter peas, daikon radishes, sunn hemp, crimson clover and dwarf essex rape in their mix, aiming to keep their cover-crop costs below $30 per acre.
The Seilers seed the mix on all of the harvested wheat acres in early August. The Seilers use 2,4-D and glyphosate to terminate volunteer wheat that usually comes up, although Les doesn’t mind having some of the wheat present with the covers.
“At least it’s a living root system growing through the winter months,” he says. “We used to think it was a bad thing and tried to spray it and use herbicides over the radishes and peas, and we finally thought, ‘This is dumb.’ It’s something that’s at least living, and we don’t raise enough wheat in this rotation for it to be a disease issue yet.”
Les’ goal with his cover-crop blend is to have some species that grow 2 to 3 feet tall to shade the shorter covers and protect them from the winter weather.
“The first frost that comes around would kill off the taller stuff, and then it would provide a little bit of a shelter, so the covers closer to the ground can take a little more cold for a longer period of time,” Les explains. “This extends their growing season.”
Another goal of his is to have every harvested soybean acre that isn’t going to wheat seeded with cereal rye to boost soils ahead of the next year’s corn crop. Last year the Seilers had 560 acres covered for the winter, which includes 140 acres of wheat.
Typically the Seilers use their drill to seed cereal rye at 60 pounds per acre. But after learning about research showing the radishes can help reduce the presence of soybean cyst nematodes, they plan to hire nearby no-tiller Allen Dean to seed the cereal rye with his highboy seeder.
Precise Performance. Before the Seilers began working with wheat and cover crops, they found investing in precision technology was helping them improve their soils and yields.
Purchasing a yield monitor for their combine in 2000 helped them identify areas that needed drainage, leading them to invest in tiles. Les says this made an immediate difference, with one cornfield showing a 90-bushel increase after tiling.
The Seilers have also added row clutches on both their corn and soybean planters. On their Kinze 2600 no-till corn planter, they use an iPad with a wireless connection to monitor their CDS-John Blue liquid flow system as they apply 7 gallons per acre of 10-34-0 — blended with 23 gallons of 28% liquid nitrogen — beside the seed.
They also apply 5.5 gallons of RiseR starter fertilizer, along with 2 ounces of Tombstone insecticide and 2 ounces of Agri-SC soil conditioner per acre.
Their planter setup is the same for both Kinzes — Yetter SharkTooth row cleaners, disc openers, one Yetter spiked closing wheel and drag chains.
The Seilers added RTK guidance in the last couple years and say accurate placement of fertilizer — which is crucial in their area with the nearby Lake Erie watershed — is a major benefit.
With the exception of some wet falls when conditions aren’t ideal, the Seilers aim to strip-till after soybean harvest before corn, a practice they’ve been doing since 1996. Using a Progressive strip-till machine, they prefer to build strips before corn so the nutrients are placed deep and runoff isn’t a concern. They use RTK guidance to plant corn right into the strips in the spring.
“I just think RTK guidance made strip-till more beneficial,” Les says. “You get a higher return on your fertilizer dollars when you put the crop on top of it.”
They’re starting to experiment with this with the nutrients their cover crops scavenge by using RTK to plant cash crops directly into where the cover crops were seeded. For example, they planted corn directly where Austrian winter peas were located, which allows corn roots to tap into the nutrients the covers produced.
Les believes the efficiencies gained through no-till practices have freed up money to invest in precision technology. While they don’t have precise numbers, Les knows it’s paid off through the improved planting and fertility applications, and will continue to pay off by identifying ways to improve their operations.