No-Till, Covers Provide Buffer For Higher Yields, Better Soils
Ohio no-tiller Jim Carter Jr. finds breaking from tillage and adding cereal rye and other covers improved corn and soybean yields, and greatly benefitted his soils.
The tests revealed the farm’s organic matter was around 2.1% to 2.2%. Good levels, he was told, and he’d be lucky if they ever reached 2.5%.
Today on his farm, organic matter levels are at least 2.5% and reach as high as 4% — one of the many testaments to the benefits of integrating no-till and cover crops that he has experienced.
Easing Into No-Till. Carter’s journey into no-till began 35 years ago, when his father purchased a John Deere 7000 MaxEmerge in 1979.
As they were setting it up in the driveway, they watched it plant corn right through the stone and gravel, Carter says. Fall plowing didn’t always get accomplished, so they decided to try planting the corn into no-tilled soybean ground, and it worked.
It wasn’t until the late 1980s or early ’90s that they began continuously no-tilling corn into soybeans. But once they succeeded, they moved on to no-till wheat and corn.
Today, Carter and his father, Jim Sr., plant their 1,200 acres of corn, soybean and wheat with two Kinze no-till planters — a 3600 Series for corn and 1631 for soybeans and cover crops. Last year, he adapted the 3600 to plant corn in twin rows.
Carter runs his corn planter with Martin floating row cleaners and Copperhead Ag Furrow Cruiser spiked closing wheels, which he added last spring. The row cleaners and wheels help alleviate the problems with compaction and closing the seed trench that they had when using rubber closing wheels on their John Deere 7000 planter in their primarily Hoytville clay soils.
Carter says the Furrow Cruisers were easy to put on and the spiked wheels crumble and firm the soil.
The planter also has no-till coulters on it, only because they came with the purchase. Carter feels they’re not necessary, but he’s leaving them on because he paid for them and they’re not set very deep.
For fertility, the planter is equipped with Totally Tubular fertilizer tubes for nitrogen application beside the row, and Keeton seed firmers that firm the seed in the seed trench and apply pop-up fertilizer.
Since the planter doesn’t have fertilizer tanks, he uses a modified sprayer that he pulls behind the planter, with a 1,200-gallon tank for 28% liquid nitrogen — which he applies at a rate of 30 gallons per acre — and a 500-gallon tank for the pop-up fertilizer.
The pop-up fertilizer is usually 10-34-0 or a custom blend, and he applies it at 3 to 5 gallons per acre.
Carter also sidedresses nitrogen to meet the rest of the corn crop’s needs, between 180 and 210 total units of nitrogen, which he tries to accomplish before the corn is knee high.
Developing A System. For the past 5 years he has consistently used cover crops, working with cereal rye, radishes, winter peas, chickling vetch and sunn hemp.
This past fall he seeded 300 acres of radishes with a milo (grain sorghum) disc, using the half-rate kit on the Kinze, and set the machine to the lowest soybean population there was — resulting in a rate of 2½ to 3 pounds per acre.
This year he may bump up the population on the whole planter, or half the planter, to see if it makes any difference.
“I’ve seeded them in 15-inch rows, I’ve broadcast-seeded them and I’ve broadcast-seeded them with a nitrogen blend,” Carter says. “When I’ve broadcasted them with fertilizer they were a lot greener and a little bigger in diameter.”
This indicates to him that the radishes are taking up nutrients.
While he doesn’t take a nitrogen credit for the cover crops, Carter says he is on the low-end of fertility input for his area. Being located in the Lake Erie watershed, Carter doesn’t want to put excess nutrients on his crops and risk runoff into the lake, possibly contributing to the algal blooms. Cover crops are not only accessing additional nutrients, but also cycling the ones he applies, Carter says.
He hasn’t necessarily reduced inputs, but the cover crops have helped him slowly increase yields over the years. Soybeans typically yield 7 to 8 bushels higher on fields that had covers, and corn sees a 3- to 5-bushel bump. His whole-farm yield averages are 40 bushels per acre for soybeans and 160 bushels per acre for corn.
Yield increases are important to Carter, but developing a system that improves soils long term is equally important. He says soil structure has already improved dramatically and soil biological activity seems to be greater. He wants to continue adding different cover crops to attract natural insect pest predators.
Even though tiling is “paramount in this area,” Carter says, he has been able to get by with the little tiling he has because of how no-till and cover crops have improved his soil structure.
“The system I’m using seems to be working, and it’s economical,” he says.
Aerial Advantages. While Carter’s been consistently using cover crops for the past 5 years, he began experimenting with them about 10 years ago, starting with cereal rye between corn and soybeans to help with drainage issues in his fields.
In that first year he had it aerially applied into cornstalks before leaf drop. The following spring was wet and delayed termination of the rye. By the time he could get in the field after the burndown, it was the last soybean field to plant. The rye was over his head but there was moisture down 3 inches, so he set the planter as deep as he could.
He planted the field at night because he didn’t want anyone to see him planting in it, but discovered it was easier than expected.
“You could see your mark clear across the field. There was a distinct line,” he says. “The soybeans were somewhat in dry dirt, but that rye made a mat and within 5 days the soybeans has emerged.
“I’m not going to say those were the best beans we had, but given the field they did better than other places that should’ve been better,” he says. “They harvested great because that rye was a flattened mat and the header just slid across the rye.”
The following spring of 2005 he planted corn and saw a yield bump of 3 to 5 bushels per acre where he had seeded cereal rye. At first Carter thought it was a fluke, but as he’s continued using cereal rye he’s seen improvements in corn.
“I haven’t replicated my plots to prove it, but in my mind I’m getting 2 years of benefits from the rye,” he says.
Carter doesn’t use cereal rye every year, but when he does it’s aerially applied at 100 pounds per acre, aiming to have it seeded around Labor Day — give or take a week with the corn’s progress.
He prefers aerial application for a couple of reasons: It’s one less chore on his to-do list in the fall, and one less piece of equipment he must run in the field. The timing aspect is also beneficial.
“Most years when I’m harvesting the corn, the rye is up already and growing,” Carter says. “It’s capturing excess nutrients, and it’s something living, growing and providing soil structure for the harvest equipment to go over. It’s working that much quicker to erase tire marks.”