Pictured Above: Nick, Paul, Ted, Tom and Mike Guetterman
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NAME: Nick Guetterman
LOCATION: Bucyrus, Kan.
FARM: Guetterman Brothers Family Farms
YEARS NO-TILLING: 35
ACRES: 16,000 acres
CROPS: Corn, soybeans and winter wheat
There are many factors impacting production from year to year, but our organic matter levels and yields seem to be firmly bound together. Where organic matter is high, yields are consistently high, too.
As a result, conserving and building organic matter on our eastern Kansas farm is a task constantly circling our minds as we make management decisions. I farm with my wife, Jennie; parents, Paul and Rosie; and my brothers and their families: Tom and Andrea; Mike and Jody; and Ted, Lisa and their son, Hayden, who just graduated college and is returning to the farm.
In decades past our farm was bleeding organic matter with every pass of the plow, just like every other farm in the area. When my dad and uncles started the transition to no-till in 1982, they slowed and eventually stopped the exodus of organic matter from our fields.
Now we’re building organic matter through no-till, rotation and cover crops and can see our success reflected in our yield monitor. Our top producing fields are those just taken out of pasture with 4-7% organic matter. We hope to farm in a fashion that maintains those high levels and increase organic matter to similarly high levels on the rest of our acres.
No-till is all I’ve ever known as a farmer. My father, Paul, and grandfather were the ones to adopt the practice, one of many decisions they made with conservation in mind.
Paul: We got into conservation initially through building terraces and waterways. I always hired out the job, as we didn’t have the correct equipment to get it done ourselves. Back then we plowed a lot and it was nearly impossible to maintain the terraces. A big spring rain would always come and wash out the terraces or silt in the waterway.
TAKE YOUR PICK. With three John Deere planters to choose from, the Guettermans select the one that is set up for the job at hand, depending on conditions present on their Bucyrus, Kan., farm. Auto-steer, swath control and pneumatic down pressure are used on all three planters for better accuracy.
We didn’t have the tools to fix them, but we would try our best to patch them up with a plow or a blade. It was a never-ending problem and despite conservation being the goal, we weren’t getting the results we wanted.
My dad was so sick of the erosion that a lot of land we just quit farming and sowed to grass. He would farm other people’s land, but leave his own in grass because he didn’t want his soils to wash away. If you farmed the land, you were going to sacrifice the soils, and he wasn’t willing to do that.
In the early 1980s we attended a meeting to receive the Kansas Bankers Soil Conservation award. There was a guy from Kansas State University talking about no-till and how there was no need to work the ground. It seemed like something that might work on our farm and got us thinking.
Our first shot at it was no-tilling soybeans into corn stubble. We worked with KSU Extension, but nobody was really an expert on no-till at the time, so we were on our own quite a bit. Annual weeds were a major problem initially. We kept at it and then when Roundup came out it was like a miracle and really made no-till work.
Nick: Back then and still today we’re learning what works for us in no-till. Just because something seems to be working doesn’t mean we won’t change.
We’ve found flexibility is a valuable trait to have with no-till and farming in general. We’ve continually adapted our fertility and nitrogen (N) programs over the years and built in the ability to be flexible and react to the varying conditions and constraints we face from year to year. We get 38 inches of rain each year so we have to be able to take what Mother Nature gives us and switch up our plans on the fly.
In the past, we applied all our N with a pre-plant anhydrous pass. We still use anhydrous, but only when it’s dry enough to apply, and we don’t usually put on our full rate of N with that pass. If we have a wet winter or wet spring, we don’t apply anhydrous at all to prevent N loss and switch to Plan B. We go ahead and plant and then use our sprayer to apply nitrate later in the season.
We modified our John Deere highboy sprayer by adding a New Leader G4 spinner spreader box that covers an 80-foot swath. Using the spreader as opposed to drop nozzles with liquid N allows us to cover many acres in a hurry — up to 700 acres per day. Since our fields are terraced and odd shaped, using drop nozzles would be slower and it would be very easy to get off the row and burn the corn.
We put on anywhere from 50-100 pounds of actual N with the spreader setup, depending on how much N we applied earlier in the season, what weather conditions have been and what we’re observing in the field. Applications are made between V4 and V10. In wet years where we’re experiencing N loss and see yellow spots in the field, we’re able to come back with a rescue application.
Situations like this are why we no longer apply all our N up front. We want to be flexible and apply what the crop needs when it’s needed. It became even more important to use this approach when both N and commodity prices were high. Now that anhydrous is relatively cheap again, we can use more up front and if we lose some we can still come back and apply more N while still being profitable. The price of N really impacts how we manage its application.
Seeder Saves Time
Phosphorus (P) and potassium (K) applications have also gone through some changes over the years.
Early on we struggled with potash deficiency. Soil tests didn’t call for it, but the cold, wet planting conditions for no-till meant the potash in the soil wasn’t available to the plant early in the season. We started putting potash in the starter and saw a major improvement in early growth and yield. It was an important piece of the puzzle that helped us start no-tilling corn.
We used to apply all our P and K in a 2-by-2-inch placement at planting. But this really slowed down our planting and led to not getting all our corn in on time. To remedy this situation, we started using our 36- and 50-foot John Deere 1890 air seeders to put down P and K in fall, winter or early spring, whenever conditions allowed. That way it was out of the way and we could just get out and plant when it was time.
It works well for us. The air seeder applies P and K in 7½-inch rows and we plant corn in 30-inch rows. When we come back and plant, the seed is within 3 inches of the fertilizer and it seems to work just as well as the 2-by-2-inch placement.
It’s more about convenience for us than a difference in performance. We do like that it gets the P and K into the soil so there’s less risk of loss through runoff, which is bad for the crop and the environment.
We plant narrow-row soybeans after corn and notice the crop performs better with the narrower placement of P and K.
The only at-plant fertilizer we apply in corn is 2½ gallons of 10-34-0 and 2½ gallons of K-Row 23. The K-Row 23 provides seed-safe sulfur and K, and is designed to mix with the 10-34-0.
We feel including some K in the pop-up is important because the soils are still cold when we’re planting corn and the microorganisms aren’t working yet to release nutrients to the crop. The pop-up makes sure those nutrients are there as the corn starts to grow and provides what is needed until the soils can fully wake up and start providing those nutrients.
Putting Dirt to Work
We’re constantly working on our soils, trying to improve soil organic matter and soil life. More residue can help with both of those goals, but it can also be a hindrance to getting good crops.
On our better soils we stick mostly to a corn-soybean rotation, but on our thinner, eroded, more drought-prone soils we include wheat in the rotation. We plant winter wheat and then double-crop soybeans after harvest.
We constantly hit a home run with the double-cropped soybeans, but it has been a struggle to even get a base hit with corn the following year. The mass of wheat residue holds onto moisture, making for cold, wet planting conditions.
However, we think all that residue and keeping crops growing more months of the year is starting to pay off. This year the soil seems to be more active. When it came time to plant corn the residue seemed to have disappeared faster, meaning the soil is more active and breaking down the tough straw quicker. This is a great sign.
We want to see more residue — and as a result higher organic matter — on all our acres, so we started using cereal rye cover crops between our corn and soybean crops. It’s worked well for us, it’s just a matter of figuring out how to seed, when to seed and how much seed to use.
Cereal Rye Payoff
We had great luck this past year using the spreader to seed cereal rye. We used the same spreader setup we use to apply N to spread the seed on the corn stubble after harvest.
The seeding rate depends on when we’re able to get the cover crop in the field. In September, we’ll seed 40-50 pounds, October seedings get bumped to 50-60 pounds and November applications get pushed to 70 pounds.
The goal is to get the cereal rye seeded as early as possible to get more root establishment. A good root system will break up compaction and put more organic matter into the soil. More top growth means better weed suppression the following year, too.
Controlling the cover crop in the spring can sometimes be challenging. We first started using cereal rye in 2011 and we’ve tried just about everything. In 2014 we were able to plant into the cereal rye while it was still green and it worked out fine. We drilled soybeans in early May that year when the cereal rye was just flowering.
Then in 2015 it rained every day in May and we couldn’t get our soybeans planted. It finally stopped raining June 10, but the cereal rye had since matured and stopped using moisture. Not only was it not absorbing moisture, but the dense residue kept the soil from drying up further. It was nearly impossible to plant soybeans and we saw at least a 10-bushel yield drag. That’s the risk you take when you leave the cereal rye to grow instead of controlling it earlier.
In an ideal situation, we would plant into the cereal rye in early May when it’s just starting to head out. This year we burned down 80% of our cereal rye cover crop in mid to late March in case we have another wet planting season. We left some so we could continue to experiment planting into a green and growing cover crop and learn how to manage it.
When we seeded the cereal rye determined which acres got sprayed this spring. Acres seeded in September that had already achieved good root growth were first to be terminated. We left the later seeded cereal rye to grow so we could hopefully get more growth and more benefit out of it.
We had some dry years when we first tried cover crops, but it seems now that we are getting a nice bump in our corn crop with the cereal rye in the rotation. Acres where we’ve successfully established a cover crop always seem to be above the farm average. Soil tests indicate we’re making progress, too.
Through no-till and cover crops we’ve seen organic matter increase about 1% on fields that have had three cereal rye cover crops in the corn-soybean rotation. We’ve used a Solvita soil test, which measures carbon dioxide — an indicator of soil organisms metabolizing residue. More carbon dioxide means we have more microorganisms active in the soil.
Our highest organic matter fields test at 175 ppm carbon dioxide, while our 2%-3% organic matter fields test between 50 and 100 ppm carbon dioxide. This tells me we need to be using cover crops to continue boosting our soil life and our organic matter on those fields.
We’ve had to make adjustments to our equipment as our system changes and evolve. Currently, we run two 24-row and one 36-row John Deere no-till planters for seeding corn and soybeans.
DOUBLE DUTY. Swapping out the spray tank for a spreader box on their highboy sprayer allows the Guettermans to spread nitrate fertilizer during the growing season. It’s also used to broadcast seed cereal rye cover crops into corn stubble after harvest.
We use Yetter SharkTooth row cleaners. We tried a regular spike tooth row cleaner, but found with our cover crops that the spike tooth was more likely to wrap, while the SharkTooth just cuts through the residue.
We use Totally Tubular and Valion extended wear seed tube guards for our in-furrow pop-up application. Both do a nice job of placement, but we’ve found the Valion lasts longer than the John Deere factory setup with the Totally Tubular system.
For closing the seed trench we use Copperhead Furrow Cruiser spiked closing wheels or Thompson spiked closing wheels. The Copperhead has smaller teeth that help close the trench better than the factory rubber tire. The Thompson is more aggressive, but also more apt to wrap in cover crop conditions.
We select the planter that is setup for the job at hand depending on conditions. We run auto-steer and all three planters have swath control and pneumatic down pressure for better accuracy.
For soybeans, we use a John Deere DB60 47R24 split-row planter to plant them in 15-inch rows, while the air seeders plant the crop in 7½-inch rows.
Each setup has its benefits. The 7½-inch rows are easier to harvest, but we save some money on seed using the planter for the 15-inch rows. Seeding rates are cut by 10-20% and we’re better able to set the planter and know exactly what we’re putting on.
Both are better than 30-inch soybeans, though, as we’ve seen a yield drag with wider rows, possibly due to weed pressure because the canopy doesn’t close as quickly.
Committed to No-Till
In the early days of no-till on our farm, weeds were a major challenge. Once Roundup and Roundup Ready crops came out, weeds weren’t much of an issue. However, we’ve seen weeds circle back around as a problem in no-till again. Herbicide-resistant marestail has caused all sorts of problems and we’re seeing a lot of people switching back to tillage to deal with the problem.
While others think pulling out a disc is cheaper than switching up their herbicide program, that just isn’t an option for us. They’re not considering the cost of erosion and the detrimental impact they have on soil health with every tillage pass.
Our family is committed to the same ideals my grandfather held of protecting and improving our soil resource. We’ll continue to no-till and experiment with cover crops and other management strategies that promote building soil instead of degrading it. I can’t imagine being successful in farming without no-till.