Besides the payback for getting the most bang for their nutrient buck, several no-till farmers were recognized for their efficient and environmentally sound fertility practices through the Responsible Nutrient Management Practitioner’s Program.
David Brandt, Carroll, Ohio; Mike Starkey, Brownsburg, Ind.; and Ed and Dan Wilkinson of Getty Acres Farm, Gettysburg, Pa., were selected by an impartial panel of agriculture professionals to be recognized for their achievements in nutrient management at the 17th annual National No-Tillage Conference in January.
This was the first year for the program, which is co-sponsored by Agro-Culture Liquid Fertilizers and No-Till Farmer.
Cover crops are key to David Brandt’s award-winning nutrient management program. The Carroll, Ohio, no-tiller has been a proponent of cover crops ever since he started using them in 1978.
He’s experimented with the seed mix along the way, but has settled on a winning combination of Austrian winter peas, oilseed radishes and a little bit of hairy vetch. The mix is planted into wheat stubble right after harvest.
“I’ve played around with a lot of different cover crops, but this mix seems to work the best for us,” Brandt says. “The seed is easier to secure, the three species grow well together and with that mix, we are able to capture not only nitrogen, but some phosphorus and potash from the subsoil.”
Brandt’s crop rotation is corn, soybeans, wheat and a cover crop. His nutrient application for corn includes about 7 to 8 gallons of a phosphorus and potash mix at planting, then 35 to 40 pounds of nitrogen later in the season.
“Cover crops are the reason we have been able to lower our use of nutrients,” says Brandt, adding his current rates are half what he used 7 years ago. “We were at 15 to 20 gallons per acre.”
Why has he been able to cut his rates? Brandt again credits the cover crops. In addition, he has reduced his erosion rate from 6 to 8 tons per acre to less than 1 ton per acre.
“We’re keeping nutrients where they belong,” Brandt says. “The cover crops are bringing nutrients in the subsoil up into the top profile to where the crop is growing.”
Better nutrient management is a huge reason for using cover crops, but Brandt says their use also has cut his herbicide bill.
“We’ve learned that by using cover crops after wheat, we are able to suppress a lot of winter annuals and broadleaves,” Brandt says. “The cover crop crowds out these weeds, and we’ve reduced our chemical bill by about 20%.”
After more than 30 years using cover crops and no-till, Brandt still says there is a lot to learn. He continues to adjust his fertility program, hoping to cut his relatively sparse rates even further.
He’s also looking to his cover crop to work even harder.
“We hope to use oilseed radishes to a greater advantage,” Brandt says. “We think there’s a place in our operation for that cover crop.”
The oilseed radish penetrates from 14 to 16 inches into the soil profile, and can reach a 2.5-inch diameter.
“They store a fair amount of nutrients from the subsoil and do a great job of loosening the top profile and penetrating through to the subsoil,” Brandt says.
Brandt is sold on cover crops, and thinks that with the increases in input costs they will gain favor.
“I think with the high price of nutrients, farmers are looking at ways to have something green on the fields after harvest to loosen up soil and catch nutrients that may slide off during the fall and winter.”
For Mike Starkey, fertility management has moved far beyond simply applying nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium at recommended rates.
“Fertility management is getting out of the soil what we previously did not capture,” he says. “Now we are seeing how much we can capture from biological activity within the soil.”
The Brownsburg, Ind., no-tiller farms 3,300 acres of corn and soybeans with his son, Nick; brother, Dave; and Dave’s son, Jeff. The farm has been 100% no-till since 2000.
Starkey’s nitrogen application rates have dropped dramatically as he has fine-tuned his no-till operations. Today, his rates are closer to 0.75 pounds per bushel of anticipated corn yield. He expects to reduce his nitrogen rates even further over the next few years.
“We’ve conducted studies that have shown our soils are supplying up to 50 pounds more nitrogen per acre because of the mineralization activity in the soil,” Starkey says.
Starkey has used the Nu-Till system since 2001 that focuses on improving three management areas — air and water, nutrients and planting equipment set-up — to gain maximum production efficiencies while maintaining high yields.
He applies sufficient nitrogen at planting to supply the young corn plants with enough nitrogen until he can sidedress. “We apply based on the needs of the hybrid, coming in earlier to fields where the hybrids need an earlier shot of nitrogen,” Starkey says.
Starkey continues to fine-tune his fertility management programs by using strip tests to determine his nitrogen application rates. He also is planting annual ryegrass as a cover crop.
“We planted annual ryegrass directly into green soybeans by air this past August,” Starkey says. “We wanted to capture as much available nitrate from the soybean residue as possible, so seeding early was critical. We were surprised to have a decent stand since the soybeans were harvested 4 weeks later.”
Starkey says the annual ryegrass is a great nitrogen scavenger.
“It also helps with the overall soil structure and I’ve even noticed good suppression of broadleaf weeds,” he says.
Starkey readily admits that he is no expert when it comes to his fertility program. That is why he continually experiments and makes adjustments to fine-tune his application rates and his planter. But he has met with success.
“We’ve slashed our fertility input rates dramatically,” he says. “The soil is working for us.”
On its surface, applying crop nutrients at Getty Acres Farm is quite simple: give the crop what it needs, at the right time. Not too much, not too little.
Simple, but when you’re managing 3,600 no-till acres of corn, soybeans, wheat, barley, alfalfa and timothy hay, it means added time to ensure each crop has its nutrient management needs met.
“Nutrient prices are getting too expensive to guess what crops need,” says Dan Wilkinson, who farms with his brother, Ed, and father, Larry, near Gettysburg, Pa. “Due to the variety of crops we grow, we pay close attention to each one’s nutrient needs.”
The Wilkinsons incorporate tissue sampling to determine the crop’s exact nutrient needs and apply foliar fertilizers.
“Tissue samples give us a good snapshot of what the crop needs,” Wilkinson says. “It helps us spend our fertilizer dollars more wisely, and means there are fewer nutrients tied up in the soil.”
Foliar fertilizer applications are combined with other trips across the field where possible.
Manure from the farm’s 250-cow dairy operation supplements the farm’s nutrient needs. Each application is tested to ensure consistency, so they know exactly what is being applied to fields.
“We test the manure every time we apply. Before we apply, we stir it well to get a consistent sample, and stir again to ensure application is consistent,” Wilkinson says. “We have a good idea of what nutrients we’re applying, but we use testing to make sure.”
Manure application provides a base layer of nutrient needs for the farm.
“We use the manure to get close to the needs of each crop we’re growing, and we balance the needs out with commercial fertilizer, or starter fertilizer,” Wilkinson says. “It’s important that manure isn’t just thrown out there. It’s not a byproduct, and there’s some real value to the nutrients the manure supplies. But, you need to know what you are applying.”
The farm has used poultry manure as well, but increases in fertilizer prices choked off the supply.
“Poultry manure works well. It’s easier to move to farms further away, but you need to watch phosphorus buildup,” Wilkinson says.
Corn cut for silage is planted back into wheat or barley to reach their acreage needs, then they rotate to either cereal rye or annual ryegrass. All fall-harvested crops are planted back to some sort of cover crop.
“We’ve varied crops because we don’t want too many of our eggs in one basket,” he says. “Our topsoil is not very deep, so our crops can suffer if it is too wet or too dry.”
He notes that the 900 acres of corn is usually chopped for silage and shelled for high-moisture corn. Usually, about 350 acres are chopped for silage, but there have been years where all 900 acres were chopped to meet the dairy’s needs.
“The weather can be volatile, so we keep it mixed,” Wilkinson says. “It takes planning and management, but it works for us.”