Pictured Above: MAKING NON-GMO WORK. Father and son no-tillers John and Tim Bruihler farm 1,700 acres of mostly non-GMO corn and soybeans around Hawkeye, Iowa, with another 300 acres of soybeans in Rushford, Minn. Growing a higher proportion of non-GMO crops has saved money in seed costs and resulted in premiums for soybeans.
It’s been a journey for John Bruihler’s family and their no-till farming operations in Minnesota and Iowa — both literally and figuratively.
John’s father bought a family farm in the 1960s near Hawkeye, Iowa. It was rented out, prompting John to start dreaming of working his own farm at the age of 10.
In the early 1980s, while employed with U.S. Postal Service in Minneapolis, John and his wife Deb bought a 70-acre farm outside on Rochester, Minn. They no-tilled soybeans and vegetables and organized the city’s farmer’s market.
“I was going to save the world on 70 acres,” says John, “but I’ve been no-till from day one and never farmed any other way.”
Although he had to give up that farm, in 1991 he became postmaster in nearby Rushford, Minn., working days, farming nights and building up a new farm to 400 acres in course of 20 years.
At various points, John has owned properties in both New Hampton and Hawkeye, Iowa, while still no-tilling 300 acres and residing in Rushford. This means the Bruihlers often shuttled planters and their combine up to 70 miles one way during the growing season.
Recognizing the need to use time more efficiently, John sold the New Hampton property in 2015 and purchased additional land near Hawkeye. With his son Tim now fully immersed as a partner in the operations, John is also in the process of selling much of his Rushford property.
This consolidation has resulted in 1,700 no-tilled acres in Fayette County, Iowa, with only 100 acres being leased.
In 2017, the Bruihlers planted 1,600 acres of corn, with an average yield of 200 bushels per acre.
Soybeans accounted for 400 acres, yielding 53 bushels per acre in what’s become a mainly non-GMO operation with a corn-corn-soybean rotation. John notes that soybeans have typically been in the 60-bushel mark in his area.
“Even without a contract, we’ve found that if we have non-GMO beans in the bin, there will be someone who wants them…” — Tim Bruihler
The Bruihler’s shift to non-GMO crops is partly due to a push to use multiple modes of actions in herbicides to prevent weed resistance. John says once no-tillers get used to applying these different modes, removing glyphosate from their weed-control program doesn’t pose a problem.
“We’ve had four different buyers in the last couple of months looking for non-GMO beans,” Tim says. “Even without a contract, we’ve found that if we have non-GMO beans in the bin, there will be someone who wants them. This gives us marketing leverage that Roundup Ready beans don’t have.
“But we’ve tended to have more corn than soybeans the past 5-6 years because the market has been screaming for corn,” John says.
Most of the Bruihler’s corn ends up at an ethanol plant about 30 miles away, along with much of the other local corn, John explains.
About 80% of their corn is non-GMO, with the only traited corn being in their limited corn-on-corn fields. They use DeKalb, Pioneer and AgriGold hybrids with 105- to 108-day maturities.
SmartStax GMO corn is no-tilled in their non-rotated acres for protection against corn rootworm and corn borer.
“Rootworm isn’t as much of a problem as it was 5-10 years ago in our area,” John says, “and acres rotated on soybean ground are generally less of a concern. Corn borer can be hit and miss. We see some in our non-GMO acres every year, but it’s never been high enough for us to offset the traited seed cost.”
John says that while they haven’t exactly struggled no-tilling soybeans the past few years, they just seem to grow better corn. “We’ve been 100% non-GMO soybeans for the past 2 years, but this year we’re adding 300 acres of Asgrow Roundup Ready beans,” John says.
The Bruihlers take their non-GMO soybeans to a crush plant about 90 miles away and receive a premium that helps offset the extra transportation and chemical input costs associated with the beans, John says.
LATE, BUT GREEN. The Bruihlers prefer planting green into their cereal rye cover crops and burn down shortly after. This year corn and soybean planting was extended to May 31 due to a cool and moist spring.
It helps that they own their transportation and have on-site grain storage and drying capabilities.
“There’s growing demand from a lot of the food manufacturers for non-GMO meals and oils, but especially in the poultry and livestock feed industry,” John says. “We’ve gotten anywhere from $0.75-$2 over board price, which translates to $1.25-2.50 over local price generally.”
Much of their non-GMO soybean production is clear hilum grain, using seeds from Legend, eMerge and Dairyland.
With their operations still in two states, the Bruihler’s major equipment tends to be located at it point of last use.
For the 2018 season, at the Hawkeye farm the Bruihlers used a 24-row John Deere 1770 planter equipped with Precision Planting’s 20/20 SeedSense precision monitor and eSet vacuum metering. AirForce down-pressure controls the row units and a CleanSweep in-cab controller adjusts the position and pressure of the row cleaners according to field conditions.
They also used a 12-row John Deere 1770NT planter that incorporates factory-installed down-pressure airbags. Both corn planters feature Martin-Till row cleaners and Keeton seed firmers.
“We eventually want to move to Precision Planting’s hydraulic DeltaForce hydraulic down force system for even better row-to-row control and much faster reaction times,” John says.
“Currently we only have four or five sensors on the 24-row planter, each one controlling multiple rows. DeltaForce would include row-to-row control.”
For closing wheels, the Bruihlers say they’ve tried three different styles, including some from Exapta Solutions, but they keep coming back to standard cast iron wheels.
“We’ve planted in some situations where the spiked wheels work really well, but we’ve found the cast iron wheels to be more universal when it comes to wet, muddy or dry conditions,” John notes.
For soybeans, which are planted mainly on the Rushford property, they have an 8/16 split-row Kinze 2500 planter for their 15-inch rows. The planter uses spring down pressure and has Keeton seed formers.
“We want to upgrade the technology on our bean equipment, but we are choosing to upgrade our corn planters first,” Tim notes.
Along with improving corn emergence, the Bruihlers are working to become more efficient with their fertilizer program.
“Our fertility goals are to feed the plant and feed the microbial activity with cover crops and managing the carbon-to-nitrogen ratio, rather than feeding the soil by dumping large amounts of fertilizer at once,” John says.
The Bruihlers grid sample every 2½ acres on their clay loam soils, but because Tim pulls his own samples — sometimes he can cover up to 1,000 acres in a day using a four-wheeler — they tend to test their soils when they feel it’s needed, rather than on a fixed-year schedule.
John says that in a traditional no-till environment farmers might sometimes be leaving money on the table when it comes to fertility and uniform emergence and stands. “I’ve been no tilling for over 30 years. We get decent stands, but I think we can do better.”
To that end, the Bruihlers experimented this spring by running a Vulcan ZoneMaster as a planting strip preparation tool on nearly all of their corn acres. Operating at a depth of 1 inch, the Bruihlers are trying to improve the top of their seedbed for more uniform planting (See Sidebar Article, "Getting in the 'Zone' for Corn Planting in 2018").
They are also closely examining at-plant nutrients, switching this year to The Andersons’ high-ortho, low-salt Diamond 6-24-6 starter fertilizer from what had been a 10-34-0 mix.
“We’ve been using 10-34-0 in the past, but felt we had germination issues,” John says. “Ortho phosphate, with its low salt and the additional potassium (K), gives us an advantage over the 10-34-0.”
EXPERIMENTING WITH ALFALFA. Interseeded Roundup Ready alfalfa strips planted right after corn planting in 2017 were an experiment to determine if the legume had an effect on yields. First-year yield benefits were minimal, but Tim Bruihler believes there will be a second-year increase.
When no-tilling corn with the 24-row planter, the Bruihlers apply a third of their nitrogen (N) at-plant with in-furrow starter and 28% N is used at sidedress.
The 12-row planter doesn’t have in-furrow fertilizer placement, being equipped only with Martin-Till unit-mounted fertilizer openers for 2-by-2-inch placement, so they continue to use 10-34-0 with that planter.
In 2017, John says, they ran both corn planters side-by-side, which means the 24-row machine was placing in-furrow 10-34-0 solution. The 12-row planter could only place 10-34-0 in 2-by-2-inch spacing.
“Everything else was pretty much the same, but our emergence and germination was much better behind the 12-row planter, as we did not have the 10-34-0 in-furrow,” John recalls. “This is what has motivated us to switch to the 6-24-6 product in-furrow for 2018.
“We’ve used 10-34-0 in season before and didn’t think we had issues. When planted side-by-side we could see a difference, with essentially all other inputs being the same.”
In the past few years the Bruihlers have invested both in equipment and precision technology to help save on both seed and nutrient costs.
They plant their 30-inch corn at a rate of 35,000 seeds per acre and soybeans are no-tilled at 140,000 seeds an acre on 15-inch spacings.
In 2016, they started using Ag Leader’s auto-steer for their planting and Ag Leader SMS software for nutrient management and yield mapping.
“We’ve done some variable-rate seeding,” Tim says, “but the trump card is always Mother Nature. If I know what the weather is going to do, I know what I’m going to do. The row shutoffs do pay for themselves, however, in seed savings, the avoidance of double planting.”
In 2014, they purchased a 90-foot Hagie DTS sprayer with automatic boom shutoffs. John hasn’t worked the numbers yet, but he’s certain the boom control is saving them money. They use the Hagie sprayer for applying herbicides and fungicides, as well as foliar feeding.
Tim estimates that total N applied at-plant and throughout the season amounts to less than 0.8 pounds per bushel.
For sidedressing corn they use a Progressive Farm Products 12-row sidedress applicator to start applying N around the V4 stage, finishing up when the crop is about waist high. They also add 3-5 gallons per acre of ammonium thiosulfate.
MORE UNIFORMITY. No-tillers John and Tim Bruihler found using a Vulcan ZoneMaster vertical tillage tool to a depth of 1 inch just prior to planting resulted in a drier and more uniform seedbed surface. Above shows a ZoneMaster-prepared corn seedbed just after planting.
For this year’s corn planting, John and Tim Bruihler used a 12-row Vulcan ZoneMaster toolbar to prepare their soil in advance of running the planter.
They originally looked into the ZoneMaster as a way to dry the soil.
“Other than our 100% pattern-tiled fields, soil moisture varies a lot for us in the spring across the field by soil type, giving us more variable emergence than we would like,” Tim Bruihler says.
Instead of using the toolbar as a conventional strip-till rig, the Bruihlers are using it as a “row cleaner,” leveling the soil to a depth of about 1 inch to provide a more uniform soil profile.
“We tried not to disturb the seedbed, but rather warm up and dry everything above it,” Tim says. “Where there were wetter conditions, we shallowed it up enough so we just cracked open the surface to let it dry out without doing more damage.”
What they thought was going to their biggest benefit from the machine — getting into wet fields earlier — didn’t actually happen, as the ZoneMaster was unable to operate effectively in any soil conditions that were wetter than those in which they would normally plant.
“This was an abnormally wet and late spring for us in northeast Iowa, so an average year may have a different result,” Tim says.
The Bruihler’s are striving for uniform seedling emergence and believe the ZoneMaster has helped. Although initially leasing the machine in what was a “trial year,” they were impressed by the results and intend to purchase the tool.
Currently, the Bruihler’s ZoneMaster is set up for 30-inch rows, so that precluded its use in their 15-inch soybeans.
“In the future it would have great benefit ahead of 30-inch beans — possibly in our future someday,” Tim says.
This spring, the Bruihlers found it easy to plumb up liquid fertilizer in their trial year, but in the future they would like to pull a dry cart to variable-rate apply 100% of their MAP and potash.
They also think it will have a real fit for fall seeding cover crops, then planting in between the cover crop rows next spring.
“We’re not 100% sure if it will have an effect on our end results in terms of yields, but as I watched the planter row units across the field, they were steadier and didn’t bounce around as much,” Tim says.
Since the Bruihlers plant a high percentage of non-GMO corn and soybeans, they like to use Monsanto’s Roundup and TripleFlex for burndown on corn followed by BASF’s Status and Armezon Pro for the post-plant application, Tim says.
For soybeans, they use Roundup and FMC’s Authority products pre-plant. Before corn plants canopy, they apply a combination of Syngenta’s Flexstar or Prefix and Valent’s Cobra or Select, depending upon what herbicide they used pre-emergence and the current weed pressures they’re facing.
Their main weed villains are waterhemp and giant ragweed, especially in non-GMO soybeans.
They prefer to use BASF’s Priaxor fungicide on beans, Tim says. They had planned for Headline AMP on corn, but with later-than-normal planting in late May this year it will probably mean scaling back on corn fungicide, he says.
John and Tim have tried several different cover-crop mixes over the past few years that have included cereal rye, annual ryegrass, radish, clovers and hairy vetch. They’ve also tried Austrian peas and turnips, but tended to have trouble establishing quality stands when seeded post-harvest.
“With the radishes, for example, when they only get to 2-3 inches — the plant itself, not the tuber — it doesn’t justify the cost of $30 per acre. The only cover that works for us consistently this far north has been cereal rye,” John says.
And from a cost standpoint, the Bruihlers have actually found a cheaper source of seed supply than growing their own, John says. With an application rate of roughly 50-60 pounds per acre, he estimates that it’s costing him about $10 per acre for his cereal rye.
Currently, about 1,500 acres are cover cropped with cereal rye, which is broadcast with layer barn poultry litter post-harvest. The chicken litter is primarily a source of phosphorus (P), but also provides sulfur, zinc, copper, boron and manganese.
“We get an analysis of the litter that they’re spreading,” says John. “We put our cover crop out and then put the litter on top of that, so that rye can take up the nutrients.”
The Bruihlers don’t have a set rotation for chicken litter but try to apply to every field every 4-5 years. Currently they’re putting more resources into building up their soils’ potassium (K) levels.
Last year the Bruihlers tried interseeding cover crops on 300 acres pre-harvest using a custom spray boom applicator with a dry seed box. The only emergence they were satisfied with was, again, cereal rye. “We will possibly continue interseeding cereal rye, but likely won’t waste our time and money on the others, yet,” Tim says.
They also experimented with alfalfa strips planted right after corn planting with the John Deere 750 drill. “We blocked off half of the flutes to have the alfalfa twin-rowed between the rye. Our yield benefits the first year were minimal, but it helped with soil health,” Tim says.
“We let the alfalfa grow this year and planted between it again this spring,” he says. “Once the alfalfa seeded out late spring, it became less competitive. I really feel our yield benefits may be greater this second year. The jury is still out on that.”